Have you ever dreamt of writing a book? I’m sure we all have at some point: a beach holiday bestseller or perhaps a ‘how to’ guide on a subject that you’re passionate about. The reality is that very few of us actually sit down and put in the hard work that’s needed to go from notebook to bookshelf (or indeed Kindle). Well, that’s not something we could accuse journalist Julie Ferry of – her recently published book The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau is a work of non-fiction that is surely destined for a TV series: “Husband hunting in the Gilded Age: how American heiresses conquered the aristocracy”. What’s not to love?
Tell us about yourself
I always knew that I wanted to write for a living but I’ve probably had a less structured career path than most who end up as a journalist and author. I completed an English degree at Cardiff University and would have liked to go on to do their respected Master’s course in journalism but I couldn’t afford it, so instead I went to Japan to teach English as part of the JET programme for a year.
I didn’t know anything about the country and certainly didn’t speak any Japanese, so when I got posted to a remote island between Japan and South Korea, it was a bit of a shock to the system. However, somewhere between the bouts of homesickness and struggles with everyday tasks (shopping at the supermarket isn’t easy when you don’t read the language!), the whole experience taught me a lot about myself. It taught me to be brave, get stuck in and most of all, that I could challenge myself and come out the other side.
When I got back to the UK, I applied for a post at the British Dental Association that included editing their student magazine. It was my first taste of professional journalism and was a steep learning curve, as I had to learn commissioning, writing and editing on the job. However, it was a great experience and confirmed my belief that journalism was what I wanted to do. When I was offered voluntary redundancy a couple of years later, I decided to take it and use the redundancy money to give me the cushion I needed to go freelance. Luckily, my boss asked me to take on parts of my old job on a freelance basis too.
Next, I secured a part-time job in a press office, which gave me an insight into the other side of journalism, which was to prove invaluable. On my freelance days I worked to secure my first commission with a national newspaper, which came with an article for The Independent. From there I started to get more and more commissions, eventually writing for publications like The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph and Glamour magazine. I won’t pretend it was easy, there was a lot of rejection involved, but it was incredibly rewarding to see my byline in some of the newspapers and magazines that I had been reading just a few years before.
In the meantime I began working on proposals for non-fiction books and submitting them to agents, which meant a lot more rejection. However, finally I managed to get an agent interested and, with her help, I managed to put together a proposal that was ready to go out to publishers. The proposal was for The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau, a book about the American heiresses that married into the British aristocracy during the Gilded Age. It was picked up by a publisher and the book was published in February this year.
Tell us about your book: from the initial idea to publication
The book was maybe the six or seventh idea that I had worked on over a ten-year period. Non-fiction books differ from fiction in that publishers usually require a lengthy proposal from the author, which details some background research on the book and what you hope to find out and chapter outlines, as well a couple of sample chapters to get a sense of the author’s writing style. With a fiction book the author usually submits the whole manuscript. I had got pretty far down the line with an agent and publisher on a previous idea but was rejected at the last minute because the marketing team didn’t feel that the book would be an easy sell to female readers. It was disappointing and of course there were a lot of times I felt like giving up, but looking back at it now I can see why some of those ideas and proposals didn’t make it. When I was working on The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau I knew why it had been accepted. It had the perfect mix of rich characters, gossip, glamour and historical details that captured people’s interest from the beginning.
The actual writing of the book was incredibly difficult in terms of deadlines, as I had around a year to deliver the manuscript. I researched in libraries and archives for six months, which included a trip to New York to look at the American side of the story and then I wrote the manuscript in three months. It was tough finding the time to write, as I had my three-year-old at home almost full-time and my six-year-old at school, so there were a lot of late nights. However, they all became a distant memory when I held the finished product in my hands for the first time. When I saw the book in Waterstones, I had to stop myself from letting out a little scream of excitement.
Who or what inspires your literary work?
I am very drawn to strong women from history that have largely been forgotten or fallen by the wayside. I think because of the inequality that women faced in the past these extraordinary characters were often airbrushed out of important events, despite wielding considerable power behind the scenes.
Can you tell us about future books you’re working on or a project you’d love to get off the ground?
The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau has been optioned for TV, so I would dearly love to see it on screen one day, although I am very aware of how difficult it is to get a book to that stage. I am working on a proposal for the next book at the moment, which covers a similar period (late Victorian era) and resurrects some very interesting and influential women to their rightful place in history.
Julie is following…