In her first novel, The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, Ellen Bryson tells the story of the title character, Fortuno, a thin man who struggles to leave P.T. Barnum’s show, Curiosities of Human Nature, in mid 1860s New York and his obsessive attraction to newcomer, Iell, a bearded lady. In a Q&A with LiveWriteLive.com, Bryson shares her experience writing and publishing her book.
LWL: How did you come up with the story of Bartholomew Fortuno? Did you always envision it as a novel?
EB: The story started with a dream of a circus tent. I was inside, sitting high up in the rafters, looking down into the center ring where six sisters, all in a row, stood looking up at me and calling out their names. They were the most beautiful women I’d ever seen, and they all sported these great full beards. When I woke up, all I could think of was, huh? There wasn’t a woman in the world I could picture being anything but yuck after slapping a big old beard on her. So I started looking on the Internet for pictures of bearded women, thinking one of them might come close. In my search, what I found instead were pictures of giants and dwarves and skeleton men, real people who worked at Barnum’s American Museum. I had found my setting. Then it came to me. Who else but another “special” person, say a very skinny man who prided himself on his own odd body, could find a woman with a beard so beautiful? That’s how I found my narrator. After that, it was up to the characters.
LWL: The setting for the story—New York in the mid 1860s, post Lincoln’s assassination—feels very rich. What kind of research did you do?
EB: I spent almost a year doing research, mostly at the behest of my agent, who liked the story and concept but wanted more historic flavor and information on freaks and circuses. I read everything I could get my hands on about the history of the circus, the history of New York, and what life was like in the mid 1800s. I had a great time reading but a hard time weaving information back into the book. Sometimes I added scenes just to stick in some texture. The “freak” bar came about as a way to showcase some of the historic talent of the time, as did the plaques honoring the dead just outside the bar. To incorporate some of the other juicy details, I opened up existing scenes just a bit. For example, I spent two days researching toilets in order to figure out if the Museum had indoor plumbing, and once I knew it didn’t, I simply had Fortuno put a chamber pot out into the hall.
LWL: Talk a little bit about your writing process. Did you stick to a writing schedule? Did you keep a lot in your head, or did you write out an outline, character bios, plot points, etc.?
EB: The original story was only about 150 pages, and I took it into the Johns Hopkins writing program in DC for some help. (A wonderful program, by the way, with awesome teachers and students.) At that point, I had a day job that was more than full time so my writing schedule was pretty hit and miss, but school helped keep me motivated, and once I got an agent, I took a chance and changed my work situation to give myself more time. I wrote new material for a few hours first thing every morning, then rewrote later in the day. As I progressed, the manuscript required some concentrated effort, and I worked on it almost all day long.
I wish I could have written by outline, but it didn’t work for me. I love and hate the unfolding of a story, (I read somewhere that writing a first draft is like driving across the country at night with only a flashlight to show the way). Working without a net, so to speak, my characters brought surprises to the story that I would never have thought of. On the other hand, I had to restructure and rewrite major portions of the manuscript more than once.
LWL: How did you go about pitching the book? Did you work with an agent?
EB: It took me quite a while to find an agent, and I had no idea how to pitch to a publisher without one. I did tons of Internet research on how to make a pitch and/or write queries, and read up on how agents worked and who was legitimate and represented writers like me. I found writers’ conferences a great help. After plucking up my courage, I pitched my manuscript to a number of agents face-to-face in those special sessions that most conferences offer. If an agent showed interest, I’d send whatever sample they asked me to send (usually the first three chapters). Some answered immediately, some took longer, maybe a lot longer. The process took extra time for me because I didn’t understand that I could submit to multiple agents as long as I was upfront about it. So I’d wait six months, say, for a no and then I’d start again.
Part of the problem, I believe now, was that my manuscript wasn’t ready. I had to get over the nos and take criticism on board. Critiques, if and when I was lucky enough to get them from an agent, helped me see what the manuscript needed.
LWL: What was it like working with an editor? Were you asked to make changes that you didn’t want to make?
EB: First novels have to be in really good shape these days before they get anywhere near a publisher. So in my case, my agent was my first editor. In order to improve our chances of selling, she had me make sweeping improvements to the manuscript, every one of which made the manuscript better.
Once the book was sold, the publishing editor had more specific suggestions, but I had great respect for her and pretty much followed her lead. The only troubles I had were quite minor. Renaming the book, for example (originally, we called it “Hungy”) or choosing a cover. The publisher had final say over both of these decisions, but everyone wanted everyone else happy, so decisions ended up mutual.
LWL: Was there anything that surprised you during the editing or publishing process?
EB: The editing process was pretty much what I expected. But the publishing process? Who knew? What a crazy ride, both up and down. Everything happens and then it’s over which, for introverts like me, was maddening or a huge relieve, depending on where in the process I sat. For example, the hectic few months leading up to the book’s release took me totally by surprise and frankly, I couldn’t’ wait for the pressure of the publicity and interview cycle to stop. Then after a while, it did stop, and though I valued the returning sanity of my days, I laughed because some part of me felt as if all my friends had abandoned me.
A writer and an author are totally different animals. A writer is the private, day-to-day person who slogs away trying to capture some wild, internal dream and get it on paper. The writer’s job is part mystery, part grind. But an author is a salesman who has to create a public presence, chat (a lot) about their book and themselves, read reviews (fun and sometimes no fun at all), obsessively chart sales (not required but inevitable), and worry about whether or not there’s another book in them.
LWL: Sometimes people have fantasies of publishing their novel and then appearing on Good Morning America the next week to promote it. Can you describe how you promoted the book and what role the publisher played in terms of promotion?
EB: Promotion is hard. I had an excellent publisher who worked overtime to get the book reviewed and seen. Some houses do a little more. Most, I suspect, do way less. The era of the book tour is pretty much gone unless you already have a best seller. Even then it’s becoming less viable and so fewer bookstores are doing it. Too often, I’m told, you might get a crowd to come listen to you but then off they’ll go and order the book on line. Some independent bookstores are even toying with charging admission. Who knows what will happen.
Book trailers are becoming more popular, though, and building on-line word-of-mouth is a necessity. Many authors also use FaceBook and Twitter, though I’m hopeless with both. Some even hire a private publicist to help push their book into the public consciousness.
LWL: What advice would you offer to writers working on their first novel?
EB: Don’t worry about agents or publishers. Be a writer first. Enjoy yourself. Finish your book and then find good readers who aren’t related to you and get feedback. No book comes out in perfect condition. Criticism teaches. My rule of thumb? If you hear the same comment more than twice, your readers are telling you something. Listen to it and keep at it.
LWL: Are you working on something new?
EB: I’m working on a story about a girl in 1922 who runs off with her friend to Boston to be a street magician. She ends up falling into the world of the wonderful Mina Crandon, a real life spiritualist who was famously debunked by Harry Houdini. Fiction with a touch of reality.
A writer and an author are totally different animals.
For additional information and extras, including a reading group guide, go to http://www.ellenbryson.com.
Title: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
Author: Ellen Bryson
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition (June 7, 2011)