Rebecca James never intended to be a writer. She spent her 20s experimenting, from teaching English overseas and waitressing to starting and stopping several university degrees. But she is being touted as the next big literary sensation. Sara Veal talks to her.
It’s the kind of story Hollywood would snap up the rights to and cast Cate Blanchett in. Last year Rebecca James, then 39-year-old Australian mother of four young sons, and her partner Hilary Hudson were facing dire financial straits when her second novel to be published, Beautiful Malice, spurred an international “million-dollar” bidding war.
Within a week the family’s lives were changed forever – although it actually was a lifetime in the making, with James’ two years in Jakarta and becoming a mother figuring significantly in her development as a writer.
“I’m a restless person, the path I wanted to take just wasn’t clear, and lots of things interested me, so I was easily led into other routes. Writing is just something I have stuck at and now that I will stick at – I love it,” she says by phone from her home in Armidale, a cathedral city north of Sydney.
Talking to James is like talking to an old friend. We’ve been in touch for months, exchanging emails and Tweets, ever since a friend forwarded me a Wall Street Journal article describing James as the new “J. K. Rowling” and Beautiful Malice as a “brilliantly plotted page-turner”. I tracked her down, intrigued by the brief mention of her Indonesia connection.
With the May release of Beautiful Malice, a young adult thriller about an unsettling relationship between two teenage girls, the solitary Katherine and chillingly charismatic Alice, it was finally the right time to talk properly.
Over the telephone, James is immediately open and warm. She wants to know as much about me as I do about her, especially concerning Indonesia, a country she continues to have great affection for since working in Jakarta between 1995 and 1997.
Like her writing career, there was no grand plan behind her decision to come here. After completing her RSA Cambridge TEFL qualification, she chose Indonesia for its proximity and low cost of living. It was not love at first sight.
“I landed there and was horrified… I thought, I had to leave… I’ve been dropped off at the tip… [but] I stayed and got a job, and grew to love it… I stayed for 2.5 years in Jakarta, and hung out with many Indonesians, had an Indonesian boyfriend.”
James has fond memories of partying along Jl. Jaksa and traveling to Yogyakarta and Bali. Most of all, she says, she loved the “warmth of the Indonesian people …I liked the expat culture as well. I liked starting to learn the language.”
She says the main reason she left was because relationship had ended, due to cultural differences and communication problems.
“I came home to lick my wounds,” she says, laughing.
“Still very much in love with Indonesia”, she tried teaching in Japan, but the experience did not measure up. Back in Australia, her interest in Indonesia continued as she pursued an arts degree and studied Indonesian at intermediate and advanced level.
Even after she fell in love with Hudson at 29, whom she had known since boarding school, and the couple had four children in quick succession – Charlie (10), twins Oscar and Jack (8) and Jimmy (6) – and teamed on a kitchen business (she designed, Hudson fitted), Indonesia still played on her mind. She turned to writing, both as a way to process her experiences and escape from domesticity.
“I was stuck at home with four boys under four at one stage. I really needed an outlet, so I started writing about [Indonesia],”says James, whose sister is a writer.
“When I really thought I was going to do it seriously was when I started getting some good feedback from readers… people were saying ‘You’ve got talent’ and I thought ‘Wow’ so…” she trails off, seemingly a touch embarrassed by her own appeal.
It was not easy finding the time to write while raising four infants and co-running a business.
“Being a mother, one, taught me what really hard work was, so that the whole process of sitting down and writing a book doesn’t feel daunting compared to looking after four children under four… and it made me more patient,” she says.
“In my 20s I think I would have been far too impatient and restless to sit with a book all the time it takes to write a book… and perhaps just getting older allowed me that patience and persistence.”
She’s so far completed four novels, with the fifth, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead, scheduled to be finished in May.
James’ first publishing experience was underwhelming. She sold her first novel to a small American e-press for US$100, and had the next two rejected, although the third did make it to acquisitions.
While Beautiful Malice is her fourth novel, she sees it as her true debut.
“I don’t think [the first novel was] good enough… it’s under-edited and way too short… so I just wish I’d never published it, but the temptation was so great at the time,” she says.
Even writing Beautiful Malice felt different to her other novels, she says although she could never have predicted the attention it has attracted.
“I simply wrote the first line, which is ‘I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral’, and then I thought, oh my gosh, who is Alice? and then really, I just figured it out as I went along, which was terrifying.
“Even the first 30 pages in, I felt very excited.”
Finding an agent was an uphill struggle. All those James queried in Australia rejected it, followed by 70 agents in America, and 10 in the UK, some of whom offered positive feedback but found it too difficult to categorize in terms of genre or target market.
