V. L. Valentine is the author of The Plague Letters, published by Viper Books on 1 April 2021.
She kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Plague Letters.
It puts you right smack in the middle of the last great plague epidemic to hit London – in 1665. The book asks you, what would you do if you were that situation? Would you do the right thing…. Or would you do something else, ahem ahem.
2. What inspired the book?
The diary of Samuel Pepys – who did not do the right thing that plague summer; and the letters of the rector of St Paul’s Covent Garden, Symon Patrick. His intentions were honourable, his reactions were very human.
We are not our best selves in a crisis, we are our real selves and that’s what I wanted to explore – in addition to what it was like to live at that point in time. Books for me have always been about living in another time and another place, in another person’s life.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
This is a painful question for me. I don’t want to plan, but I’ve learned the hard way that I, Vikki Valentine, have to. I did YEARS of research on the time period before writing. That was a ton of fun. Then once I started writing, the most natural thing was to let the words take me somewhere. Then came the responses from agents and editors on the manuscript. The responses were universal. “Valentine, you need to PLAN what you’re writing!” They were right of course.
4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?
The old advice about perseverance and discipline is true. That surprised me. That if you worked hard enough, you really could do it. In a way, it seemed too easy that hard work would pay off. I’m not afraid of hard work. I was more worried about the other side of it – could I be even a slightly talented enough writer?
When I started, what I heard most often was, “You won’t get published. Book industry is on hard times.” Encouragement was at about zero.
For some reason – I think mostly because it was fun – I kept on working at it. I wrote, in the beginning, 500 words a day, no matter how bad and incoherent they were. Five days a week. Sat down and forced myself no matter how I felt.
And then kept writing and rewriting and submitting it, and the universe finally blessed me with an agent and editor who loved one of the main characters, Penelope. So for me, personally, it was the hard work that got me at least to this point. And that I find to be a reassuring message.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
Sad to say, I’ve forgotten how to relax. I am not proud of this. I keep telling myself that if I work hard enough, someday I will get to relax. Even though I know this isn’t true. I have my day job as an editor at a 24/7 news organization, which means I never stop working. Then writing books, and then my beautiful son. I’m working on it. (See what I mean… “working” on relaxing. This is a problem.)
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It is the perfect book for me, I want to live in it. Or, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I want to live next to Eel Marsh house, but not in it. Or the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, by Alexander McCall Smith. If I were in my right mind, definitely a better choice for me to live in that series. Mma Precious Ramotswe has the right work-life balance.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Well, I am thrilled to be asked any questions. And I loved answering all of these questions. My question is can someone answer this for me: What can I do to make sure people buy my book, so that I can keep writing books, because that’s all I really want to do. (For my day job, that is.)
About the Book
London, 1665. Hidden within the growing pile of corpses in his churchyard, Rector Symon Patrick discovers a victim of the pestilence unlike any he has seen before: a young woman with a shorn head, covered in burns, and with pieces of twine delicately tied around each wrist and ankle.
Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins a society of eccentric medical men who have gathered to find a cure for the plague. Someone is performing terrible experiments upon the dying, hiding their bodies amongst the hundreds that fill the death carts.
Only Penelope – a new and mysterious addition to Symon’s household – may have the skill to find the killer. Far more than what she appears, she is already on the hunt. But the dark presence that enters the houses of the sick will not stop, and has no mercy…
About the Author
V.L. Valentine is a senior science editor at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., where she has led award-winning coverage of global disease outbreaks including Ebola and the Zika virus. She has a master’s in the history of medicine from University College London and her non-fiction work has been published by NPR, The New York Times, The Smithsonian Channel and Science Magazine. The Plague Letters is her first novel.