Some might call the road to getting published rocky, strewn with obstacles and long delays, Sabine Nielsen (writing also as ‘Claire Andersen’) prefers to think of it as “the scenic route”. She had to wait almost 20 years before “Lovelorn” - her first ever novel - was discovered by a publisher, but lots of other thing happened on the way.
I was holidaying with a friend, and a lot of us camping ground dwellers used to leave our light holiday reading – those novels we couldn’t be bothered to cart back to Melbourne or wherever we came from –, on the table provided for folding the washing.
Returning from a lovely long walk along the beach, I left my friend to dash into the laundry and found a stack of romance novels! Eagerly, I snatched them up. Of course, I would never confess to reading romance novels back home, only high-brow, serious stuff dwelt on my book shelves there. But, hey, here I was on holidays and you can’t be expected to plough through the works of Dostoyevsky and Co while trying to relax.
“Have you ever read a Mills and Boon?” I asked my friend. “No,” she replied and her tone said all. “They’re fun,” I defended myself and immediately got absorbed, snuggled into a comfy chair in our crowded little holiday unit. My friend resisted, studiously working her way through Saturday’s Age. But even Saturday’s Age comes to an end and by late Sunday afternoon, she succumbed.
Snorting slightly, she picked up her first Romance . . .
“Hey, this is fun,” she chuckled after a while. And, “Oh, my God . . . Listen to this!”
She read aloud a particularly snazzy bit, where the heroine – far from downtrodden, although financially distraught – laid into the ever-so-dashing hero with wit, humour and intelligence. Needless to say, we worked our way through the stack collected in the laundry, unashamedly giving ourselves to the sheer pleasure of reading something that was highly entertaining and well written.
Maybe, it should have stopped there, at least until the next trip to Barwon Heads, but ...
We started to ring each other up, to share our favourite passages.
The phone rang as I returned home from a dreary day of teaching German as a Second Language to a bunch of unwilling, disinterested Year Nines.
“Listen,” my friend burst out, before I had even plugged in the kettle. “I’ve been thinking, we can do this!” My silence conveyed the row of questions marks, I was too tired to embellish with words. “We can write a romance novel,” she cried impatiently. “It’s perfectly easy. I have written away to Mills and Boon, they issue you with instructions, you know. Tell you exactly, what you have to do, what sort of characters, plots, settings etc. I tell you, we can do this.”
My friend had been working on a series of short stories, which she used to read aloud to me. They were terribly good, so sophisticated that it was only my stupefied teacher’s brain that kept me from understanding and appreciating them fully. I really didn’t mean to go to sleep, either. It was just that the flow of beautiful words had an extremely soothing effect after a week of pouring all your energies into controlling a horde of pubescent aliens.
She startled me out of my exhaustion.
“And when will I find time to do that?” I got the sarcasm just right, the words were positively dripping with it.
She brushed them aside. “We are starting this weekend,” she said firmly. “I’ll copy the instructions and drop them by your house tomorrow.”
Of course, this was ridiculous. An instruction manual on “How to write Romance”? Please!
I had never confided to anyone that I had wanted to be a writer since I was very young.
We had grown up with books and stories, and our parents read to us every night. Even as children, we had book shelves that were bulging. Before I could read myself, I used to take down books and look at the cover, trying to imagine the story hidden inside. My father who had been a POW in America, learned English there and read only English books, used to entertain us after our midday meal with whatever story he was engrossed in at the time. I knew “To kill a Mockingbird” and "A Tree grows in Brooklyn" long before I entered High School. I wanted to become a writer, but originating from a family of grocers that seemed an impossibility - a gross overstepping of one’s place in life. I was born on a small island in the North Sea of the West Coast of Germany, and anybody overreaching him- or herself was severely castigated.
A grocer’s daughter did not become a writer, and Tall Poppies were smartly nipped back. But, you see, I migrated to Australia. Aged only 20, I followed what was supposed to be the love of my life, an Australian, to his home country. Here, one didn’t necessarily need certificates to do what one wanted, and also, one could try one’s hand at anything one liked. I studied, became a teacher, learned to cook, to garden and became a mother.
