The Age of Light: Whitney Scharer previews historical romance that set off an intense bidding war
Last fall, EW reported on Little, Brown’s seven-figure acquisition of The Age of Light, a historical romance from an unknown author which set off an intense bidding war. The book, by Whitney Scharer, centers on pioneering photographer Lee Miller and her tumultuous relationship with the artist Man Ray. She ended up receiving a remarkable 13 bids from publishers on the proposal.
“I think what makes Whitney’s novel so special is that it’s very accessible, so it has the commercial potential to reach a broad audience, but it is also gorgeously written with great psychological sophistication,” Scharer’s agent Julie Barer told EW. “One editor described it as the kind of book that is both ‘what women want to read and what they need to read.’”
In the months since it’s been full steam ahead. The Age of Light now has a gorgeous cover that hints at the book’s steamy, feminist themes, and some additional details as to what exactly readers will be in store for have been unveiled. The book is one of early 2019’s more anticipated literary titles, and to preview it, Scharer chatted with EW about the feeling of suddenly becoming a published novelist, the insanity of the bidding war, and the process of getting the book ready for its 2019 release.
Read on below, and pre-order the book here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This book obviously set off a frenzy in the publishing world. What was it like, from your perspective, as your book became such a hot commodity?
I’d like to say I was confident enough in my work to have anticipated the frenzy, but to be honest, I was completely stunned by it. The experience was such a wild ride, and the entire time the book was on submission, I just rotated between ecstatic, panicked, incredulous, and back to ecstatic. The sale only took a week, which was a blessing — I don’t think my nerves could have handled any more than that. There was one day where I had seven one-hour conversations with seven different editors. I literally brought a survival kit of snacks to my desk and just prayed I was still talking in complete sentences by the last call.
Why do you think the book so resonated among publishers?
Readers seem to like novels that are “the story behind the story” or the story of “the woman behind the famous man.” And my book falls into that category, so publishers probably knew that it would resonate with an existing audience. But Lee Miller is so fascinating, and ahead of her time in so many ways, that I think her story subverts the expected tropes of this type of historical fiction. She’s not a passive, wilting flower. She’s ambitious and hungry, and her drive to become an artist is intimately connected to her and Man Ray’s love affair, yet it complicates that relationship in unexpected ways.
Or perhaps the book resonated for a simpler reason. When someone at a party asks me what my novel is about, I tell them, “It’s about art and love and Paris and food and sex — with some WWII thrown in.” So maybe that’s it — who can resist sex and Paris?
What was the process of writing this like? How much time did it take and how much research did you do?
It took seven years for me to write this book: two years of reading and researching, and then five years of writing. While I was researching, I read everything I could find about Lee Miller, Man Ray, Surrealism, and Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s. I’m a very visual writer, so I immersed myself in images from the time period: Man Ray’s and Lee Miller’s photographs, fashion spreads from Vogue, old postcards from Paris, street scenes, advertisements, you name it. The images served as touchstones for me and often were the jumping-off points for scenes.
When I started writing, the book went through many iterations. It was third person, then first person, and then finally third person again. And I revised it and revised it, with the help of my absolutely wonderful writing group. When I was between my second and third big revisions, I created an 11-page outline that I called The Grid. On it, I charted the plot, obviously, but also how the plot connected to the emotional arc of the book — the arc of the characters’ interiority. And I mapped out the “sensory hook” for each chapter, which was an image or an emotion that I wanted each chapter to convey. It helped immensely in getting me to my final draft.
Why were you drawn to this story? What made you want to write it?
I’ve loved photography for my whole life and studied it in high school and college, so I thought I was fairly well-versed in the history of the art form. In 2011, I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where they had an exhibit called Partners in Surrealism: Man Ray and Lee Miller. I knew all about Man Ray, but I’d never heard of Lee Miller. And as I walked through the exhibit, I grew increasingly more surprised — and frankly annoyed — that she wasn’t a bigger name. Her photos are incredible: she was an accomplished fashion photographer, as well as a wonderful Surrealist artist, and then she reinvented herself during WWII as one of the first female war correspondents and shot some of the most iconic images of the war. I was drawn to her art and her brash personality, but I was equally captivated by her stormy relationship with Man Ray. He was utterly undone by her, which fascinated me. What type of woman brings an egotistical artist like Man Ray to his knees? I found I wanted to tell that story.
In the months since you sold the book, how have you found the editing process, and shaping the book into a final product?
The editing process has been wonderful. I had the great joy of getting editorial feedback from not one, but two amazing editors: Judy Clain, my editor at Little, Brown, and Francesca Main, my editor at Picador UK. These two brilliant women did some sort of mind-meld and gave me feedback that helped take the book beyond where I could take it on my own. I’m so grateful to them. The most major revisions centered around the thread of the story that takes place during WWII: adding some scenes, shaping what was already there, and placing them in the right spots within the larger narrative. I also found I loved being copy edited. The idea that an incredibly smart professional was bringing such attention to my work…just wow.
Lastly, I love this cover. Talk to me about the significance of it for you.
I’m so glad you like it! I love it too. The bold font and bright, saturated colors really draw you in. What I love most about it, though, is how sensual it is. Too often, historical fiction feels all buttoned up and corseted, as if sex is the furthest thing from the characters’ minds. But Man Ray and Lee Miller were sexy — I mean, she was nude in almost every picture he took of her! I always hoped I’d get a cover that hinted at that sensuality, and I think this one does it.