Novel Sisters

Sisters turn years of hard work into romance novel success

Author: By Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009

Chris Palmer, a 19-year-old SUNY New Paltz student, initially boycotted the book co-authored by his mother and aunt. “They paid so much attention to it, that I resigned myself to hating it forever,” he says. “But I have to admit, it’s now one of my favorites.”

Valerie Gantt Palmer and Debra Gantt Severs – writing The Colette Trilogy collaboratively as DeVa Gantt – laugh with understanding. “I’d wake up at 5 am with characters talking to me,” says Valerie. “I’d jump on the computer so I wouldn’t lose the dialog.”

They recall a Fourth of July in New Hampshire where the sisters quickly volunteered to go claim a prime fireworks-viewing spot for the rest of the family. With laptops in hand, they used those stolen moments to edit until the sun went down.

Reading dates were set every two weeks. Debra, 49, who resides in Suffern with her husband, Joseph, and their two children, would travel to “Camp Palmer” in Blooming Grove, home to Valerie, 53, husband, David, and their four children. While the close-in-age cousins played, the women would lock themselves in the office and proceed to read and rewrite the new segments each had written.

Locking themselves in a room wasn’t new for these two. They have been close all their lives, from their early years in Clark, N.J., and through their teen years in Montvale and beyond. Their father, Robert, was in accounting. Their mother, Pearl, put her career in banking on hold for her children, which also included sons Bob and Chris.

In this era before cell phones and computers, Wii and Wi-Fi, the Gantt sisters relied on their boundless imaginations to fuel their play time – and foreshadow their futures. Nancy Drew mysteries encouraged a love of reading at an early age and helped plant some of the first creative seeds that have been cultivated over the decades.

“Even our Barbie dolls were not fashion plates,” says Debra. “We made up stories.” Soon they embraced the classic Bronte sisters’ works - Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights – which poked their imaginative embers further and stirred a flaming passion for historical romance works.

“Deb said we could write our own story,” says Valerie. Which is exactly what they began to do in December of 1979. Valerie was 23, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y., and a new third-grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Suffern, but still living at home. Debra was 19 and a student at Montclair State College.Their mother was in awe.

“Mom would look at us and say, ‘What are you doing that for? I wish you’d come downstairs and help me clean the house or make dinner,’” says Valerie. “But we wrote like gangbusters. It evolved into a compulsion-passion.” While some character traits have been inspired by some of the people in their lives, the story lines are completely unique.

“We wrote situations,” says Debra. “Like the death scene,” says Valerie. “It was so dramatic that people have asked us who died in our lives. No one.” “We always knew that one day we could get serious and put things together,” says Debra.

“We talked continually. What if this happened … What tricks can we play on the reader … Where was the plot going … Where was the mystery, the intrigue,” says Valerie. “And we did this all in longhand,” says Debra. “We’d make changes up the sides of the margin.”

The story unfolds in the Caribbean – a place that the then-broke young women had – and still have - never been to. “Writing was our escape without ever being there,” says Valerie. “If we reach a milestone, like selling a million copies, then we’ll go celebrate there,” says Debra.

Although not to the Caribbean, travel was soon in Debra’s future. In 1981, the French major left to study abroad for five months. “I felt like I lost my best friend,” says Valerie. To combat the emptiness, Valerie began typing up what they then titled “Colette’s Prayer” and reading it into cassettes that she mailed to France.

“I really looked forward to these. I had no TV or radio in France,” says Debra. “Valerie and I believed this was the epitome of good writing. But some of our early stuff was atrocious.” The 500 single-spaced pages contained many subplots and story lines that they knew needed to be resolved by the end of the story. “And there was one story line that didn’t even make sense,” says Valerie. So finishing it was a daunting task.

Plus, there was a new change to contend with. Their parents were divorcing, and mom was moving to Rockland County. The move forced the manuscript into a box, where it stayed tucked away for 20 years. “Life got in the way,” says Valerie. “But it’s clear now, the book was supposed to stay in the box then.” Valerie met her husband in the Hudson Valley. They operated a Sugar Loaf shop called Imaginations for 12 years, which featured her hand-painted Christmas ornaments.

Today, she’s a substitute librarian three days a week and has a steady stream of regular customers who clamor for her ornaments during the holidays. Her dream is to write full time. Debra, who also plays guitar and piano, is a writer for a major pharmaceutical company. It’s a rewarding, albeit demanding, position that requires frequent trips to Philadelphia and the constant companionship of a Blackberry.

These busy women have spent years juggling families and careers, but like much of the country, were thrown off balance by the events of September 11, 2001. “It was Thanksgiving weekend and my husband was watching football. The unfinished manuscript kept nagging me,” says Debra. “What did the people who died in the 9/11 attacks leave behind? What were their legacies? We should finish our book, if only for ourselves and our children.”

Valerie agreed, and made it her New Year’s resolution for 2002 – after that season’s ornament orders were filled. So, like Sleeping Beauty responding to the kiss of her prince, the manuscript was revived with the wisdom of life’s experiences.

“I started reading it and was completely absorbed,” says Debra. “The story was excellent – but the writing really stunk.” “There were so many scenes I forgot … It was a diamond in the rough,” says Valerie. “We were trying to replicate the Victorian style, but with maturity, you realize that you can embody a style without being so flowery.”

