I am a novelist because Katherine Tegen believed I could be one and then patiently mentored my transformation from journalist to fiction author. Katherine is overly modest in this blog. I have always been so impressed by her eye for story, her literary taste and savvy, her sixth-sense ability to read popular culture and its waves (she is, among many others, the editor of the wildly popular Divergent series), and her largesse in thinking of story-ideas for authors she cares about. But she is also a hands-on midwife for a writer and the finishing sculptor for a narrative. Within her publishing house Katherine must be a book’s cheerleader and chief negotiator in the back-and-forth collaboration among the art department, editorial, and marketing. Because the turnaround on HAMILTON AND PEGGY! was so breakneck fast, Katherine had to edit my manuscript in a horrible time crunch—all the while dealing with the daily crush of her enormous duties as head of one of HarperCollins’ most successful imprints. I am grateful beyond words for that, for her life-changing role in my life, and for her taking the time to write this guest blog.
Thanks to Katherine, this historical novel about Peggy Schuyler was born, and Peggy has been revealed to be the delightful and bodacious persona that real life says she was.
The role of the book editor is not commonly understood. Many people think of an editor as someone who fixes sentences and might have some ideas about plot. In reality, editors are creative idea people and business people. A good editor will be aware of what’s happening in the popular culture as well as in the marketplace for books, and ideas will come to them without much thought.
I have been Laura Elliott’s editor for at least eighteen years. Laura came to me through my favorite illustrator and great friend, Henry Cole, sometime in the 1990s. Laura was a journalist at that time and already a prolific high-quality writer who had a gift for research. She wanted to tell a story inspired by the experiences of her father, a B-24 copilot who escaped through France with the help of the French resistance. A reporter on women’s issues and author of adult nonfiction on topics like domestic violence, Laura’s first drafts did not feel like historical fiction for teens, but I guided her through a few revisions until we had a spectacular book, UNDER A WAR-TORN SKY, which was published in the Fall of 2001 by Hyperion Books for Children, soon after the war-torn skies of 9/11. Her debut novel won multiple awards, continues to sell several thousand copies a year, and is studied in schools across the country.
At that time, I was leaving my job as editor-in-chief of Disney Publishing and moving to HarperCollins, where I would have my own imprint. I acquired many projects by Laura. Some of them were things that I had suggested, such as the Revolutionary War story in GIVE ME LIBERTY. One thing I always keep in mind when acquiring a book is how it might tie into school curriculums. I knew that the Revolutionary War would always be studied in American elementary schools, and so would be a perennial topic for which teachers and librarians would need books to fill their content needs. Laura remembers this, although I do not: Apparently, I said to her, “I am sick of Johnny Tremain, so do something new on the Revolution.” Laura chose a little explored tack—the experience of a young fifer with the 2nd VA Regiment, whose best friend, an enslaved servant, must—in a terrible irony— seek his freedom with the British, meaning the two meet as enemies on the battlefield. The novel is used often in Common Core Curriculum.
So, in June 2016, a mere 18 months ago, I had a similar thought for Laura. Alexander Hamilton had exploded into the American consciousness with the incredible “Hamilton, the
Musical” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Adults and teens were flocking to see it, singing the songs, and most importantly, reveling in history. While Hamilton’s interest in the ladies wasn’t fit for teens in my opinion, I thought there might be another story within the Hamilton realm that could be.
After a few conversations with Laura, we settled on the perfect subject: Peggy Schuyler. Peggy was Eliza’s youngest sister and had become popular with fans of the musical for the
refrain “And Peggy!” which populated T-shirts, mugs and all sorts of merchandise. But very little was known about Peggy, so it was the perfect topic for Laura to delve into, using her incredible research skills. One of Laura’s favorite lines is “I found it in the foot notes,” which perfectly summarizes her in-depth and relentless search for the just-right detail that will bring life to her writing and the characters she paints on the page.
I will admit, I was tough on Laura during the process of writing this book. When her manuscript first came in, she had done an astonishing job, as usual, of transforming history into a character-driven narrative. Her prose was truly beautiful in so many places. I never have to tell her to rewrite awkward sentences, which makes my job so much easier. And the cameos of all the famous characters of the Revolution were brilliant and often very funny. But her love for research flooded the manuscript’s pages with history and politics. Even though that is her hallmark which educators and history-buffs love—it was an overabundance of details that could have overwhelmed most teen readers.
We cut thousands of words from the early drafts. The process was even more challenging because we had decided to “crash” the book for an early release in 2018, so Laura had ten months to write it. Given the amount of original research from primary sources that Laura was committed to—in order to provide Hamilton fans a completely fresh storyline, not just a rehash of the already repeatedly told Hamilton/Eliza story—this was a Herculean task. But after weeks of grueling long days and nights, Laura produced a lively, informative novel that will delight feminist history fans and Hamiltonians alike.
I’m very proud of this latest accomplishment for Laura, as I am proud of all of her works, and of Laura herself – for being an amazing person, as well as a very talented writer for our audience. It’s been a wonderful collaboration for almost two decades. These are the kinds of relationships and books that make editors happy and produce good books for children.
Katherine Tegen VP/Publisher, Katherine Tegen Books An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers