Going Out

WHODUNIT – AND HOW? Crime writer Peggy Blair hits the big time with first novel

Competitive edge: After her novel was rejected by numerous agents, first-time novelist Peggy Blair got noticed (and found a publisher) after she changed tacks and submitted her thriller to several international literary competitions. Photography by Colin Rowe.

A stroke of good luck led Peggy Blair to a solid agent with great connections. In the wake of her successful first foray into the world of fiction, the mystery writer offers an insider’s look at the trials and tribulations of getting a first book published  By Mark Bourrie

Peggy Blair thought she had pretty thick skin. After three decades working high-stress jobs as a prosecutor, Aboriginal rights lawyer, and trainer for mediators in the post-war Balkans, she believed she could take her knocks. But she says nothing could have prepared her for the harsh — and sometimes downright nasty — world of book publishing.

In mid-life, Blair decided it might be fun to write a cop thriller. It should be a breeze, she thought. After all, she had read thousands of them over the years and knew how they were structured and crafted. She had even written a previous book, albeit non-fiction, that had been published by a prestigious press (Lament for a First Nation explored an Aboriginal fishing rights dispute in southern Ontario). And so she looked forward only with anticipation as she sat down at her computer in the spring of 2009 to craft her first novel. It turned out that writing the book was the easy part.

For years, the busy lawyer had spent her time away from the office reading cop thrillers. They provided both entertainment and escape. But over time, she began to find the stories less satisfying. She felt as if she were simply reading the same story over and over. “After reading thousands of mystery novels, I was looking for something different — characters and settings and a story that stood apart.”

She began envisioning her own novel, imagining her own cast of interesting characters and looking to Old Havana as a setting. (The area retained a sense of mystery, she felt, because so very few English-speaking writers have used Communist Cuba as a backdrop to their fictional works. That, of course, is in large part because the U.S. embargo has meant most American writers and tourists have never had the opportunity to visit.) For some publishers, the American reading public’s unfamiliarity with Cuba would likely be a deal breaker, but Blair was confident in her setting and had no intention of rethinking her decision to use Havana as the backdrop for her debut.

“Sometimes I look back and I think Cuba picked me,” Blair says over coffee at her Westboro home. “My daughter, Jade, was home that Easter. I wasn’t working at the time, and she asked me what I would do. I remember replying, ‘I think I’ll write a novel.’ And she gave that eye roll that goes with being in your early 20s. Then the words about Cuba popped into my mind.” Blair had recently spent time in Old Havana — a far different place from the isolated all-inclusive resorts that are so familiar to most Canadian tourists. “Everything’s old and disintegrating. Things are collapsing. It’s a big slum. That made it all much more interesting than sitting on a beach. We had this amazing chance to know the locals and get introduced to Santería [an Afro-Cuban religion that would come to play an important role in her book’s plot].”

In The Beggar’s Opera, Blair’s protagonist is Ricardo Ramirez, an inspector in charge of the Havana Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police. His problem? The troubling case of a boy who is found raped and murdered in the tourist district. What’s more troubling is the suspicion that a foreigner might be the killer. Enter Mike Ellis, a vacationing Canadian cop who was seen talking to the young beggar the night before his body was found. The stage is set for battle as two strong-willed law experts are pitted against each another — at least in the beginning.

It took Blair just a month to write the book, and in the summer of 2009, she started sending out query letters to agents. She knew that book deals tend to be made by literary agents, rather than publishers, so she crafted a pitch she hoped would catch the attention of busy agents. (A recent survey of authors by fiction writer Jim C. Hines found that a typical published fiction writer struggles for 10 years and throws away three completed manuscripts before getting that first book deal. Most fiction novels never get published at all.)

Blair says she had to adjust quickly and eventually learned to cope with the rejection. Though some agents read the manuscript, intrigued by the book’s setting, the rejections started piling up. And though she had heard that it wasn’t unusual for a debut novelist to get rejected hundreds of times, Blair says it was still hugely humbling. At first, she says, she felt that she, rather than her book, was being turned down. “Writing is personal, so a rejection is like throwing your baby out into the traffic,” Blair explains. “I felt like I was running naked down the street. You put in all this time and effort not knowing if it’s going to make money, get published, or just end up in a drawer somewhere.”

As a veteran of the working world, Blair tried to equate looking for a job with attempting to get published but found, to her dismay, that having her book rejected felt much more personal. “When you go to a job interview, everyone’s trying to be bland and inoffensive. You’re dressed up. They’re dressed up. They lob soft questions. But with a book, this is you. Everything that’s in the book came from your head. If somebody hates it, they don’t like the way you think.

“You’re putting all this between the covers for someone to judge in a very intense, personal fashion. I’m not my characters. They’re a lot different from me. But they came out of my personal experiences and imagination.”

