30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #15 Andrea Levy

Now that my novel Her Own Vietnam is out in the world, I’m going back to writing about 30 Women Novelists You Should Know. We’ve reached the halfway mark with Britain’s Andrea Levy.

How many ways can you say “wow!”?

Andrea Levy has won so many literary prizes in England, it’s as if they ran out of superlatives to use when describing her work. Her 2004 book Small Island won not only the Whitbread Novel award, but the Whitbread Book of the Year award. Not only did it receive the Orange Prize for Fiction, it also won the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ award.

Four voices, four futures

As far as I’m concerned, the novel deserves all of these accolades and more. It’s a beautiful and powerful story of two couples in England in the years after World War II.

Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants who had been taught to consider England their mother country, and are shocked by the hostile welcome they receive. Queenie is a white working class woman who married Bernard to escape her destiny working on the family pig farm, and then found London and her husband to be not at all what she expected. The novel is told from the point of view of all four characters, as the major issues of their (and our) time – war, immigration, race, the personal courage to do the right thing – shape their lives and their world in unimaginable ways.

 A faithful TV adaptation

The BBC adapted Small Island into a two-part television miniseries. It was one of the most faithful novel-to-TV adaptations I’ve seen. Watching it felt like revisiting the book. I think the care the producers took in adapting the book is reflected in the similarity between the original cover for the novel (L) and the cover image for the video (R).

Small Island book cover

Small Island book cover





BBC Video Cover Image

BBC video cover image









More books to come

Andrea Levy started to write when she was in her thirties. Today, in her fifties, she has written four other novels in addition to Small Island, as well as two collections of short stories, many of which also won important literary prizes. I’m excited to think about all the Andrea Levy books still to be read.

Andrea Levy new

News from Book World

Photo: Mr. T in DC

My idea of heaven.                 Photo: Mr. T in DC

So much has been happening in the process of turning Her Own Vietnam into a real live book! Let me catch you up.

An ARC is born

Tomorrow my book will go to the printer, who will produce Advance Reader Copies or ARCS  – the semi-final version of the book. It looks almost exactly like the finished book – it has cover art, a brief description of the novel and even a couple of blurbs – and the text is laid out as it will be in the final version.

But an ARC is not a final version; it’s an uncorrected proof. It still needs tiny tweaks and corrections. So if a brainstorm hits me with a brilliant new way to end the novel, can I still revise it? Nope. The book is essentially done. Within a few days my publisher will send out the ARC to reviewers who may appreciate the book, or savage it, or – and this is the most likely scenario – ignore it.

Blurbs to the rescue

In a previous post I described the nerve-wracking process of asking well-known writers for blurbs. Well, the writer who had been so kind to me in the past was generous once again, and provided a wonderful blurb. To do so required her to lug my printed manuscript on a family vacation. I am more than grateful, and really hope the karma of her kindness will come back to her in the end.

Another author spills her writing secrets

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my writing process. Now you can get a glimpse into the writing process of another writer, Kristin Ohlson. Her third book, The Soil Will Save Us, is sparking national conversations about a cheap, innovative and practical way to combat climate change – and it’s been under our feet the whole time. Take a look here.

MY BEAUTIFUL NEW BOOK COVER!!!! and other news

HOV CoverAllow me to introduce you to the cover of my new novel. I love it!

The cover seems to evoke the feeling of the novel. To me, this is nothing short of miraculous. An artist read my stack of words and turned them into a simple, somber, striking image.

Many publishers don’t let authors have any say over the design of their book covers. I suspect this is why so many novels by women end up with covers that all but scream, “Don’t take me seriously!”

I hated the cover of my first novel, and when I told my otherwise very kind and generous publisher, she replied, “Thank you for your input.” The cover stayed.

If you can’t take the heat

This time around, I got to collaborate with the publisher and the designer to figure out what we wanted the cover to communicate. And by collaborate, I mean something akin to me telling an expert chef, “I’d like you to make a dish that has some peas and maybe a little salt” – and then feeling very accomplished when she produces a risotto.

It’s not exactly accurate to say that I had nothing to do with the cover. I bought the dog tags, and my partner Janet took the photo. And the textured surface you see in the background? That’s our kitchen floor.

But handing a chef some peas and a pot does not a risotto make. So hats off to the designer, and let’s move on from the kitchen metaphors.

Pre-pub challenges

My publisher has asked me to write “a short description that really gets at the heart of your book.” The trick is, I have to write it in various lengths: one sentence, 50 words, 100 words, 250 words, etc. This is very difficult to do. If you don’t believe me, try to describe one of your children in 50 words.

Rosalie will take my descriptions and rework them into compelling language to interest booksellers and librarians. She has also asked me to come up with a series of key words about my novel to use in search engines and library or distributor catalogs.

Some catalogs provide a drop-down menu with oddly limited choices. You can categorize your book as a war novel, for example, but not an anti-war novel. I fear readers who are in the mood for a big, macho war novel will be dismayed by Her Own Vietnam.

Break it to me gently

In other news, one of the writers we asked to write a blurb for my book has said no. But it was a very cordial no. She let us down easy.

Meanwhile, two more blurb requests are pending. Who wouldn’t want to blurb a book with such a gorgeous cover?


Behind the Scenes in Book World

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

An update

It’s been three weeks since I sent the final draft of my novel, Her Own Vietnam, to my publisher for editing. While I wait to hear from her, there’s a lot for me to do.

Here are some of the things that are on my mind during this hidden gestation period as my manuscript evolves into a book.


It’s not up to me to figure out cover images or page layout. A professional designer will do that, and my publisher will have the final word. But I am fortunate that Rosalie – unlike many publishers – actively engages her authors in design decisions and creative thinking about what the book should look like. So while I’m not worried about specific fonts or photos, I am thinking about the feeling I want the book cover to project – and hoping the designer can find a way to express that feeling visually.


Some readers study blurbs, some scorn them, but you’ve gotta have them. Two writers are currently considering blurb requests for my novel, and I’m working up the nerve to ask another well-known writer for a blurb. (Generally the publisher requests the blurbs, but in some cases the author might ask.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a delicate matter to ask someone to blurb your book. And like most people, I am uncomfortable asking for favors. The writer I’m about to approach has already been very generous to me. Is it over the top to ask her for yet more assistance? We’ll soon see.


I suspect a novel like mine is going to find most of its readers through word of mouth. But the very first readers, particularly those who might stock the novel on their bookstore or library shelves, will most likely learn about it from reviews.

It is the publisher, not the author, who sends books out for review and Rosalie has already developed a list of review outlets for my novel. But I want to add to her list by learning about all the places I think my potential readers might hear about the book.

Who are my potential readers? Women (and men) who are interested in women’s stories. Who think about the human impact of social issues. Who fought in wars or marched against them, or both. Who are willing, for the length of a novel, to try on someone else’s life.

What about you?

I have three friends whose book recommendations are always on target. I have a couple of others whose stamp of approval for a book might as well be a skull and crossbones. 

What about you? How do you hear about books to read? Is it through a particular website or magazine? A local bookstore? A trusted friend? 

Do you have any advice for me about how to reach, well, people like you? Leave a comment and start the conversation: How will find your next book?