How the Canterbury sisters were born – Kim Wright
By Kim Wright
Writers love to tell the stories of how their books originate. I think it’s because – no matter how many times we may have been through it – the process of story is always a little mysterious, even to the person who is allegedly in control of the process. But I doubt that no matter how many books I ultimately publish, any of them will ever top the story of how The Canterbury Sisters came to be.♥
It started, like so many publishing stories, in New York. My goal in life is to one day be able to go to New York like a normal person – to have fun shopping, eating out, going to the theater and museums – because for writers, trips to New York are fraught with terror. We get so little feedback most of the time about our careers, our futures, and that vague and forbidding “how things are really going,” but when we visit New York, it’s a sudden deluge of information. Enough to put you into shock. And to top it all off, on this particular trip I was meeting my new agent and publisher for the first time.
When I sat down with my agent at breakfast, she said “Some time during lunch, they’ll ask you if you have any ideas for new books. Do you?” I did, but nothing I was ready to talk about yet. I tend to be a little cautious about discussing ideas until they’re fully developed. She said that wasn’t a problem. When we all got together at lunch, I should just toss the question back to them – What sort of thing did they see me writing in the future? What was selling now? The important thing was to keep the conversation going.
And so at lunch, the four of us – my editor, publisher, agent and me – went to a large and intimidating restaurant. Because I had once written a column about wine, I was entrusted with the large and intimidating wine list, which offered a staggering array of possibilities – and, it seemed just as many chances to screw it all up and come off like a country rube. We chatted. Every shred of conversational banter felt like code for Something Important. You must understand. I’m paranoid under the best of circumstances, and the world of Big Five publishing sends me into overdrive. At one point, right on schedule, my editor leaned over the table and said “So do you have any ideas for new books?”
Here’s where it gets weird. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before or since. But I heard myself saying “Actually, I’d like to write a modern-day Canterbury Tales, with a group of women on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury Cathedral, swapping stories about love as they walk.”
I swear I had never entertained such a thought before in my life. The idea just popped my head, fully formed. My agent was staring at me as if to say “You might have given this a mention over breakfast,” and I found myself going on, adding details as I went. My protagonist was a cynic, a wine critic, skeptical about religion, a bit of a loner, and to top it all off, her longtime lover had just dumped her. But she had promised her dying mother that she would scatter her ashes at Canterbury and was thus reluctantly thrust into this trip, along with eight women she’d never met. The words kept rolling out. I told them I was planning to walk the Canterbury Trail myself as part of my research.
It was a persuasive little speech. So persuasive I even believed it myself. You would have thought I’d been thinking about Canterbury every day of my life for years.
When I finally wound up, my editor said “I’d buy that.”
So I found myself five minutes later, locked in the toilet stall of the ladies room with my phone in hand frantically Googling the question: CAN YOU WALK THE CANTERBURY TRAIL? I was praying the answer was yes, because I’d announced my intention to do just that, and my editor and agent were at that very moment discussing the contract details.
Luckily, of course, you can. The trail is broken in places, but large stretches are still accessible. The trailheads are hard to find, sometimes separated by privately owned land and highways, so every site I researched urged me to find a guide…
And from there the luck kept rolling. I found a wonderful guide, Jane Martin, who owns Tours of the Realm. She helped me put together the perfect itinerary, culminating in a private tour of the cathedral and even a pilgrim’s blessing. The whole experience, in fact, was blessed. The details fell together as if preordained. It was the sort of trip where the minute you step on the platform, the very train you were looking for appears, and the man seated beside you in the bar turns out to be an archivist at the British Museum.
Writers often compare their books to children and the process of writing them to pregnancy. If this is true, The Canterbury Sisters is the closest I’ve come to a painless birth. Easy to research, easy to write, and it required virtually no editing. I even love the cover and, trust me, writers NEVER love their covers. Now I’m at work on my next novel, a pilgrimage of a different kind titled Last Ride to Graceland. But The Canterbury Sisters will always a special place in my heart, because the book seemed touched by magic from the start. I’ve earned my other books, but this one was a gift.
Kim Wright is the author of Love in Mid Air and The Unexpected Waltz and has been writing about travel, food, and wine for more than twenty years for many magazines, including Wine Spectator, Self, Travel & Leisure, and Vogue. She has twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. The Canterbury Sisters is her third novel, and she also ballroom dances competitively. Kim lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.