My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of The Plum Tree, which will be released next week from Kensington House. Based in part on her family history, Wiseman's debut novel, set in Hitler's Germany, follows a young German woman named Christine who falls in love with Isaac, the cultured son of the wealthy Jewish family she works for. Over the course of the book, Christine confronts the Gestapo's wrath and the horrors of Dachau, desperate to be with the man she loves. Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us, had this to say about Wiseman's book: "The meticulous hand-crafted detail and emotional intensity of The Plum Tree immersed me in Germany during its darkest hours and the ordeals its citizens had to face. A must-read for World War Two fiction aficionados--and any reader who loves a transporting story." At her website, Wiseman writes: "I live peacefully on the shores of Lake Ontario with my husband, two spoiled Shih-Tzus, and a rescued yellow lab. I love to read, cook, garden, go to the Drive-ins, travel, and spend time with my grandchildren."
My First Book Cover
The first time I saw the cover of my debut novel, The Plum Tree, I was up to my elbows in dirt and sweat, planting tomatoes in the recently built garden beds outside our new home. I was in my glory because for the past two years I hadn’t been able to plant so much as a row of lettuce. To me, a house is not a home without a vegetable garden, and the previous summer was the first time in thirty years I’d been without one. At the time, we were selling our house, so there was no point in tilling and sowing and weeding if we wouldn’t be there to reap the harvest. The growing season in northern New York is short and the winters are long. It had been hard waiting for perfect planting weather to return.
But before you start wondering what planting vegetables has to do with seeing my cover, let me explain...
The three years before that day in the garden had been extremely difficult. Due to some very unpleasant circumstances beyond our control, we lost everything: the business my husband had poured himself into for thirty years, our jobs, our financial security, even members of our family. Our world had fallen apart and our dreams had ended. Then, to add insult to injury, we realized we needed to sell our home of twenty years.
But luckily, the house sold quickly and we found a place on Lake Ontario that we could afford. The strange thing is, living on the water had always been our dream. To think our dream came true as a result of everything we’d been through seemed like a miracle. Then, three months after we sold our house, my literary agent sold my debut novel, The Plum Tree to Kensington Publishing Corp. in a two-book deal. For the first time in a long time, things were turning around.
So because of everything we’d been through, I wasn’t just planting tomatoes that day--I was starting over. At long last, I could begin to put the past behind me, to settle into my new life--one that included a new house, a new future, new grandbabies, and a new career. I needed and wanted to take a break from my obligations, to relax and enjoy the view from our front lawn, to do something “normal” for a change. I wanted to concentrate on digging holes in the warm, dark earth. I wanted my most important decisions to be where to plant the sunflowers and cabbage.
On that day, the weather was hot and humid, the lake spread out before us like a smooth, blue plate. We had our hoes and tomato cages, our butternut squash and tomato plants, our bean and lettuce and cucumber seeds. The dogs were lounging beneath the apple tree, the seagulls calling above the water. Everything felt so right, so “silver-lining-in-a dark-cloud” perfect, that tears filled my eyes. Finally, finally, we were going to be able to move forward, to work at getting our lives back on track.
I sighed and cleaned the dirt from my hands while my husband walked to the end of the driveway. He picked up the package and brought it to me. As I suspected, it was from my editor at Kensington, just the right size for a stack of edited pages. But whatever was in the package felt too small. I squeezed the envelope over and over, trying to imagine what could be inside. Finally, I tore open the wrapper and pulled out one corner of a thick stack of stiff papers, confused about what I was seeing. I saw my last name in green letters over what looked like a pea-colored background, the steeple of a medieval church, and the words, “a novel” in cursive font. I stared, truly perplexed, thinking it was a pile of pamphlets or brochures I’d received by mistake. Then my husband said, “It’s your cover.”
And he was right.
The mysterious package contained the final artwork that would represent everything I’d worked for, the cover of the novel I’d spent six years researching and writing and trying to sell. The face of my soon-to-be book baby.
But instead of jumping up and down with excitement, my heart dropped. From day one, I’d pictured a purple or violet or lavender cover, the background or buildings or trees incorporating the color of plums! I had designed everything to match, from my business cards to my postcards to my website! What was this yellow “thing” I held in my hands?? Who had come up with it, and why? I felt like a pregnant mother who, after expecting a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl, delivered a boy with neon-green hair. Luckily, there was a lawn chair nearby. I sat down and pulled the rest of the cover flats out of the envelope, trying to comprehend why my publisher thought this was the best representation for my work. Maybe they had confused The Plum Tree with someone else’s novel.
Then, in what felt like slow motion, I saw that the pea soup color was really a warm, rich yellow, similar to antique gold or Indian saffron. I saw the European-style buildings that reminded me of my mother’s hometown in Germany. I saw window boxes full of red flowers. I saw a blonde girl walking down the narrow street. I saw the white, raised letters of the title. I saw my name.
Then my husband took one of the covers from my hands and nudged me with his elbow, saying in an excited voice, “Look! You’re inside!” I had been staring at the front of the cover for so long I didn’t realize it opened to reveal French flaps, a synopsis, and my author photo. On the back were blurbs I’d never read, published author reviews of my debut novel that used words like, “Haunting... beautiful...a must read.”
This was the cover of The Plum Tree.
I smiled and put my fingers over my trembling lips, laughing as tears spilled down my cheeks. My husband looked at me, his face beaming with pride. Like that warm, sunny day and the tomato plants in my new garden, the cover of my novel represented a new beginning, one I never could have imagined. My cover was beautiful. It was perfect. And best of all, it was mine.