Fast forward to the camping ground and Barwon Heads almost twenty-five years later:
I was 44, my marriage had broken up, I was on my own, teaching had become a bore . . . and the memory of the secret longing to write suddenly stirred. Timing was perfect – without family cares,
I could get up early in the morning and write for a couple of hours.
I could write on the weekends, and, of course, during the holidays.
I took up my friend’s challenge! The plot, I worked out during long walks along the ocean beaches. Quite by accident, I discovered that that worked best for me; I still do that today when I get stuck.
The holiday house at Barwon Heads had long been a point of escape for me. Going there meant taking time out. From Barwon I would regularly venture off to Lorne. I loved this seaside town, because it reminded me so much of my home town. The long esplanade by the beach, the cafés and restaurants, which spilled onto the footpaths, the intriguing boutiques and shops. I loved the walk from the river estuary to the main beach, or the one along rock pools to the jetty – and the cliff path, the quiet back streets and the hinterland, the Otway ranges with their secret waterfalls and tall gums. The setting for my novel had to be Lorne.
I got involved in my plot – I decided, just romantic lovers’ trysts weren’t quite enough, I had to work a little bit of mystery into it as well. (When I developed my writing, mystery novels became my favourite genre!) I liked Mia, my heroine and grew fond of Jack, my dark, slightly sinister hero. Unconsciously, I employed another theme, which I seem to weave into all my novels now: that of migration. Jack is a “new” Australian, he was born in Italy. Jack and his father, Signor Alberto, allowed me to explore some of the issues that typically confront a newcomer to a foreign country.
I wrote this, my first novel, in long hand – and bored very quickly of having to type it into the computer. After Lovelorn, I learned to become a proficient word processor!
And even though I laughed at my friend and her Mills and Boon’s catalogue of “do’s and don’ts in Romance Writing”, I did find the imposed restrictions (chapter length, overall word count, strict guidelines regarding the genre, the plot, the setting and the characterisations) quite helpful to a first novelist. Well, I finished Lovelorn, photocopied it, wrote the synopsis, a bio and covering letter – and posted it off! Wow, I still remember the plop of the fat envelope as it dropped into the letterbox.
All writers know the terrible sense of loss that invades, once one has completed one’s work. We have to learn to start thinking about the next project before the current one is finished, and to respect that our characters, fledglings of our mind, will roost and fly the coop – eventually we learn to wish them well and let them go with our blessing.
We learn to recognise the moment when we have nurtured and guided them as far as we could, when it is time to let go.
But finishing my first novel, I plunged into quite a desperate sensation of loss. The only thing that maintained me was my vivid imagination. I followed the A4 envelope (this was 1996 - hard copy submissions, please) on its way to the UK, envisaged the postman delivering it reverently (intuitively aware of just what he was carrying), it sitting patiently on a publisher’s desk (of course, I could not expect it to be read immediately . . . only soon), and eventually the amazement on said publisher’s face as s/he realized, they had just discovered a new and brilliant author, the trembling hand that reaches for the telephone . . .
Well, those are the dreams that sustain writers! Even many manuscripts and some published novels later, toughened and much more cynical – used to waiting for replies from editors, which may or may not arrive, pretending that I don’t care, plotting always how to gain notice from publishers, critics, the reading public – even now, I must confess, just for tiny, weenie moments that fantasy of really “being discovered” is fun to visit. Just for a moment.
Of course, all experienced authors know that this hardly ever happens. Rather we get used to receiving the polite standard letter, informing us that our manuscript is just “not suitable for our (the publishers’) current list”.
I didn’t receive that letter until I was well into my second romance novel, better even, I thought, than the first. Surely, they would see the error of their ways, I thought, once they got my second script. Unfortunately, this was received with the same cold shoulder as my first effort.
Still, by now I was hooked! I continued writing. A collection of short stories (unpublished) and a lengthy novel for Young Adults (unpublished but hopeful) followed. And then finally, the break through. I had decided to write a novel in my first language, German, and due to a quirk in the publishing world, it hit the mark with a German editor.
