“Biblical fiction is potentially divisive”: Eleanor de Jong talks to Evie Woolmore

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore talks to Eleanor de Jong, author of Delilah and Jezebel (published by Avon/HarperCollins) about the challenges of writing fiction whose characters are known from one key source.

Evie Woolmore: We met at the London Book Fair last year, Eleanor, and I was surprised to see you at the Author Lounge, hanging out with the indie authors. You’d already had a two book deal with Avon/HarperCollins to publish Delilah and Jezebel, after all. What did you learn from the event?

Eleanor de Jong: What I learned was how much fun indie authors have! There’s a sort of collective spirit about gatherings like this that I think can sometimes be missing among print published authors. I wondered when KDP first took off how the latent sense of competition in traditional publishing – to pick up an agent, to get a great deal, to get good reviews, to sell well – would translate to the indie market. But what I think no one really anticipated was how mutually supportive most indie authors are of each other, how willing people are to share their experiences and expertise, and how much the book buying market has been blown open by e-books and the sort of pricing that indie authors are using.

EW: I remember talking with you about pricing in particular. At one time, I think you said, both your books were priced at 99p by Avon for Kindle at Amazon – that’s normal pricing, not a Daily Deal.

EDJ: That’s right. I was really interested by that. The paperbacks retail for £7.99 and although the Kindle edition came out a few months later for Delilah, my first book, they put it on at 99p immediately, I think. When Jezebel was published, the e-book came on immediately at that lower price. They both went up to £1.99 eventually and have now settled at £1.49. The effect of the 99p pricing though was really fascinating. Sales shot up very quickly and for a while both books showed the effect of that in the rankings. Given how much flack print publishers get for their e-book pricing, I thought it was interesting that someone somewhere had worked out that this was the way to sell this particular type of book.

Delilah

EW: You’re smiling as you say that. Go on, what do you mean?!

EDJ: Well, I wondered at the time – and I still think about it now – whether there was a bit of a van Gogh factor involved. By that I mean the idea that the price of the book indicates the implied level of worth of the art. Print publishers are generally reluctant to price the e-book versions of novels by their ‘big name writers’ at lower levels, while they accept that the print versions will be discounted. At some level, I’ve always suspected that there’s a cachet/worth thing going on there, that while one might promotionally discount a hard copy book to get it started by catching people’s eye in a bookstore, the e-book price has come to represent the latent value  to the publisher of the work, in other words a sort of benchmark value below which the book will never drop. Like the way that we accept that gold will always have a minimum certain value, like van Gogh will always sell for a certain kind of figure at auction.

EW: While your books sold at 99p…

EDJ: And your books too! Cheap at half the price! Seriously though, I want to be really clear that I don’t think this strategy applies to indie authors: I mean, how could it? Indie authors are each doing their own thing. There’s no capacity for conspiracy in the market, implied or otherwise, no potential for price-fixing as such. It may be – and I’ve seen certain indie published books that bear this out – that there’s an issue around ‘worth’ that is a factor for indie authors. They want to price their book at a certain level because they feel that is what it’s worth. But like buying a house, something is only worth what people are prepared to pay. And if you make it easier for them to pay less, they will. But the point you were heading towards is that if the new Jack Reacher is over £8 for Kindle and my books are £1.49, I am considerably less valuable to my publisher than Lee Child is to his.

EW: And that is what you mean by worth.

EDJ: Exactly. The worth to the publisher, not the absolute artistic worth. Now, I would caveat that by saying that Avon and HarperCollins have, as they put it, made a deliberate decision to ’embrace the digital revolution’ by pricing their e-books relatively low. But the wider point is that Avon understand that there is a market for a certain kind of book at a certain kind of price. And actually I have benefitted from that in sales. Which is all the more surprising when you read some of my reviews!

