Thousands of Canadian-authored kids and YA books

Penguin author Peggy Blair on rejection, persistence, and how Ian Rankin changed her life.

The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair (Penguin).

Peggy Blair was a lawyer for more than thirty years. A recognized expert in Aboriginal law, she also worked as a criminal defence lawyer and Crown prosecutor. Blair spent a Christmas in Old Havana, where she watched the bored young policemen on street corners along the Malecón, visited Hemingway’s favourite bars, and learned to make a perfect mojito. A former member of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, Peggy is named in Canadian Who's Who. She currently lives in Ottawa where she works in real estate. Visit her online at

About The Beggar's Opera: In beautiful, crumbling Old Havana, Canadian detective Mike Ellis hopes the sun and sand will help save his troubled marriage. He doesn’t yet know that it’s dead in the water—much like the little Cuban boy last seen begging the Canadian couple for a few pesos on the world famous Malecon. For Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police, finding his prime suspect isn’t a problem—Cuban law is. He has only seventy-two hours to secure an indictment and prevent a vicious killer from leaving the island. But Ramirez has his own troubles to worry about. He’s dying of the same dementia that killed his grandmother, an incurable disease that makes him see the ghosts of victims of unsolved murders. As he races against time, the dead haunt his every step.

Read the first chapter of The Beggar's Opera. (PDF download.)


Julie Wilson: Prior to your book deal with Penguin, you were already blogging extensively about the publication process. I wonder, now that your book is out and you've amassed first hand experience, what would you say are the three things you've learned about how the industry works.

Peggy Blair: I was probably most surprised at how extensive the revisions process is. When I finally found an agent who "loved" The Beggar's Opera, I had this naive idea that this meant he loved my book the way it was. I felt like I'd been speed-dating for a year and had finally met Mr. Right. "I love you," he said. "I want you to meet my parents. They'll love you too. But first, you need to change your clothes, get your hair cut, and stop talking about your hobbies or you'll bore them." 

When the first round of revisions he requested were complete, there were more revisions before he felt it was good enough to send out on submission. Even his assistant suggested changes.

The commissioning editor for Penguin Canada loved the book. I again thought that meant the revisions process was over. I was quite surprised to receive a list of several hundred editorial comments and a request that I remove and rearrange chapters. Once the book was accepted, I was again surprised when the copy editor proposed further structural changes.

The second revelation was discovering how little money there is to be made as an author. Readers think that the author gets the lion's share of proceeds, and that's completely wrong. I may make a $1-$2 a book; that's it. A Canadian debut novel does well to sell 5,000 copies. That's obviously not enough to live on.

Finally, I was stunned to find out that you have to sell around 1,000 books a week to hit the Globe and Mail bestseller list. That's a lot of books. For a debut author, it's like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and looking at the summit. Fingers crossed.

JW: Is there a work ethic that comes from being a lawyer that crosses over into your writing practice? If so, what kind of impact do you think that ultimately had on you not only finishing your first manuscript but getting further down the road than most in terms of it getting published? (It's understood that there's no secret formula.) 

PB: Well, I've probably never worked as hard as I have since becoming an author, so I’m not sure that my legal career prepared me for writing. If anything, it probably made it more difficult, because I'd spent years writing technical legal briefs, opinions, reports, policy papers and so on: the kind of writing that sucks the life out of fiction.  

The vast majority of aspiring authors never finish the manuscript they start. It takes persistence to actually write a book. It takes an extremely thick skin to stay with it through the querying (rejection) process.  

I wasn’t particularly well-suited as a lawyer to dealing with constant rejection, but it goes with the territory. It's not unheard of these days for an aspiring author to be rejected several hundred times. Most give up. The ones who stay with it have about the same chances statistically of being drafted for the NBA. But if they stop, they have no chance at all.

After the first 100 rejections, they don't sting quite as much.  

JW: How did you find/land an agent? 

PB: Ironically, it wasn’t a query that landed me an agent, but being shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award in the UK and then meeting Ian Rankin in a bar and having him suggest I use his name to contact his publisher. The querying process is really the definition of insanity: you keep doing the same thing over and over with the hope of achieving a different outcome. If I was doing it again, I’d forget about querying and spend a lot more time networking.  

Peggy Blair, author of The Beggar's Opera (Penguin).

JW: Is it strange to hear yourself described as a debut author? You're writing a series. It must feel as if you're well along the path. And do you have any professional mentors?

PB: I still find it hard to think of myself as an "author" at all.  It’s funny; I decided to go into real estate at the same time that I started writing The Beggar’s Opera. I now self-identify as a realtor first, writer second. But I've only been published for seven weeks. Perhaps as time passes, I'll feel more like an author. My agents (I have one in the UK and one in Canada) sometimes take on that role; they certainly act as shock absorbers when I feel the need to rant.

