Meet Shelly Sanders, Toronto-based writer whose first novel, published by Second Story Press, comes out this spring!
Your debut novel, Rachel’s Secret, is coming out this spring! What is this story about?
Rachel’s Secret is a historical fiction novel about a Russian pogrom in 1903 that led to the exodus of Jews to the United States and Canada. In fact, my grandmother escaped such a pogrom a few years later, and lived in Shanghai before coming to Canada. Rachel’s Secret looks at a fairly unknown place and period, yet many of us have ancestors who can be traced back to the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Russia.
What was your writing process like with your first full-length novel?
It took about a year to research the Russian culture, and this particular pogrom. Then I wrote it the first time in first person, which didn’t work at all. I began again, in third person, and ended up writing about eight drafts, getting valuable criticism in between, before sending it to an agent. The agent gave me more changes, which took me almost a year to do. Then, she read it again and accepted it.
What were your biggest challenges when writing this story, and how did you overcome them?
Getting the characters to be real and authentic was definitely the biggest challenge. I had to get inside their heads, and think like they’d think in 1903 Russia. I think the turning point was after I read books written during that time period for girls that age. The language, mannerisms, hopes, and challenges all became clear after this.
Writing is re-writing—we all know that. So, how did you revise your manuscript to ensure it was polished and ready to submit?
I sought input from all kids of people—my kids, my aunt, friends, and other writers, and had both a minister and a rabbi read it for accuracy. As a journalist, I know the importance of getting it right so that editors don’t have to spend time fixing mistakes. That was my goal and in the end, after it was picked up by my publisher, the revisions were not that extensive.
Can you describe what the journey was like from querying to eventually getting a publishing deal?
Querying is a test of patience, but again, I’m used to the process as a magazine and newspaper writer. As an unpublished author, it was like starting all over again. My years of published articles in major national publications meant nothing to book agents and publishers. However, I had mastered quite a good query letter which managed to capture the attention of a few agents and publishers. I approached publishers at the same time as agents, as most publishers will take on a few unrepresented writers from time to time. In fact, I actually sold my manuscript to the publisher. They contacted me the day after I was accepted by my agent, who handled the contractual details.
Any helpful tips you wish you knew before getting published?
The whole process takes much longer than you could ever expect! I wish I’d known this as there were many low times when I felt like giving up. I think that perseverance is as important as talent when it comes to getting published.
What’s next for you, Shelly?
I’ve received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council for the sequel to Rachel’s Secret, which I’m working on now. It takes place during the Russo-Japanese War, and Bloody Sunday. I also have one adult fiction novel being considered by a few publishers in New York.
You can read the synopsis of Rachel’s Secret on Shelly’s website to get a better idea of the story, which looks at tolerance, the impact of media, and the consequences of discrimination.