While there was much editing to be done, they didn’t want to get bogged down with that. The first order of business, they decided, was to finish the book. They talked about all the things that they wanted to do and divided up the scenes. At their twice-a-month meetings at Valerie’s home, they’d read and massage each other’s work.

“I slept a couple of hours a night for several months – and I was never tired,” says Valerie of her role in finishing the book. “It continued to be entertaining,” says Debra, recalling her days in France. “And I can only recall one thing we really disagreed about.” “We’d squabble over punctuation,” says Valerie.
“Initially, it was a love story. But then the real theme jumped out, a bigger theme of family love,” she says.

“We know our father sees himself as the patriarch of our story – misunderstood, uncommunicative, harsh, yet even through his bad decisions, wanting the best for his family. However, we did not consciously use our father as that model. … We were never on the ‘outs’ with our dad, but writing has perhaps helped us appreciate him more.”

Once the manuscript was finished and input into the computer, the two-year editing process began. Transitions coaxed the situations to flow. Superfluous words and modern phrases bit the dust so what came to the surface was crisp writing. With each of at least 50 read-throughs, they interjected and collaborated so not one scene was solely written by one writer.

“I couldn’t tell who wrote what,” says Chris of the finished work, which was a couple of years away at that point. “There’s one voice.” Bolstered by compliments and positive reviews, they submitted “Colette’s Prayer” to Lucia Macro with Avon books. She pronounced it was too long - without reading a page.
“Someday Lucia will regret turning us down,” Debra recalls saying. “You have to reject the rejection,” says Valerie.

However, realizing that no publisher would look at their 1,200-page manuscript, they decided to self-publish. Because there’s no additional editing with self-publishing, it was important that every “I” was dotted, every “T” crossed – plus, they were given a 740-page limit. They pored through the pages again, spending another seven months whittling away at their words. They even decreased the type size to get more words on each page. Perfect–or so they finally thought.

“But in the seven months, the company changed their margins. So we were over the page count again,” says Valerie. Each time critical eyes returned to the manuscript, a sharper story emerged. Finally, the guidelines were met. Their mother fronted the $10,000 to print 500 copies that they distributed to family and friends–and asked only that they spread the word and post reviews on Amazon.com. Both husbands continue to promote their wives’ work – and today carry a supply of bookmarks with their lunches.

Their father gets the word out in the state of Florida, where he now resides. And the writers are proactive, too. “We spent at least a year marketing ourselves,” says Valerie. “We made calls to bookstores, radio stations, libraries, newspapers, magazines and local TV stations.  We’d then follow-up with voicemail messages we left.”

Through another mom that Debra knew, they were put in touch with a PR person, Sandy Cokeley, who worked in the Pearl River School District. Sandy agreed to become their literary agent. “You can’t underestimate the people you interact with,” says Debra, and how one connection can lead to another.
Sandy had a friend who worked at HarperCollins Publishers. Armed with the Amazon reviews, he got an editor to agree to read the book.

The editor’s initial reaction: “Why in the hell did I agree to read this? This is three books in one.” None-theless, she stood by her promise. The editor’s name? Lucia Macro. She had risen up the ranks and was now an executive editor at HarperCollins, overseeing their Romance Division at Avon Books.
“She tore the book apart, printed 20 copies and handed it out. ‘Am I crazy, or is this good,’” Valerie says Lucia asked of her colleagues.

A final decision, however, was slow in coming. In the summer of 2007, the Gantt sisters attended a publishing trade show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to network and gather more information.

Their agent called Lucia again to determine if HarperCollins was really interested. If not, they’d pursue another publisher. But HarperCollins was very interested–with a few concessions. The name of the book, Colette’s Prayer, has to be changed. There had been feedback that given the title and the fact it was written by “two sisters”–presumed to be nuns –it must be spiritual.

Additionally, the type size has to go back to the original–and the book has to be split into three books.
“But we didn’t want to fabricate an ending for books one and two,” says Valerie. They didn’t have to. Although readers don’t get closure after the first book, titled A Silent Ocean Away: Colette’s Dominion, the first chapter of the second book, Decision and Destiny: Colette’s Legacy is included. Decision and
Destiny was released in April. The third in the trilogy, Forever Waiting: Colette’s Appeal, is slated for release in November–which means it will be in the bookstore at holiday time.

And Lucia promised no copy changes would be made without consulting them. Following the first printing in 2008 of 30,000 copies of A Silent Ocean Away, the second book received a high rating for pre-orders. “When they read book two, there’s no doubt in my mind, they’ll be lining up for three. We already have pre-orders,” says Valerie.

They’ve already had requests for a sequel, because the first trilogy ends 20 years before the start of the Civil War. They’re already writing– although not in longhand–and expect the second trilogy to be completed by fall.

“HarperCollins has the right to look at the book first,” says Valerie. “And if they like it, they’ll be available to help with the editing, which is the hardest part,” says Debra. The first trilogy is gaining recognition among book clubs, but it could still take three or four years to build momentum. However, you can bet Valerie and Debra won’t simply be watching from the sidelines. They’ve hit the ground running, and they’re picking up speed.

Their mother accompanied them to a recent book signing at a Barnes & Noble in Newburgh. A reader shared with her that this was the best book she had ever read. Pearl turned to her daughters and said, “This is going to be really big; isn’t it?” And to think that 26 years ago, she thought her daughters were trying to dodge their chores.

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

Categories: Feature Stories

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