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It could almost be a script for a movie — not Rose Carlyle’s book, but her life.
Middle-aged, recently divorced mother of four teenagers, working a day job while trying to pursue her dream of writing a book. The long-worked-on book is picked up by the first publishing company she sends it to, is sold around the world and is about to be turned into a movie.
Sounds like fiction, especially to any aspiring authors out there who have tried to get their books published.
But it is reality for Carlyle, although it is still sinking in.
"I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to it."
Even her publisher, Allen and Unwin NZ’s Jenny Hellen admits it is a "rare event" for a New Zealand author to achieve this level of success.
" It’s a bit like a fairy tale."
A fairy tale with a twist, as the storyline for the book came out of a discussion about writing between Carlyle and her sister Maddie over lunch one day.
"It’s quite a strange story."
It turned out her sister had a similar idea to write a novel about identical twins. So they put their heads together and ideas started flowing.
"It was almost as if we had half of the story each. It felt like something magical was happening. There was an urgency to get it down on paper."
When it came time to decide who was going to write it, Carlyle had one awful moment when she thought her sister wanted to, but she did not.
"We couldn’t both write it. I really feel we’ve done it together; she’s been my brainstormer and first reader. It’s been a joint project for us - it’s ironic, considering the book is about sisters with a lot of rivalry. We’ve had an amazing relationship."
"We also had to move house as the one we’d been living in, a rental, had ceilings collapsing and there were plumbing problems. In a way it was the worst time to write a novel and yet it felt like an escape from all of that."
Carlyle could escape the realities of life where travel was not an option because of family responsibilities to a "beautiful world of first class travel and glamorous tropical islands" in her imagination.
It also meant she did not have much time for research, so she relied on things she already knew - her legal career and the family’s experience ocean sailing where there is no-one to help you.
"I remember being really tired that whole year. I did find the writing was enjoyable, it was always hard to stop."
Carlyle had done the preparation, finishing her master’s degree in creative writing the year before.
"I was just finishing the novel I wrote for that degree when we came up with the Girl in the Mirror five days before I had to hand it in. It was very hard to go back to finish that book and I’ve not looked at it since."
When Carlyle decided Girl in the Mirror was finished she naively sent it only to Allen and Unwin, having decided they seemed highly regarded.
"I didn’t know how the publishing world worked. But they made me an offer and I haven’t looked back."
Hellen says it was immediately clear on reading the manuscript that it had international potential as a thriller.
"It has a strong original idea at its heart, it’s very tightly plotted, the characters are well developed, it has a brilliant twist at the end and Rose’s writing is assured and confident. It’s very unusual to be sent such a well-developed manuscript.
She knew their Australian team would be keen to publish the book.
"They really quickly got international publishers interested and a film deal sorted."
Carlyle got the news her manuscript had been accepted via email.
"It was hilarious. It was such an underwhelming way to find out your dream had come true. It’s so normal and boring, yet it was life-changing."
She and her sister had a plan if the book was accepted. Carlyle was to turn up on her sister’s doorstep with a bottle of Champagne. So she rushed off to the store to find one and headed to her sister’s home.
"We were like a pair of hysterical schoolgirls, dancing around with happiness - it was 2019 and we didn’t know about what was to come. We were just over the moon."
From there it snowballed. Soon an editor from Harper Collins in New York wanted to talk to her and then another.
"It all happened so quickly. The book was sold to the first person who talked to me about it."
Then unbeknown to her, a two-sentence synopsis of the book published in an industry magazine was picked up by a book-to-film agent.
"She began pitching it. I mean, this is all well before the book came out. There was just one happy moment after another as another milestone was reached."
Seeing her first cover was "exciting and unreal" and again came via email.
"We were in lockdown when I got my author copies of the book. I had to open them on a zoom call with my sister as we wanted to experience the moment together - it was a wonderful moment in the middle of all the weirdness of the pandemic and the uncertainty."
Recently she has been surprised as new translations of the book came out with different covers.
The business side of publishing has been a steep learning curve, one in which Carlyle’s legal background (she did her law degree at the University of Otago) has been helpful.
"It’s like a dream but you’re walking through it blind.
"I’ve occasionally thought how’d I do this without the law degree... although the publishers have been amazing at getting legal advice for me."
Carlyle has now given up her day job to concentrate on her writing, although she says dealing with the ongoing work around Girl in the Mirror is almost like still having a day job.
"There is a lot of admin work around the book."
Her children - she now only has two at home - are getting used to mum writing for a living.
"At first it was just mum’s latest hobby. She’s not knitting us a jersey or painting walls, she’s writing a book. Teenagers are pretty pragmatic when you tell them it’s now mum’s job and it’s paying the bills. They’re like, we need to get out of the house and give mum some quiet writing time."
She is loving be able to write every day when it suits her on a new book which will be in the same genre. She is not under contract so has no deadlines for finishing it.
"I can give it my best time. I like to write early morning, when my brain is at my sharpest, and then do my other jobs later in the day. Now my other job instead of teaching law is publicity and admin as an author."
Carlyle has some key advice for aspiring authors - do not, like she did, think you have to live before you write. She tried to write her first novel when she was 6 years old.
"I got to chapter 2 then. But I think life just got busy. I had three children, I was practising law, we did a lot of sailing, crossed oceans. Part of me thought you have to have lived life to write about it, which is probably wrong.
"Suddenly I found myself turning 40 and I hadn’t done it so I had to make up for lost time.
"You can’t make any excuses. I’m too young or its already been written ... you have to be determined, and really, really persistent. It doesn’t just flow out and get published in the first few weeks. You have to be prepared for rejections and be humble. You have to learn how to write a book."
It was also important for writers to believe in themselves as so many people think aspiring writers were crazy for trying. Not an unrealistic response, given the statistics around manuscripts being rejected, she says.
"It is dispiriting. You have to start writing for the love of it. You have to have something else to support you to start with.
"It’s really lovely to have a community of writers to compare with, especially when you are on that stage of the journey — when you’re an unpublished author."
Luckily, Carlyle has always had her sister in her corner, who knew the book would be a success.
"She always had faith in me. She was so honest with me when things were good and so honest when things were bad. She had a really professional attitude towards it all."
Carlyle is still not used to putting author down in job descriptions.
"I can hardly believe its true. 2020 was just a craziest year for me for two incredibly different reasons."
• Rose Carlyle, Girl in the Mirror, Dunedin writers and readers festival, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Sunday, May 9, 2.30-3.30pm
• The books that made me with Nalini Singh and Kyle Newbern, DPAG, Saturday, 2-3pm