A Northwestern student sells her first novel before she can buy her first beer
Victoria Fine was kneeling on the floor, cutting cardboard for her work-study job, when her cell phone rang. The caller told the Northwestern University sophomore she should step outside.
Fine—who turned 20 last week—was reluctant, worried about what her boss would think if she left.
"Trust me," the caller said. Fine said okay and headed outdoors. It was a good thing, too, because when she heard his news, she screamed. On the phone was Andrew Whelchel, Fine's literary agent, telling her that her novel, Folklore, had been sold to Royal Fireworks Press.
After shrieking, Fine did what any college student—or first-time novelist, for that matter—would do: She called her mom, she called her dad, she called her friends. When she couldn't reach anyone, she walked back inside the Evanston Art Center and explained to her boss where she had been. As a celebratory gesture, her boss made Fine a cup of tea, an apropos understatement for the reserved college student.
"It's a very sweet story," she says of Folklore. The same could be said of her own life.
Fine began working on the young-adult novel Folklore when she was a mere 14 years old, after a family vacation to Ireland the summer before high school. The book takes place in 1949, an era as foreign to a 14-year-old as Ireland was to the Los Angeles native. The decision to set Folklore in the Emerald Isle's past came when a teenage Fine was thinking about her protagonist, Irene McMurphy, and decided she would be more comfortable working on a typewriter than a computer. The rest of the story—about efforts to unify Northern Ireland with its southern neighbor, and a girl torn between her family and her dreams—flowed from there.
"My parents still haven't read it," she says. "I think only three people have read it all the way through, and that's my agent, my best friend from high school and my publisher."
Though her father hasn't read the book, he was instrumental in getting it published. Fine finished the 200-page work two weeks before her 16th birthday, and her dad drove her to Barnes & Noble stores to find copies of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published and Writer's Market. She followed the standard advice to wanna-be writers, drafting cover letters and summaries of her book, sending them first to prospective publishers and then to agents.
She says it took "a long time" before the skinny envelopes she likens to college rejection letters were replaced by a congratulatory e-mail from Whelchel. A "long time" from a 16-year-old's perspective? Six months.
"I got my driver's license that same month," she says. "That was a good month."
It looks like Fine should have a few more good months leading up to the fall of 2006, when Folklore will be released, nearly six years after she began it.
"I will always love it," she says, thinking back on the book she penned while still a teenager. "I am in love with the male character. I may never find a boyfriend because I'll always have a crush on him."
Buzz-savvy publishers who originally passed on the book have now expressed interest in its foreign rights, as well as Fine's second novel-in-progress, a coming-of-age story (although she loathes that term) that explores questions about how knowing the future may have an impact on your decisions. Whelchel is also shopping another proposal of Fine's for a nonfiction travel book.
"I'm lucky," she says. "There are full-grown adults who shop their books around for years."
Many "full-grown adults" who have an unpublished novel in their top desk drawer may feel a little ill will toward a woman who needs to schedule media interviews around her spring break and French class. But Fine's genuine modesty and disarming smile make her difficult to resent. Then there's her admirable work ethic: While working on her extracurricular writing, she is a double major at Northwestern in journalism and international studies, holding down two work-study jobs and contemplating all that goes through the mind of a typical college student.
Right now, she is looking forward to a semester abroad in Paris, and leaning toward a career as a foreign correspondent to accumulate life experiences to feed her fiction.
"I do not want to write about college for the rest of my life," she says. Since her career path is already paved, it seems Fine will likely have plenty to write, and scream, about.