Sue Copsey on winning an international publishing deal for her novel which imagines Henry VIII as Donald Trump
It all began with Trump. And a whole heap of frustration. I’d written a children’s book that I considered my best yet. I loved this book. It was so me. It was going to be the Moomins of New Zealand. “I’d certainly hope it would attract a publisher’s interest,” said the agent who took it on.
Two years later it was still sitting on desks. I couldn’t bring myself to write anything else for children while this little book was languishing. Perhaps I’d try something different.
It was then that I started thinking about Trump. It was January 2018. I was in the shower and my thoughts ran something like this: Trump. FFS. How is he still president – HOW? Firing people who don’t do his bidding, replacing them with yes men. His attitude to women. That ginger hair. He’s like a reincarnation of Henry VIII. Or is he? What would Henry VIII be like if he lived today?
Out of the shower and straight on to Google: modern-day retelling of Henry VIII. Nothing. If they hadn’t been dripping, the hairs on the back of my neck would have stood up.
So I took my laptop and my idea down to my writing hut and began plotting, researching. My knowledge of the Tudors was reasonable, but was mostly gleaned from historical novels and TV dramas, so I read the authorities, joined Tudor Facebook groups, devoured history blogs. The characters – Henry, his wives and mistresses – were so strong, so vivid, it was easy to picture them in today’s world.
I wanted to tell the same basic story, but see how the characters would be impacted by today’s attitudes. What if Henry grew up in the age of feminism, and later #MeToo. What if he didn’t have the absolute power that facilitated his tyrannical tendencies? What if modern-day healthcare, and strong wives taking charge of his diet, cured his bad leg and tempered his addictions to ale and pies?
How would Henry’s philandering go down with a 21st-century Anne Boleyn? How would he respond to the infidelity of a modern-day Catherine Howard, given his own track record? Which would triumph, nature or nurture? Would Henry redeem himself, or would karma win out?
It was such a juicy premise. I was hooked, and then I was obsessed.
I pitched Wife After Wife to High Spot Literary, who were holding a competition at the New Zealand Society of Authors AGM. I knew the idea was good, but the writing … I wasn’t so sure. I’d never written adult fiction, but I’d edited a lot of it, and felt in my bones I could do this. And even if I got nowhere, I was having a lot of fun trying.
Then in popped an email telling me I was the winner. But I’d won the opportunity to pitch the idea properly, face to face; that was all. After all these years in publishing, I knew that Excitement was a dangerous place.
When I pitched to Vicki and Nadine at High Spot, it became clear – they really liked this. Vicki kept using the word “saleable”. Then we started to get feedback from US and UK publishers. It was positive. One biggie said, Maybe focus more on Henry and Anne. Come back if you’re interested in that. So … not a no. We had a fall-back position.
But we didn’t need it, because Little Brown UK were reading and “really liked it” and would get back to us soon. Still I didn’t allow that excitement in. God, the restraint of me!
When you’re dealing with the US and UK, the emails come in overnight. This makes it quite hard to sleep, and I found myself waking up at 5am and grabbing my phone while we waited for news. All very unhealthy. Then we had an offer, for not one, but two books. OK, Excitement. You can come in now.
Little Brown had a suggestion: that I change my name. They would be promoting Wife After Wife as a “glamorous summer read” and the name Sue Copsey wasn’t, well, glamorous. Could I come up with something?
Hayfield was my great-grandmother’s surname. I thought it sounded English and summery. “How about Lucy Hayfield?”, I said. They liked the Hayfield but not the Lucy. They gave me a choice of five names. I went for Olivia.
A little while later I was cycling the Otago Rail Trail when an email popped in from Vicki saying there was interest from Penguin in the US. Interest? What does this mean? Once more into battle with Excitement. I asked, what are the chances? About 75%, probably, said Vicki.
We waited. Vicki rang. The offer was there. I was going to be published by Penguin Random House in New York, too. Sue Copsey screamed; Olivia Hatfield popped open the champagne.
Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield (Hachette, $34.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.