After years of rejections, the Manchester novelist strikes a six figure, two-book deal – and her new book hits the shelves this week.
A story like the one Rosie Garland tells is harrowing enough to make a dewy-eyed young writer reconsider ditching that law degree, happy ending or no happy ending. A writer slaves away on her fiction, working for years to get a novel published, collecting rejection letters by the bale, and at the very last moment – just when she’s ready to pack it in and do something else – the publishing world finally wakes up. Garland’s debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities, is the fantastic story of a romance between two outcasts of Victorian society: Eve, The Lion-Faced Woman, and Abel, The Flayed Man, star attractions in Professor Josiah Arroner’s eponymous freak show. It’s an intriguing tale in which the narrative deftly alternates between the two lead characters, drawing readers ever deeper into a world that is horrifying and dazzling but seems every bit as real as our own.
The characters reflect Rosie Garland’s lifelong fascination with outcasts and outsiders, “people who don’t fit what is lazily or casually defined as normal” – people like her. Growing up adopted, she was always aware of being different. “I never fitted anywhere,” she said during a recent chat at Richmond Tea Rooms, one of the Manchester-based writer’s favourite city centre haunts. Garland cut her teeth performing as a singer in Goth band The March Violets in the 1980s. She still sings, and frequently performs in cabaret and live poetry events as her sinuous PVC-clad alter ego, Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen, a much-loved figure on the Manchester literature scene.
A year ago nobody wanted to look at it, & then suddenly there’s a bidding war
Her craft has been honed over many years of writing poetry, and she has published several collections, including Everything Must Go, a book of poems about her battle with throat cancer. But The Palace of Curiosities is actually the fourth novel Garland’s written and submitted to publishers. In 2011, disheartened after years on the publishing roller coaster with little to show for it, she decided she’d enter her latest manuscript in Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition and then give up on fiction for good. To her great surprise, it made the shortlist. “I had 12 years of my agent saying no, I can’t get it in anywhere,” she says. “So when it got on the shortlist I thought hello! I am good at this. I can write. I’m not going to give up.”
Of course, she went on to win. And in a development whose irony is certainly not lost on Garland, publishers ended up competing for the right to publish the book. Harper Collins won, paying a reported six-figure sum for a two-book deal. “A year ago it was pretty much the same words, but nobody wanted to look at it,” she notes wryly. “Suddenly there’s a bidding war.” And this week that book hits the shelves with cover endorsements from Sarah Waters and Jenni Murray. Though Garland says she does feel a bit like “Mr. Spock dancing the can-can”, she’s enjoying every minute of her success, no matter how surreal it feels. “I’ve been working damn hard for a damn long time and I feel quite content and happy about the fact that no one can say this is a flash in the pan.”