Ebbe, Flut und Tod became the first in a four-part series of mysteries, set on the island where I was born and in Australia - the migration theme revisited! I didn’t even have to wait very long for the letter of acceptance. Next, I tried my hand at some children’s stories and discovered I liked writing for children. I self-published one, Max Siebentag, for a school fete; Charlotte Frohmacher entdeckt das Weihnachtsgeheimnis was produced as an audio book and Ole Hannsen steuert zur Insel Föhr was published in 2015.
I wrote a biography of German migrants to Australia, published first in German and then translated into English. Some of the people, I interviewed for the book, I had met during the course of writing the mystery novels. I wanted to talk to people who had experienced WWII and had arrived in Australia in the 1950’s. Their stories were so amazing that I decided to write them down in full. It was a taxing project. While writing a novel grabs you heart and soul, occupies most of your waking thoughts, nags away in your subconscious, and doesn’t let you go until you have finished – it is still a novel.
With a biography you take on board somebody else’s real life. I found, I didn’t like to work with a tape recorder, I preferred to listen and absorb – but that also meant, I engaged with the storytellers in a very real way. It was an incredibly rewarding but also very exhausting process. Ein bisschen Heimat im Gepäck (Memories in my Luggage) was published in 2014.
Hardly was the book published when people started to ask me, when was it coming out in English? They wanted to give it to their children, their grand-children, their friends.
I wanted to get on with my next novel!
At the same time, I started to organise an exhibition on German Migration to Australia. I had become so involved with all aspects of migration, and migration in the shape of refugees and asylum seekers is such a hot topic in Australia at the moment, I felt, what I had learned could very well contribute to understanding what is involved in the process of leaving behind one’s home, family and friends, the language and culture one is familiar with, traditions that are second nature, to step out and into a new and very different environment. Being a writer, I wasn’t satisfied with presenting just a display, I had to be involved. So, I organised ‘events’ around this travelling exhibition. I found amazing speakers and contributors who related their stories or the results of their research into migration and I met a tremendous number of interesting people.
The journey of the exhibition is recorded on memoriesinmyluggage.com.au.
And then – during this busy time, I noticed a mail marked “randomhouse” in my inbox.
My first instinct was to go for “delete” – after all, it could only be some advertisement.
When I did read it – I am a well-mannered person and if someone writes to me,
I should at least glance at it –, I couldn’t take it in!
“I love your romance and we want to publish it! Sorry, it’s taken so long to get back to
you . . .”
Well – eventually, I dimly remembered that I had sent in the script for Lovelorn, after seeing an ad in Writers Victoria that Random House Romance was canvassing for romance novelists. Periodically, I had sent the script to publishers of romance novels, not expecting anything but only to give some credit to the hopeful, “young” author I had once been. To give myself a little pat on the shoulder, a sort of “There, there – I am proud of what you have done, even if it never gets published.”
Here my long and winding tale comes to an end. Needless to say that somehow, I managed to find the time to a do a major re-edit. After all, I had written Lovelorn in 1996 – it had to be dragged into the 21 Century. Luckily, I was blessed with two wonderfully professional, yet kind and encouraging editors – Lex Hirst and Bev Cousins (Penguin Random House). They managed to suggest rather than criticise, to ask rather than bully. I had to laugh when Bev asked innocently why my characters didn’t use mobile phones! Maybe she wondered if I belonged to some obscure sect that has sworn off modern technology. The simple answer was, of course, mobile phones weren’t quite the craze in 1996!
Also, suffering desperately after my recent marriage break-up and filled to the brim with Mills and Boom stereotypes, I had allowed Jack to be quite nasty at times. Bev rightly asked, would a young, successful woman like Mia really fall in love with someone who speaks to her like that? With Bev and Lex’s gentle guidance, Jack has become a truly desirable character!
I decided to publish my romance novel under the pseudonym of “Claire Andersen”. Romance is a new genre for me and taps into different resources of my imagination. Choosing a different personality was part of the fun.
Lovelorn was published on 1 November 2014 as an e-book, and now, I can add romance and e-book novelist to my CV. My second romance novel, Driven to Love, has just been published as an e-book.
By the way, the friend who got me started on romance writing never got past her second chapter. . .
You see, the road to getting published can be very long, indeed – but lots of things can happen on the way and we should never give up on ourselves. Sometimes, the rewards are long in coming.
Driven to Love and Lovelorn by Claire Andersen are available as e-books on
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