About 70 percent of agents never even acknowledged Blair’s queries. About eight percent asked to see the full manuscript, and half of those offered real feedback. One agent asked for major rewrites, then, after Blair worked for months, sloughed her off so quickly that she’s convinced he never even read the new version. She says only a very few offered useful criticism that she then used to improve the novel.

“I realized pretty quickly that the traditional route of sending query letters out to agents simply wasn’t working. After six or seven months of rejection, it occurred to me that it had become the definition of insanity, sending these letters off again and again and hoping for a better result.” That was when Blair decided it was time to stop sending out query letters and get back to the business of making a living.

Law no longer intrigued her, so she began a new career in real estate. And the novel? Though she wasn’t bothering to send it to agents anymore, she did fire it out to several literary competitions. It would be glory or death from here in. Her thriller would win a prize and possibly get picked up by a publisher or would end up in the bottom of a drawer. Her mailing list included such crime-writing competitions as the St. Martin’s Minotaur contest in the United States, Canada’s Unhanged Arthur Ellis Awards, and the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award. She heard nothing from the States, wasn’t nominated by the Canadians, and fully expected the British to turn her down too.

“The deadline for the Debut Dagger was supposed to be the end of March 2010, but it was well into May when I got the letter postmarked from England. By then, I had totally forgotten about the entry and I was thinking, Who do I know in England?” She opened the envelope with the handwritten address and read, “I am delighted to inform you that you’ve been shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.” Suddenly everything had changed.

Even before she left for England in July of 2010 to attend the award announcement, she was approached by UK agents who were now suddenly interested in seeing the book. But at the Debut Dagger, the overall mood remained gloomy. The recession and ebooks were mauling the publishing business, and though many agents were in attendance, few of them were looking to offer representation. Most encouraged her to pursue real estate. Blair’s book didn’t win.

She was ready to go home and give up on the idea of being an author. That’s when Blair stopped at the near-empty convention bar for one last drink and ran into Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, he of the world-famous Inspector Rebus novels. They made some small talk, which morphed into a real conversation when Blair told Rankin she was from Ottawa. “I had already had my glass of wine,” says Blair. “So I wasn’t shy about asking him if I could take his picture for the Crime Writers of Canada web page. It turns out, he had been in Ottawa the week before, at Bluesfest with his son, which gave us a reason to talk.”

Rankin told Blair to call his publisher. The publisher then handed her off to Rankin’s British agent, Peter Robinson. “It was startling how Ian Rankin’s name opened doors,” Blair says. Robinson, who was getting ready for the huge Frankfurt book fair, told Blair to send along her manuscript, though he warned that it would likely be a few months until he would have time to read it. She emailed it that Friday. Two days later Robinson called back and left a message saying he liked the book and wanted to represent her. “It was the most compelling thing I’ve read in years,” he told Blair’s voice mail machine.

Success! The book was considered a hot title at Frankfurt, and rights were sold quickly to a German publisher even before the book fair began. Dutch and Norwegian publishers picked up the rights during Frankfurt, but there were no takers for the English rights until a month later, when Penguin offered Blair a two-book deal to publish in Canada. Less than two years after she launched her writing career, Peggy Blair was a fiction writer with a book deal.

Penguin put The Beggar’s Opera on the cover of its spring 2012 catalogue. The book was published this past February, and Blair’s Canadian agent, Anne McDermid, is now working hard to sell movie and television rights.

So what would Blair tell eager new writers looking for advice? Although perseverance and luck both played key roles in her success, Blair says her first suggestion would be to make sure their novel is as complete and polished as it can be before they start shopping it. It might be worth paying an editor to do a first go-through on the story before it’s sent out, she says.

Now that she has been published, Blair says, a number of writers have sent her manuscripts to peruse with the hope that she might help them find agents or publishers. “I see the same mistakes over and over. I used to wonder how agents could decide whether a book worked just by reading the first few pages. Now I know.” She notes that even if a writer has great plot ideas and solid characters, an agent is not going to give them the time of day if the writing doesn’t draw them in. “Agents don’t have time to edit. If it’s not in near-perfect condition, they’re not going to look at it.”

For her part, Blair has seen her star continue to climb in the aftermath of her fortuitous chance meeting with Ian Rankin. Solid backing certainly helps when it comes to getting heard above the general din. Even before it was published, The Beggar’s Opera was reviewed by Quill and Quire, an influential book trade publication. “… the direct commanding tone sets the stage for the impressive police procedural that follows, one that is as much about a detective facing his own dementia-induced demons as a country in the midst of political turmoil,” the reviewer wrote.

Another positive review, this one in the National Post, described Blair’s debut novel as unfolding “with an artless ease: the investigation and its developments are both compelling and convincing, a genuinely mysterious mystery that manages to both surprise and maintain its internal integrity.”

Not a bad send-out for a book that one agent dismissed as “de trop.” Blair made it past that little insult the same way that she pushed her book into print: persistence. Her second book — The King’s Indian, on bookshelves next February — is already written, and she’s been told it’s even better than the first.