Aspen Times Weekly: Writer Rising — Linda Lafferty’s journey to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list
January 3, 2014
• House of Bathory reading and book signing
• 6 p.m. on Jan. 21, Pitkin County Library
• Linda Lafferty will read from her new book, “House of Bathory,” and will discuss her research and writing process with her husband, Andy Stone.
Linda Lafferty didn't become a bestselling novelist through any MBA program or marketing savvy. Her upcoming book involves people and places associated with Count Dracula, but she didn't intend to capitalize on the legendary vampire. Nor did her two earlier published novels hinge on any commercial considerations.
Rather, the former Aspen High School teacher followed her literary instincts and focused on the subject matter she liked. She threw in story lines that involved her personal interests and passions — horses, Jungian psychology, politics, power and social class, among other things — and she learned to trust her own creative process.
Demographic trends, salesmanship and commercial viability had nothing to do with it. Once, after 20-plus years of rejections, she even refused to change one of her stories to fit the mold of an inspirational, Christian publishing house.
"I said no," recalled the longtime local with a laugh. "After all that, I said no."
“It’s dark and there are a lot of details that can
be repellent, but it’s also history. When I go into
historical mode, I try to do everything I can to
create that world and it is not our world ... I know
a lot of people are not going to like my novels
because they can be brutal.” – Linda Lafferty
But here she is, at the age of 58, six years into her "retirement," living a new life as a bestselling writer of dark, layered and edgy historical fiction. Her third published novel, "House of Bathory," is set for release on Jan. 14 — an eerie thriller that combines two parallel narratives, one in the Roaring Fork Valley in 2010 and the other in the Hapsburg Empire in 1610.
"I like spicy foods, I like dark chocolate, I like dark novels," she smiled.
"Historical fiction" is a reasonably good label for these books, but the reading experience is fast-paced and contemporary. The cast of characters in "House of Bathory" includes a goth girl from Aspen High, whose movements during the story range from Red Butte Cemetery to Carbondale's Main Street.
Still, the narrative heart of the story is a series of bloody events in a 17th-century stone castle in rural Slovakia.
"It's dark and there are a lot of details that can be repellent, but it's also history," Lafferty said recently over coffee in Basalt. "When I go into historical mode, I try to do everything I can to create that world and it is not our world … I know a lot of people are not going to like my novels because they can be brutal."
But a lot of people do. On Dec. 14, her first novel, "The Bloodletter's Daughter," a story about the violent bastard son of a Hapsburg king who falls in love with the daughter of his caregiver, was perched atop the historical fiction bestseller list on Amazon.com. To date, Lafferty has sold more than 142,000 copies of her books in print, audio and digital formats.
Clearly, there's an appetite for her vivid explorations of madness and violence from the pages of history. But she honestly didn't consider marketability when she chose her topics. She simply followed her own curiosity — which often tends toward the dark and diabolical. For example, "The Drowning Guard," her second published work, involves a promiscuous Ottoman princess who murders the men she sleeps with, or at least has them murdered for her.
"The woman who is drowning her lovers is a Sultaness who had all this power, she wouldn't wear a veil to hide her face, she was absolutely all-powerful," said Lafferty, who learned about the real Esma Sultan on a 2001 trip to Istanbul. "That intrigues me. I want to know more about how this woman got away with this."
Lafferty discovered Countess Bathory, the lunatic noble at the heart of her upcoming release, during her research years ago for "The Bloodletter's Daughter." So, at this stage in her career, she is storing future ideas even as she molds others into prose. She lives in a constant churn of scenes, stories, characters and dialog, some factual and some fictional, and on a given day her mind may fasten on an invented plot point or the real-life details of an historical event. Regardless, she enjoys herself.
A NEW LIFE, KIND OF …
In some ways, nothing has changed for Linda Lafferty. She still lives in the same Southwestern-style home in Missouri Heights with her husband, Andy Stone. Lafferty still loves to ski, hike, ride horses and play polo. But in another sense, she's living her lifelong dream, not only of being a published novelist but a bestselling one.
"It really is as rosy as it appears," said Stone, a columnist and former editor of The Aspen Times who also serves as a literary confidant to Lafferty. "She fought really hard for a long time and she wrote many books that never went anywhere."
Lafferty first began writing novels at the age of 30, so she's been at it for nearly 30 years, while many Aspenites came to know her as a high school teacher. "I've gone through rejection letters being mailed, and then faxed, and then emailed," she recalled. "I cried a lot. In the very early days, it would just destroy me. I can't pretend it didn't."
But roughly 25 years along the road, she decided she enjoyed the reading and research, and she liked "the way my mind works when I'm writing." She still pursued publication, but tried to let go of the emotional need for a large readership.
There were a few who enjoyed Lafferty's writing throughout the years. Her older sister, Nancy Elisha, to whom "House of Bathory" is dedicated, has been a steadfast fan and supporter.
"I always thought, 'why are all these other people getting published when they don't write as well as my sister?" said Elisha, an Aspen Village resident. "All along I've said yes, this is going to happen."
It also helped Lafferty to receive the encouraging rejections, from editors who said they didn't know how to market her stories but admired her writing and urged her to keep trying.
"There were enough of those … to make a balm for my heart," she said.
