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A confident-looking woman watches something out of frame; a fan of books from the Gabriel's Bay series
Catherine Robertson had to nearly entirely rewrite Spellbound, the third in her Gabriel’s Bay series (Images: Supplied)

BooksMay 6, 2021

If it doesn’t sell, you’re screwed

A confident-looking woman watches something out of frame; a fan of books from the Gabriel's Bay series
Catherine Robertson had to nearly entirely rewrite Spellbound, the third in her Gabriel’s Bay series (Images: Supplied)

A few weeks back all three of Catherine Robertson’s Gabriel’s Bay novels made the Nielsen top 10 charts. But the series, about a small town full of hard cases, very nearly didn’t happen. She rips back the veil. 

I wrote Gabriel’s Bay because I was on thin ice with my publisher and needed to give them a book they could sell. My debut novel had been a commercial success, but second and third in the series had not. They were romantic comedy, chick lit, but I hadn’t fully understood the reader expectations of that genre, which turned out to be the ideal way to fail to meet them. Nothing like a Marian Keyes-loving reviewer calling your book “a piece of tosh” to give you a clue that something is awry.

In today’s business lingo, I pivoted. The Hiding Places came out in 2015, and I just want to say that although it was marketed as commercial women’s fiction, IT IS A VERY BRAINY BOOK. There are storylines that are Greek myths in disguise, an abundance of reference to folklore and TS Eliot, and an entire chapter set in World War II that is a re-telling of Dante’s Inferno. The Hiding Places won a small award and got lovely reviews, but it did not sell enough copies. Publishers are people but publishing is a business, and no matter how much they like you, they won’t keep throwing money after you. The ice under me was thin and cracking.

I’d never had contracts in advance for any of my books. I’d sit down to write and 100,000-plus words and a big chunk of my year later would wait – often months – to hear if it had been accepted. I knew my fifth book needed to be a cut above if I had any chance this time. It would have to be fresher, more commercial, better written – I’d have to seriously step up. What I did instead was an MA in Creative Writing. A whole year of procrastination! I was so proud of myself.

But there was no way I had the patience for a PhD, so come the start of 2016, I sat down with a notebook and planned my fifth novel. First, I set parameters – it had to be funny but it could not be romantic comedy. It had to have female characters but it could not be women’s fiction. It had to deal with social issues but it had to be widely appealing. It would be my first novel set in New Zealand. That sorted, I had not a clue how to begin.

Maeve Binchy rescued me. I remembered many of her novels were set in a place, usually a small Irish village, or a small Irish hotel in a small Irish village. She’d have a collection of characters, all with their own separate stories that interconnected. I would steal this structure and make it my own. How hard could it be?

SO FUCKING HARD! Six main characters, six individual storylines that had to be woven into a coherent whole. I plotted it using sticky notes and moved them around so much they lost their stick. But I did it – I wrote a first draft of Gabriel’s Bay and sent it to my publisher in September. And waited.

February. The acquisition team meeting. My editor had liked the draft but it wasn’t up to her. She’d kindly circulated it amongst the team pre-Christmas, hoping they’d read it when they were in a good mood over summer and thus be more inclined to say yes. She herself was inclined to think they wouldn’t owing to my shite sales record. “But fingers crossed!”

The managing director of the time rescued me. She loved it and insisted it be published. A date was set – January of the following year. Eleven months away.

Gabriel’s Bay was a whole new direction for me. I had no idea how it would be received. So, naturally, I spent those 11 months writing a sequel.

January 2018 – Gabriel’s Bay came out. It got great reviews. More importantly, it sold well. My publisher accepted the sequel and What You Wish For came out in January 2019. Number three, Spellbound, came out last month. The two-year gap was not related to Covid but to the fact I had to rewrite Spellbound almost entirely. My editor wanted it to be the third of a trilogy, with the main story threads tied up. I had written it as the next book in what might be an ongoing series and all story threads remained loose. Note to self: always check in with your editor before spending a big chunk of your year writing 100,000-plus words because if you don’t, you’ll spend a big chunk of the following year re-writing at least 80,000 of them. Watch me carefully, children, and whatever I do, be sure to do the opposite.

But Spellbound is out and I’m happy with it. I’m happy with all three Gabriel’s Bay books. I stepped up my author game – to the point where a prominent reviewer called Spellbound “deceptively well-written”. Though in one way this is hilarious – NO ONE MUST EVER KNOW!! – it is a compliment and I’ll take it.

Will I return to Gabriel’s Bay? Not immediately. There are aspects to these books that are more problematic to me now than when I started. In making the fictional small town of Gabriel’s Bay a diverse community, I’ve written characters that are not of my culture and lived experience – and while I ensured I did the best with them by using the services of truly marvellous sensitivity consultants, I’m a middle-aged Pākehā and these stories don’t belong to me.

What next, then? Another step up because why make life easy? A book about young men and cycling set in 1970s Wainuiomata. I’ve done a ton of research and interviews, and I haven’t a clue how to begin. Bring out the sticky notes.

Spellbound, by Catherine Robertson (RHNZ Black Swan, $36), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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