Inspiration comes from the sea

Rising island author Suzanne Selfors catches a gift from the sea. Catch her this Sunday at Eagle Harbor Book Co.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Rising island author Suzanne Selfors catches a gift from the sea. Catch her this Sunday at Eagle Harbor Book Co.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Suzanne Selfors hooks a mermaid, then a book deal.

On a family trip to Vancouver, B.C. Suzanne Selfors took an early morning walk to Stanley Park at low tide and saw kids collecting treasures in the tide pools.

Thinking about the universal joy children experience when they pocket a gift from the sea sparked an idea that became Selfors’ first published novel, “To Catch a Mermaid.” And the ideas came as easily as water.

“There was no struggle writing the story,” she said. “It just flowed.”

Selfors crafted her first draft of the middle reader over just five months; a scant week after sending the draft to her agent, she had five offers on the table.

Her writing was aided by her elementary school-age kids, who became an informal bedtime story focus group. As the tale of Boom Broom – a boy who finds adventure and learns life lessons after discovering a wish-granting baby mermaid on the beach – unfolded, her kids grew rapt.

“I knew I’d hit it when they’d lean forward in bed and say, ‘what happens next?’” she said.

But writing, much less getting published, hadn’t always proved an effortless endeavor for Selfors.

Starting in 2002, bolstered by classes and contacts she made through the Field’s End writers’ workshop, Selfors crafted an adult historical novel set in ancient Greece. A whirlwind year later, “The Bee Keeper’s Garden” was complete, and she’d secured an agent.

“So I thought, wow, this is easy. This is great. I’ve got it made,” she said. “And it didn’t sell.”

Fourteen rejections later – “oh, those rejection letters were painful” – Selfors briefly considered ditching her chosen path. The publishers’ refrain of “Great writing, but just not my time period,” was nearly too much to bear.

But she persevered, securing a new agent, honing her craft and penning a second historical novel. When it didn’t sell either, Selfors chose a different fork in the road.

As she continued reading to her kids each night and came to know the world of middle readers inside and out, her connection to juvenile fiction grew. And in many ways, it follows that for a fifth-generation islander, the world of kids and beaches would provide some of the author’s most fertile material while enabling her to find her voice.

“I felt like I really knew that world,” she said. “I was living in it.”

Once the completed and edited manuscript was in the hands of Little Brown’s sales department. Selfors had to take a leap of faith as the publisher narrowed the target audience, came up with a new title and chose an illustrator to create the chapter and cover art. If the writing came easily, the marketing did not.

“I was nervous because you don’t know what their vision is for your book,” she said. “But when they emailed me the cover, I loved made me laugh.”

Selfors warmed to the promotion game enough to generate some of her own local plugs, too. For starters, she held a kids’ writing contest earlier this summer asking budding authors to answer the question, “What would you do if you found a baby mermaid?”

The roughly 50 entries were heartwarming. One girl typed her essay on a manual typewriter; others hand-decorated their submissions with jewels and sequins.

The winners, judged by members of Selfors’ writing group, will be announced at the book’s launch party this Sunday afternoon at Eagle Harbor Book Co. Selfors has also put together a reading including herself, her daughter and another sixth grader, and Ovation! Musical Theatre’s Ron Milton as the voice of the sea captain.

Positive reviews have begun trickling in for “To Catch a Mermaid,” and the writer will publish another middle reader for Little Brown next fall as well as a young adult fantasy, “Saving Juliet,” this February for Bloomsbury Publishing.

Even with five novels and three publishing deals, Selfors says she still sometimes has trouble comfortably assuming the mantle of her chosen career.

“It still feels weird to call myself a writer,” she said. “Because you are in your head forever, but you don’t admit it to anyone.”

Yet people and the industry are talking to Selfors as if she is. “To Catch a Mermaid” has been chosen as a Premier Fall Selection by the Junior Library Guild.

And Selfors says she gets a lot of questions now about the realities of the publishing world, some based in the misconceived notion that all writers are getting wealthy off huge advances.

Her reason for writing is more visceral, and it’s what keeps her at it despite myriad responsibilities as a wife and mother with swimming lessons, housework and the pressure of 50 pages due to the publisher in the next day.

“If you’re setting out to write because it’s a compulsion and your head is going to explode, then that’s a good reason to write... because then you don’t give up.”


Fish tales

Suzanne Selfors and crew will read from “To Catch a Mermaid” and announce contest winners at a party at 3 p.m. Sept. 9 at Eagle Harbor Books. Call 842-5332 or see

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