There's no balm necessary anymore. Stone says his wife is much happier, and of course they both enjoy the extra income. Their periodic travels have acquired an entirely new dimension as Lafferty collects stories and researches her subjects.
The three now-published stories arose from trips to Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Turkey, and the novel presently in the works — "The Girl Who Rode the Palio," which Stone promises will be her best yet — was an outgrowth of multiple trips to Tuscany.
"The writing informs the travel and the travel informs the writing," Stone said, with an air of supreme contentment.
THE BIG BREAK
After years of seemingly fruitless effort, Lafferty and Stone are now riding the crest of a thrilling, intoxicating wave. What happened to carry Lafferty from her lonely struggle to the bestseller list.
Meet Lindsay Guzzardo, a book editor who had to approach Lafferty three times, while working for three different publishers, before acquiring "The Bloodletter's Daughter."
Guzzardo was an editorial assistant at Penguin when she first read the manuscript in 2008 and recommended it to her boss. They failed to push it across the finish line, however, given the stiff competition for few spots, and Guzzardo's low-level position at the time.
Two years later, Guzzardo was an associate editor at Guideposts, a publisher of inspirational, Christian titles that was eagerly seeking new content. In this instance, Guzzardo had the organizational muscle to advocate for the book, but "The Bloodletter's Daughter" didn't quite fit Guideposts' mold and Lafferty declined to change her story to make it fit.
In early 2012, Guzzardo had moved to Amazon, which was actively seeking new writers and titles, without any content-oriented limitations. Now a full-fledged editor, Guzzardo lobbied hard not only for "The Bloodletter's Daughter" but, as it turned out, both "The Drowning Guard" and "House of Bathory," which were either complete or nearing completion. In the end, Amazon bought all three.
"I thought if we could get all three (books), this is an author we could really build," Guzzardo recalled. "We had a list to fill, while at the big publishing houses everything needs to align perfectly."
Furthermore, the similarities between the three Lafferty titles — all dark historical tales that read like suspense novels — lent themselves perfectly to Amazon's online recommendations that say "customers who bought this item also bought …"
So the match was made, and it has served both parties well. On Dec. 21, "The Drowning Guard" was the No. 1 Kindle seller in literary fiction, and No. 24 in all book categories.
Lafferty's big break, or at least the email that led to the book deal, arrived on her 57th birthday, while cross-country skiing on Basalt Mountain. The message from her agent, Deborah Schneider, explained that Guzzardo had seen an online tweet from Lafferty about "The Bloodletter's Daughter," and wondered if the book was still available. The deal was consummated later when Lafferty was traveling in Italy.
To this day, the author professes "eternal gratitude" to Guzzardo and maintains "it would not have happened without her." Guzzardo too has relished Lafferty's success — not only because she loved the books, but because she loved the collaboration.
"I've worked with so many wonderful authors but there have always been tense moments — grumble grumble, something comes up during the editing process, or we're not in love with the cover," she said. "Every single part of working with Linda was a delight."
Guzzardo still keeps copies of Lafferty's books at home, and also has a gift from Lafferty on her kitchen table — a bowl she fills with fruit, which closely resembles the bowl on the cover of "The Bloodletter's Daughter."
"From the start, we just got each other," Guzzardo said. "When you find those relationships, you hang onto them."
THE DARK SIDE
Linda Lafferty does not seem like a person who would write about murder and mayhem. Beneath her modesty and sunny demeanor, however, there is an unflinching student of human nature, and her books contain the full spectrum of virtue and vice, good and evil. Much of the subject matter is ugly but the evil-doers are balanced by those who fight back. Sometimes, the evil actors have redeeming qualities.
So, while "House of Bathory" involves a good-versus-evil sort of struggle, there are no phony, oversimplified caricatures. Characters behave as they do for valid reasons, and they operate in richly rendered cultural and psychological environments.
Countess Bathory, for example, was a mad murderess, but as Lafferty researched the Bathory family, she developed theories about their behavior.
"They were all inbred, and the Hapsburgs too," she said. "The thing with all those noble families is they wanted to keep the money amongst themselves. They didn't want to branch out because that would dilute their wealth, so they just kept inbreeding."
And things got mighty weird — especially in a society where social class literally meant the difference between a life of comfort or a death from cold, hunger and poverty.
"It's just so bizarre that so many people could be murdered," Lafferty said. "I just couldn't understand. Of course, I found that, during this time in Royal Hungary, nobility was everything and those servants were like pets."
No, it's not our world. But it makes for a compelling story, and a glimpse into an authentic historical period.
"Aside from the fact that they're good stories that take me away to another place, they also have strong woman protagonists," said Lafferty's sister, Nancy. "I also like that there's some sort of redemption and people make peace with each other."
So, there's hope too. Lafferty learned all about hope during her long years of rejection, and it's certainly in the air as she and Stone look beyond "House of Bathory" to the publication of "The Girl Who Rode the Palio" a story about an unusually gifted 14-year-old who competed in the centuries-old horse race in 16th-century Siena.
"She just keeps getting better," Stone said. "This one has wonderful characters, it's a complex story operating in a lot of different places and on a lot of different levels."
Lafferty shares Stone's enthusiasm, of course, but also has a strictly numerical goal in mind.
"Maybe I could have four (books) published before I'm 60," she mused. "I think I'm going to get it done."