“And then Jo [Unwin], who was quite new at Conville & Walsh [a leading UK-based literary agency], said she’d take it on… She was a little bit ambivalent about whether it was adult or young adult, but she put it out there anyway.”
Meanwhile, James and Hudson had just closed down their business, and were preparing to return to university.
“I was going to do nursing and he was going to do science… we were planning to tighten our belts and have a few struggling years, so I was hoping my book would sell, but I thought it would just make a small contribution to our lives, not something that would save us.”
Unwin first submitted the book simultaneously to publishers in Australia and the UK, resulting in two “normal first book offers”, respectively from Allen & Unwin and Faber & Faber.
“I was thrilled, over the moon, to get a publishing deal at all,” James says.
Beautiful Malice was then submitted to Germany, attracting an offer of 15,000 euros within two days, the fastest response yet – and a sign of what was to come.
“That was on Saturday. By Monday it was up to 70,000 euros and several publishers kept coming in, and Jo said she was saying no to it, that it was going to auction, and that I would know by that Thursday… and then it was up to 252,000 euros… and our lives were changed, obviously… We didn’t sleep for a week… we were going, ‘Is this real?’ It was unbelievable, like winning the lottery.”
In the end, across 35 territories, James garnered $1.4 million in advances, with the US paying the most at $600,000, although she points out the total was for both Beautiful Malice and Cooper, and that she won’t see all the money at once, nor all of it, after tax and the agency’s cut.
“So I’m not rolling in millions, but it did change our plans. We’re not going to university, Hilary is taking this year off because I’m doing lots of travel. He’s being a stay-at-home dad and helping the boys get ready for school and I’m writing the second book and helping to promote Beautiful Malice.”
James adds Beautiful Malice‘s success is especially fortuitous, as her partner has been in serious need of a break for years, after suffering a heart attack six years ago at age 35.
I remark on how well things seemed to work out, just when the family needed them to the most.
“In hindsight, it can look like it’s all fate. It certainly doesn’t feel like that at the time. Hopefully I can make a living from writing now, and if it all tanks, maybe we would go back [to our plans]… it doesn’t have to be loads of money, just a decent living from writing.”
It’s a measured perspective considering the constant comparisons to publishing phenomenons Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, whom James would appear to be following in the footsteps in as a millionaire mum and best-selling author. Although flattered, she laughs off the labeling.
“The comparison to Harry Potter is odd because it’s not a fantasy and it’s not for young kids, so I wouldn’t want people to be misled… it’s certainly for 15 and up. It’s daunting to be compared to [Rowling and Meyer] in terms of success, because I don’t see that I’m going to be the second richest woman in the world any time soon… it’s like wow, is that what you’re expecting?
“And some people are going to be like, ‘Haha it didn’t happen’, whereas I’m not expecting it anyway’.”
James is also philosophical about rumblings about movie adaptations of her books.
“I would absolutely love a movie deal – but it’s not something I feel is necessary to be successful as a writer, if you know what I mean.”
She’s perhaps, understandably, too preoccupied with completing Cooper.
“It’s intimidating, because there are expectations now…. It does feel like wow, what if it’s not as good? It might not be. A book is a weird thing. I’m really excited about Beautiful Malice, and I have to keep thinking about Cooper… I guess it’s a good thing, it’s keeping my feet on the ground.”
Like her first novel, Beautiful Malice focuses on a difficult relationship, a theme James observes probably has its roots in her failed romance with her Indonesian boyfriend.
“I’m interested in why sometimes you can be in love… why you can love someone, your friend or lover or whoever, and they’re not necessarily good for you or even nice to you… I think anyone who has been through high school has been on either end of that relationship to some extent,” she says.
“Obviously Beautiful Malice is quite extreme, and I’ve never had anything like that, but that feeling of having a friend that’s not really good for you… a relationship that’s not necessarily healthy but you pursue it and treasure it anyway. I find it compelling why you would do that.”
In her books, James’ top priority is to “create a really enjoyable story”. Her favorite aspect of writing is “describing little interactions between people that may seem small”.
“If people recognize that and can feel it, and it rings true, that’s what I think is really exciting and valuable… and when I capture that, which is sometimes by accident… you catch yourself by surprise and go ‘that’s true, that’s right’… I’ve captured something about the human condition.”
Of Cooper, James says she won’t be able to describe it properly until it’s finished, only revealing that like Beautiful Malice it straddles the adult and young adult markets, and will be similarly marketed.
She tells me she’s written 1,000 words of Cooper today, and is looking forward to some relaxation.
“It’s Friday night so [Hilary and I will] have a glass of wine and watch a movie, while the boys do their own thing, outside, maybe on the trampoline.”
Despite James’ million-dollar success, it’s the little things that remain important – in her stories and in life.