Sandra Gulland’s daring experiment

Sandra Gulland’s daring experiment
A request for reader feedback gave the Ontario writer more than she bargained for
By Carol Toller for Quill & Quire, March 1998

After listening to a Calgary book club clinically dissect her latest novel-too many characters, they said, not enough emotional depth, and the first 50 pages were so slow-moving some readers wanted to abandon the book-Sandra Gulland went to bed feeling sick and slept for 12 hours. Then she got up the next morning and started rewriting it.

The laborious rewrite wasn’t easy. “I was really hit hard by some of the things they said,” says Gulland. But it may have ensured the books success, because the groups of readers that tore apart Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe offered their feedback six months before the novel’s publication. The Calgary club was one of two groups (the second was in Toronto) that received a preliminary copy of Gulland’s manuscript last fall with a request that they critique it and record their comments for the author, who promised to consider their feedback while doing her next revision. They did, and she did, and the book that HarperCollins plans to ship to booksellers in April is significantly different as a result.

The advance-reader idea was Gulland’s and it’s a strong indicator of her view of the creative process. “I’ve always been really big on getting reader feedback,” she says from her home in Killaloe, Ontario, about 100 kilometers west of Ottawa. “I go out of my way to get it. I’d rather get it now rather than in reviews.”

While working as a freelance editor in the early stages of her career-she edited young adult books for more than a decade-Gulland set up what she called “JET groups”: junior editorial teams made up of young adult volunteers who met over pop and popcorn to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about works still in the manuscript stage. “I found it a wonderful and educational way to find out what readers thought, and their responses invariably surprised me. It was because of the value I found in my years of JET group talks that I made the suggestion to [publisher Iris Tupholme].” Tupholme’s response? “She thought I was brave.”

Some of the readers who received the manuscript were already familiar with Gulland, having read her previous novel, 1995’s The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., also published by HarperCollins. Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, the second book in her trilogy about the life of Josephine Bonaparte, features many similarities: like Josephine B., it’s set primarily in late 18th-century France and filled with dozens of characters, real and imaginary. After listening to the book club readers complain that the novel was overrun with peripheral characters, however, Gulland made the painful decision to pare down, and sacrificed about half a dozen characters, including Josephine’s irreverently sharp tongued Aunt Fanny, one of the author’s personal favorites. She also added a list of characters to help readers keep track. Historical footnotes-unpopular with a number of readers-were removed where possible to make the text less cluttered, and Josephine’s diary entries were changed to make them appear more immediate and more realistic. (Headings that read “Later that afternoon,” for example, sounded artificial to many readers.)

Even the cover copy changed as a result of the groups’ feedback, after one reader commented that if the book is to be a standalone novel, the jacket shouldn’t announce “Book II of the Trilogy.” The words were removed. Perhaps most significantly, Gulland fleshed out her central character at the request of the readers, who wanted more depth of emotion from Josephine, particularly in her interaction with Napoleon. To respond to their requests, she added a number of scenes designed to explore and reveal Josephine’s feelings. “They waned more and I gave them a lot more,” she says. And as for the first 50 pages, Gulland has cut characters and scenes, and tried to simplify the story as much as possible. She hasn’t, however, added a foreword-one of the few reader suggestions she has chosen not to follow (though only after making several unsuccessful attempts).

Some might consider Gulland’s projects a cynical marketing exercise or an attempt to pander to readers, but Gulland says the result of all this is a stronger novel. “Whatever changes I made, I made because they felt right. In the end, the reader really is the ultimate [reason for writing],” she says. “It’s in them that your book exists.”

© Quill & Quire