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Challenges of a Second Novel

Norwich Author Finds That Selling Is Part of the Job

  • Norwich author Katharine Britton's second novel, "Little Island," is to be published in September by Berkley Books. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Norwich author Katharine Britton's second novel, "Little Island," is to be published in September by Berkley Books. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

  • Norwich author Katharine Britton's second novel, "Little Island," is to be published in September by Berkley Books. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

T wo years ago , novelist Katharine Britton was vacationing at a resort in Maine when she noticed a large family gathering at a rented cottage next door. Watching their comings and goings, eavesdropping on snatches of conversation and observing the dynamics at play gave her the idea that, for her second book, she’d write about a large, happy family. There was just one problem: good-natured, cheerful families don’t make for particularly compelling novels.

Instead, she dreamed up the Littles: a quietly unhappy family with just enough secrets to make them, and the story, unpredictable.

In Britton’s new book Little Island , three grown children return to the family home on a Maine island: Joy, whose only son Rex has just left for his first year at college, leaving her unsure what to do next; Tamar, Joy’s younger sister, who is supercilious and self-righteous, with two young twin daughters of her own; and Tamar’s twin brother Roger, who for most of his life has played the part of the family screw-up. Their parents Grace and Gar have their own vulnerabilities and frailties. The children have come back for a family memorial service for their grandmother. But it doesn’t take long for old resentments and bad memories to surface.

The fact that there are two sets of twins in the book came out of something Britton saw one day at a grocery store. Standing in the dairy aisle, she noticed twin girls who were talking or chanting to each other in what appeared to be their own private language. “I really wanted to put that in a book,” she said. Indeed, the book’s plot revolves to a large degree on how the closeness of twins affects the drama.

This is Britton’s second novel. Her first, Her Sister’s Shadow, was released two years ago. Writing the follow up presented some challenges that weren’t there the first time around.

“The first book, I basically had my whole life to write it,” Britton said in a phone interview from her Norwich home. No one knew she was writing book number one and no one really cared. “Then you go to write a second one, and two people cared: my agent and my editor. They wanted to see something else and they didn’t want to wait too long.”

While Her Sister’s Shadow was based loosely on some incidents in the life of Britton’s mother, Little Island was created from scratch. “I was staring at this completely blank board and wondering do I even have another book in me,” Britton said.

What was easier the second time around, she said, was that the process wasn’t so mysterious. “I knew what was coming,” she said.

Now comes the harder part. The writing is finished, the revisions have been made, the book is out, and Britton has to sell it. It’s a job she undertakes conscientiously. “(The publishers) know I’m going to work hard,” she said. That doesn’t mean, however, that she loves every aspect of salesmanship.

Welcome to 21st-century publishing. Facebook, Pinterest, blogs, book club readings, author websites, book trailers (like movie trailers), and niche marketing. So niche, in fact, that the publishers asked Britton to revise the first draft so that the heroine was no longer an older woman grieving her mother’s death, but a 40-year-old coming to terms with her place in the family. Part of the rationale for that, Britton said, was that 39-year-old women like to buy ebooks.

The book didn’t really lose anything by the change, Britton said. In fact, in some ways it opened up the narrative to include other characters’ voices. But this is the reality of pushing a book in a marketplace where there are thousands of other books and authors, and publishing is struggling to redefine its place in a culture of ebooks, self-published books and online sales that cut deep into profits.

Britton does like engaging with book clubs, both locally and by phone or Skype when the book club is too far away to easily get there. And she likes doing readings at bookstores or reading series.

But her main interest is, of course, writing. She is now at work on a third novel, set in Vermont, about a mother and daughter. More than that she’s not ready to divulge. She also teaches writing through the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth, which she enjoys. “The participants are so motivated, they’re so experienced, and they have time to write,” she said.

Although she might try her hand at a children’s book someday, stories about families are the well to which she keeps returning. “It feels like all the rest of the relationships we get into the rest of our lives come out of our own families of origin,” she said.

Katharine Britton will read from “Little Island” on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Norwich Bookstore. For reservations call 802-649-1114.

She’ll also be reading at the Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London on Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m., and at Shiretown Books in Woodstock on Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. on Sept. 20.

For more information, go to www.katharinebritton.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.