ASPEN - The central character of "The Bloodletter's Daughter" is Marketa, a teenager in a small Czech village in the early 17th century who is forced to work in her mother's bathhouse but dreams of being, like her father, a person of science and medicine. Marketa's primary medical project is Don Julius, the bastard son of King Rudolf. Don Julius is violent and psychotic, but around Marketa he becomes docile and enchanted, and the teenage girl, believing in herself and in her medical techniques, believes she can treat him, even transform him.
"I think about high school girls who get together and say, 'I have the power, the magic key to change their life. They're going to change because of me,'" said Linda Lafferty, the author of "The Bloodletter's Daughter" and a Missouri Heights resident who taught middle and high school for several decades. "I saw that in a lot of high school kids I've worked with."
Put that way, Lafferty seems to be saying that that kind of single-minded, youthful determination is a fool's game: Marketa, for all her intelligence and force of character, isn't likely to turn Don Julius into a charming prince.
Lafferty has experience with throwing enormous effort into longshots. For 27 years, she has been writing books - a couple of contemporary novels, a few historical novels - in hopes of getting something published. She has had a series of agents; she has stacks and stacks of rejection letters, numbering in the hundreds. (It is a mark of her perseverance that the rejection notices have run from the era of letters, through faxes and now emails.) The rejections still make her mad - "I'm more used to it. But it always hurts," she said - but they haven't toppled the promise she made to herself, at age 30, to write.
"I made this decision to keep on writing, no matter what, till I die," the 57-year-old said. "And I meant it. Because when I write, I start thinking more clearly. I go into a narrative voice I hear in my head, and I narrate the world around me. I love that voice. It just clears my mind - you get into this rhythm, and everything is more centered, there's peace, and you feel like you're doing what you need to be doing."
Lafferty's resolve is now paying off in more than peace of mind. "The Bloodletter's Daughter" was released last week by Amazon Publishing and quickly shot to the top of the sales charts for its category on Amazon.uk. It is one of three historical novels by Lafferty scheduled to be published by Amazon over the next year. Lafferty appears Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in an Aspen Writers' Foundation event at the Wheeler Opera House. She will read from "The Bloodletter's Daughter" and be interviewed by her husband, Andy Stone (a columnist and former editor for The Aspen Times). Admission is free.
"The Bloodletter's Daughter" originated in 2005, when Lafferty and Stone were on a self-guided hiking tour in Cesky Krumlov, a village in the Czech Republic. In the town's Rozmberk Castle, they heard the story of Marketa, the girl whose mother forced her to work as a bathmaid, tending to the various needs of the male customers. In the bathhouse, she was called "Musle," a vulgar reference. Lafferty felt compelled to come to Marketa's rescue, and never mind the four centuries that separated them.
"In all my novels, I have a strong woman protagonist," said Lafferty, who has been a magazine writer, polo player and horse trainer as well as a teacher, mostly instructing foreign-language students in English. "When I heard her story, I wanted to lift her up from her tawdry surroundings. I wanted to make her strong. It made me so mad to have a 16-year-old girl called 'Musle.'"
Apart from the character Marketa, Lafferty was taken by the setting of the castle, which overlooks Cesky Krumlov; the mad prince gazing down on Marketa; the girl's mother, who eagerly sends her to the bathhouse and to the deranged Don Julius.
"I sent my agent an email, and she wrote back and said, 'You're inspired. You've got something here,'" Lafferty said.
For 18 months, Lafferty worked on the novel, weaving in compelling ideas about science, feminism, politics and family dynamics. She made a return trip to the Czech Republic, enlisting several Czechs to help her research. The process itself was enjoyable.
"I love research. If I didn't, I wouldn't be in historical fiction," she said. "Every time you move a character, you have to think: Did they have windowsills? Did they have soap? Did they bathe? What was the material of their clothing like? You have to have so much background."
But she didn't simply want a novel; she wanted a published book. She had a young associate editor at one publisher deeply interested, but the editor couldn't sell it to her superiors. But over the years, she kept her eye out for the book. One day, now working for Amazon Publishing, the editor came across a tweet from Lafferty regarding the novel. The editor contacted Lafferty's agent and learned that not only was "The Bloodletter's Daughter" finished and still available, but Lafferty had two other works of historical fiction, ready to be in print. While Lafferty was in Florence in February, working on another novel, she learned that Amazon Publishing had taken all three novels. "House of Bathory," set for publication in March, follows two storylines: one about an Aspen High School goth girl in 2009; the other set in 1609 and involving the murderous Countess Bathory. "The Drowning Guard," due out in September 2013, is about the powerful Ottoman princess Esma Sultan, who was rumored to drown her Christian lovers in the Bosporus Strait.
"All this suffering with rejections, for almost three decades," Lafferty said. "Then suddenly someone says, 'I love it; I have to have it. And I have to have everything she writes.'"