After her first publishing job as a reader of unsolicited manuscripts at Harper & Row more than 25 years ago, Brenda Bowen climbed the editorial ladder to become editor-in-chief at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, and at Disney-Hyperion – and was one of the founders of Scholastic Press. Meanwhile, she launched her writing career in 1993 with the debut novels in the Robin Hill School chapter-book series from S&S, written under the pseudonym of Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Mike Gordon.
In 2009, Bowen switched gears when she became a literary agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. And this month, she adds yet another feather to her literary cap with the publication of her debut novel for adults, Enchanted August, published by Viking’s Pamela Dorman Books. The story was inspired by The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel about four British women rediscovering themselves during a month-long holiday in Italy. PW spoke to Bowen on the eve of the novel’s June 2nd release.
Were you a longtime fan of The Enchanted April – and what sparked the idea to write a novel spinning off its theme?
About 15 years ago, I saw the film version of Enchanted April, which I loved, and I didn’t even realize until the credits rolled that it was based on a book. Then I read the novel, and adored it, saw the movie again and reread the book, all the time thinking that this is such a great story that I could easily envision taking place today – with people I know. I kept that idea in the back of my mind for a long time, and as an agent, I realized I’d love to give the story idea to an author. I started roughing it out to see if the story would work with women from New York City who take a two-week April vacation in the Caribbean. After a while, I decided I couldn’t bring myself to give the story away to another author – and I realized that the Caribbean setting and two-week time frame weren’t really working.
At that point, my agent, Faith Hamlin, said, ‘Why not take your characters up to Maine, for a whole month, and see what happens?’ I’ve been spending Augusts on a small island in mid-coast Maine for years, and I followed her advice. I moved the novel’s setting to Maine, and spent time on my island – writing about four women spending a month on a Maine island. Talk about writing what you know! After I had about 100 pages finished, I asked Faith to take it out as a partial, and we got offers from three publishers within a week.
Enchanted August’s setting was familiar to you, but did you feel on foreign turf writing for adults – and why write this novel under your own name rather than a pseudonym?
Writing a novel for adults was definitely a new challenge. First of all, it is so much longer than anything I’d ever written. I’ve never written middle-grade or YA – only picture books and chapter books – so this was very different. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that I could have someone ask a character a question, and then spend a page and a half working through that character’s mind before answering. To a picture book author, that’s crazy! It was so different to be able to juggle characters’ thoughts rather than telegraph their reactions. And there was no illustrator there to help me paint the world – it was entirely up to me. It was very hard, but really fun.
And why write Enchanted August under my own name? Actually, I began using a pseudonym for my kids’ books because I was working at the company when Simon & Schuster published my first books, and didn’t feel entirely comfortable using my own name. And after that, I thought about changing Margaret McNamara’s name to mine, but she was doing quite well, and I didn’t want to explode poor Margaret’s identity, so I decided to let her have her own life. I thought using my own name on Enchanted August would make a good demarcation between my children’s and adult books, and more easily identify this as my first full-length novel.
How would you say your former experience as editor affects your current role as literary agent?
I went into agenting thinking I was just going to see the flip side of everything I’d known. But I found that I had a lot to learn in order to be a good agent. Yet I also discovered there was a great deal I could draw on from my past. Instead of thinking of an agent as a mirror image of a publisher, I realized that I liked thinking of a publisher as a partner. I like to think of myself as working on a different floor in the same building as the editor who acquired my client’s book. If an agent doesn’t truly collaborate with a publisher, it doesn’t work well for the book or the author. I am grateful to have insight into the editorial process, since I know both the constraints editors are working under and what they can do, and I try to leverage that knowledge to my clients’ best interest.
What’s up next for both Margaret McNamara and Brenda Bowen?
Well, Margaret has a picture book coming out from Random House’s Schwartz & Wade imprint – likely in fall 2016 – The Heavenly Library, which is illustrated by Sue Heap. And she’s written two others for the same publisher: How Many Bones in a Dinosaur?, which will have illustrations by G. Brian Karas; and a picture book biography of Melvil Dewey, who invented the Dewey Decimal System, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. And Brenda owes another book to Viking, which my wonderful editor Pamela Dorman and I are still discussing. I’m still not sure exactly what it will be about – we shall see!
Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen. Viking/Pamela Dorman, $27.95 June 2 ISBN 978-0-525-42905-0