I suppose Ian Rankin was a "mentor" in the sense you mean. It was a five minute conversation in a bar that I’m sure he’s completely forgotten, but was life-changing for me. Can you have a mentor who doesn’t know who you are? 

JW: We must; just think how often writers are asked which other writers inspire them. 

On that, you must get asked a lot of questions from writers who want to be published. In your experience, what would you say are among the greatest disconnects in perception? I mean to ask, what misconceptions do unpublished authors have about the professional publishing process? 

PB: I think the greatest disconnect is in them thinking that their manuscript is ready for publication when it still needs more work. Writing is a craft like any other. There are technical aspects of it that an aspiring author needs to master, such as identifying redundancies, pleonasms, dialogue tags. If a writer doesn't know what those are (and I certainly didn't when I started out), they're not ready to submit a manuscript to an agent. Agents are deluged with submissions. They don't have time to work with an author to teach them the basics of writing.  

(By the way, I'll be releasing an ebook in a month or two on the craft of writing and how to get published that discusses this kind of stuff.) 

Another disconnect is the tendency to think it will be easier to get an agent than it is. Even good books don't get picked up these days. A book has to really stand out to catch anyone's attention. It has to have characters that are larger-than-life. Too many authors are proud of how real their characters are without realizing that "real" doesn’t sell. People read books to escape real life. The challenge is to find ways to make characters unique but still authentic and to put them in situations that are believable even as they push the boundaries of what's plausible.   

JW: Where do you as an author thrive? Is it in the writing itself or the afterglow of knowing your book has been read?

PB: Of course, that question assumes I'm thriving. 

I take great pleasure from having readers talk to me about what they felt or thought or experienced while reading my book. Some of its layers are intended, some intuitive, some accidental. Having readers break those down in terms of how they experienced them is always interesting. What I've discovered is that the book they read isn't necessarily the one I wrote.  

JW: Publishing a book can be a vulnerable experience. No one can prepare you for the level of attention and assessment that is asked of the touring author. With each event, you put a little more of yourself out there, to leave it behind. What's your own experience been like in your first season of publication?  

PB: I have to stay close to Ottawa because of my work and other commitments, so the number of events I do is limited. But it's my real estate practice that keeps me grounded. Real estate is extremely social; writing is isolating. I work with Royal LePage in a great office that is extremely supportive of my writing. And when I'm involved with buying, selling or renovating a property, my focus is entirely on that, so I am not always involved with the book business. I think writers need an alter ego. We can all too easily spend all our time with our imaginary friends and forget about our need for real ones.  

JW: On to the inevitable "How do you use Social Media?" question. How are you using Twitter? And what's the biggest fish you've landed as the result of being "locatable" online?

PB: I've been on Twitter for about six months. My blog, Getting Published, has been around much longer than that—probably a year-and-a-half or more. I started it after I was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger so that I could share my journey to publication with others. And I've been on Facebook for years. 

On Twitter, I would have to say it was meeting Robyn Bresnahan, the host of CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. She had just moved to Ottawa from the UK and was looking for a place to rent. As a realtor, I tend to notice those kinds of tweets when they appear in my feed the same way that rabbit ears are tuned to pick up television signals. 

I offered to show her and her husband around Ottawa to look at rental properties and as often happens with clients, we ended up becoming friends.  

Robyn read my book and really liked it. She interviewed me for her show, and played the tape the morning of my Ottawa book launch. Not only did she attend (it was an amazing party at a local art gallery: live Cuban music, Cuban food, Cuban art), but she stopped at the duty-free shop on her way back from the UK that week and picked up a bottle of rum to bring with her. That friendship would never have happened without Twitter.  

I also remember when Shelagh Rogers from CBC's The Next Chapter first joined Twitter. I did a shout-out to welcome her, and got a response saying she hoped I’d be on her show sometime. After I picked myself up off the floor, I contacted my publicist at Penguin. We’ll be taping an interview this Thursday, which is very exciting. Obviously that was a major and quite wonderful development, again, thanks to Twitter. 

Of course, if it hadn't been for social media, there is no way I could have garnered the votes to win the CBC Bookie Award for Best Mystery/Thriller this year—that was all about mobilizing readers to try to stave off Louise Penny’s enormous fan base. I tweeted, emailed, blogged, posted—and it worked!

And then there was this Toronto writer who collects information about books being read in Toronto. She tweeted about The Beggar’s Opera being seen read by a woman in a sushi restaurant and one thing lead to another.

JW: Hey, I resemble that statement.

Peggy Blair and Seen Reading (aka Julie Wilson) got to know each other on Twitter, which resulted in this interview.

April 11, 2012
comments powered by Disqus