EW: I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve had some brutal responses. To Jezebel, for example: “Inaccuracy about significant elements of the biblical account- is simply useless & unworthy. Should be discredited.”  And: “…a book that glorifies a queen who was not someone to glorify and which directly contradicts the truth in the Bible. It was not only poorly written but it was actually offensive.” How do you respond to that?

EDJ: I don’t think any writer likes to disappoint their reader, but I’ve always known that a book which might be described as ‘Biblical fiction’ is potentially divisive. However, I think there are two elements to think about here. One is the issue around historical authenticity and how readers of historical fiction respond to that. Delilah got picked up by a historical fiction book club in London last year, and one of the comments which came back to me after they met to discuss it was that the novel wasn’t really historical fiction at all, not in what is the currently accepted convention of meaning historically factual, factually driven, precise and authentic. There’s huge debate around that, at least for me, to do with scales of ‘accuracy’ if you like. Where do writers who set their novels in the past place themselves on the scale between Hilary Mantel-esque moment-by-moment authenticity and a reasonable stab at a plausible setting?

Jezebel2

EWAnd with that, the question of how much the history controls the story or the story controls the history.

EDJ: Yes, and I know you’ve thought about that with your own novels. But secondly, and I think more problematically for some readers, there is the genuine challenge of writing stories using characters not only from another book – because the Bible is nothing if not that – but a book which has varying degrees of authenticity to different people. If you are a reader of the Bible who comes to it as truth, then you are likely to feel that the people of its pages should not be taken out of context. If that is your  starting premise, I wonder why you would pick up a book about one of those people which is clearly a work of fiction. Fiction is about invention, imagination and artifice. My books are also very clearly Romance, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, and Romance is a genre which drives story over context every time. I think therefore that if as a reader you want to protect one particular source of a person’s story, you are always going to find it a challenge to read another telling or another interpretation.

EW: So you’re not at the Hilary Mantel end of the scale?

EDJ: Absolutely not! I don’t think I’d call myself a historical novelist either, at least not in the sense that other historical novelists would want to be seen sitting at the same table with me!  But that was not the point of writing these novels. I wrote them because I like romantic fiction, and I was interested in seeing how the lives of these two women might be envisaged as romance in a time when alliance and allegiance were much more important in relationships. I also enjoyed the chance – as all imaginative writers do – to invent and imagine some historical details that aren’t really available to us, such as some of the more insignificant domestic rituals that are a key part of the colour of this genre. There are very few other purely historical sources to go on – Lesley Hazleton‘s very readable research on the untold story of Jezebel is excellent – but I am a romantic novelist. I am not claiming to have written a factual historical novel. The readers who have enjoyed my books have taken them, I suspect, for what they are. That is not to say that I like to offend a reader any more than I like to disappoint them, because I don’t. But I don’t think the novels hide what they are. And in the age of downloading digital samples instead of flicking through the first few pages in the store, it’s still more than obvious from the outset what the novels are like.

EW: Didn’t someone say that to you as a reason for not reading Delilah?

EDJ: (laughing) Yes, my best friend picked up Delilah when it first came out, told me how proud she was of me, and  then said, “But in all honesty, El, why would I buy it when I know how it ends?” She had a point. I don’t know if proper historical novelists think about that too. But being a romantic novelist, it’s all about the journey for me. We all watch agog every time a new film version of Pride and Prejudice is made, even though we know that Mr Darcy is going to get his girl. It’s the twists and turns that make us watch though.

EW: So what’s next for you? Another romance drawn from the Biblical cast list?

EDJ: I don’t think so. Avon offered me a two book deal and they got their two books. They haven’t shown any interest in any more, but that frees me up to write whatever I want without adding my publisher to the list of people I can disappoint! I remember being hardly able to breathe with excitement when I got the deal five years ago. But so much has changed. And for the better, I think.

*****

Eleanor de Jong’s books are available in print from bookshops and on Kindle from Amazon. Evie Woolmore‘s magical realist novels are all available from Amazon, and you can find out more details by visiting her page.

 

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