Chelsey Philpot had many inspirations for Even in Paradise (Harper, Oct.), which tells the story of Charlotte Ryder, a girl changed irrevocably by the beguiling Julia Buchanan and her family. Philpot drew inspiration from four years at a New England boarding school, a life-changing summer at Oxford, and a semester at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
“I was lucky to be there when Prince William was,” Philpot says. They never met, but she did have one memorable moment with the Duke of Cambridge. “I was in a packed pub and I finally wiggled through the crowd to the bar, only to get caught behind a very, very tall guy. I had drinks in my hands before I realized it was Prince William, and now I had to get by the future King of England without spilling anything on him. My brief brush with royalty must have taken less than a minute, but I kept expecting bodyguards to pop out and tackle me for getting too close.”
Being up all night shivering and reading in the Scottish cold also accounts for Philpot falling in love with Evelyn Waugh. “In its first iteration, Even in Paradise was an adaptation of Brideshead Revisited,” she says. But Philpot’s novel is obviously Gatsby-esque, too. “How can you not use The Great Gatsby as a frame for everything?” she asks. “Eventually my novel shifted from being a straight adaptation of Brideshead Revisited to it becoming more of an homage. That’s when Gatsby snuck its way in. I had this epiphany, that it’s possible to fall not just for a person, but for an entire family. Even in Paradise is really a love letter to both books.”
Though Even in Paradise is Philpot’s YA debut, she’s a veteran of children’s publishing. “I’ve had a great career in children’s lit,” she says. “After grad school in journalism, I got an internship at the Horn Book, which later turned into a job.” From there, she moved to School Library Journal as a book review editor, wrote articles for the New York Times and Slate, and now writes a regular column about YA books at the Boston Globe. She also teaches in the College of Communications at Boston University.
Philpot was working on a YA biography of Zelda Fitzgerald when she found the encouragement that helped her to finish her first novel. “I was attending a writers conference at Vermont College in 2011,” Philpot says. “I’d submitted pages for my workshop to read for the biography, but then threw in the prologue and first chapter ofEven in Paradise, too. My workshop was so wonderfully enthusiastic about the fiction. Their feedback gave me the faith that I should go on with it.”
Once Philpot had a draft, things went quickly. “I queried Steven Barbara—I’d interviewed his wife, Jessica Rothenberg, once for an article. Steven agreed to sign me. I didn’t have to go through the anxiety of waiting to see if people wanted it, because Sarah Dotts Barley at HarperCollins loved it and gave me a two-book deal.”
Barley has since moved on to Flatiron Books, so Philpot is working on her second novel with Erica Sussman. “It’s about a pilgrimage of sorts,” she says. “And it’s going to be funny.”
Having her first novel out in the world hasn’t brought too many surprises because of Philpot’s extensive experience in the publishing industry. “I went into this with very realistic expectations,” she says. “It doesn’t change your life to publish your first book. It’s amazing to be published, and it adds momentum to the work you’re already doing. But even if this novel had gotten rejected, I’d still need to keep writing.”