Alumna’s acclaimed debut novel began as an idea in a VCU writing workshop
Rachel Beanland finds it surreal that the book she began working on in a novel writing workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University is now in publication.
Her book, “Florence Adler Swims Forever,” was released by Simon & Schuster on July 7 and is a Barnes & Noble Book Club pick for July. It’s also now been named Amazon’s Featured Debut this month. The novel follows three generations of a family in Atlantic City as they deal with heartbreak, romance and the weight of their own secrets.
“For so long, the book was a Word document on my computer and it changed daily. It still blows my mind that it's this permanent object and that people I don't know are having their own personal experiences reading it,” said Beanland, who has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the College of Humanities and Sciences.
A novel idea
Beanland had the basic premise for her book when she enrolled in the novel writing workshop in the summer of 2016.
“I had been thinking about the structure of the novel in my head,” she said. “When I started the workshop, I had to submit a two-page summary of the novel with a list of characters.”
Beanland, who was working full time at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond and juggling responsibilities at home, received special permission to take the workshop before enrolling in the M.F.A. program. “I was interested in taking a class as a part-time nontraditional student,” said Beanland, a mother of three.
English professor Tom De Haven taught the yearlong workshop.
“I was so nervous going to the first day of class, but Tom made it warm and welcoming,” Beanland said. “The workshop is single-handedly the reason I have a novel now.”
It wasn’t unusual for Beanland to begin writing at 4:30 a.m. while her family slept. Her motivation to write was fueled by the requirement for students to submit pages of their novel every three weeks. De Haven and students in the workshop reviewed the pages and provided feedback.
Beanland found the feedback beneficial, especially a suggestion to ditch a long prologue and instead scatter the information throughout the story.
“That was excellent advice. It was an example of how you could get feedback in the class,” she said. “That allowed me to adjust. It was a great way to write a first novel.”
By the end of the workshop, Beanland had written 150 pages of her novel. She finished the manuscript during her three-year M.F.A. program, which she started in 2017.
“I stayed part time until this past year after I sold the novel,” she said. “My goal was to get the degree by the time the book came out.”
Finding an agent
De Haven introduced Beanland to her literary agent, Chad Luibl of Janklow & Nesbit Associates in New York City. Luibl is a fellow graduate of VCU’s M.F.A. program in creative writing.
“Tom told me about the novel. I had stayed in touch with the M.F.A. program and it was through the program I learned about her novel,” Luibl said. “I asked to read it and was grateful when Rachel decided to work with me.”
At first, Beanland wouldn’t let Luibl see her book. She wanted to make sure it was polished before he read it.
“A lot of writers will finish a draft and send it to an agent. What is always a smarter move is what Rachel did. She had a community of writers provide feedback, and she revised the book before sending it to me,” Luibl said.
"I was so nervous going to the first day of class, but Tom made it warm and welcoming. The workshop is single-handedly the reason I have a novel now."
The book is based on an actual story in Beanland’s family. Set in the summer of 1934, the story follows a Jewish family after one of the daughters drowns.
“Rachel really dedicated so much time to this book. It’s a family story, and it’s very personal to her,” Luibl said.
The beauty of Beanland’s writing struck Luibl as soon as he started reading the manuscript.
“It really was, and is, one of those novels that you know on page one it’s going to be a good story. It’s a real page-turner,” he said.
After a few drafts, Luibl took the manuscript to several publishing houses and Beanland received multiple offers. She sold the book to Simon & Schuster in January 2019.
“Working with Simon & Schuster was the best possible outcome I could have ever expected,” Beanland said.
Reviews are in
Beanland’s book is garnering rave reviews since its release. The novel is being referred to as “a riveting page-turner” and “a bighearted novel” that is “wonderfully assured and completely engrossing.” The book is “classic storytelling at its best,” one reviewer commented. It has been listed by both Good Morning America and Parade magazine as one of the best novels to read this summer.
Beanland couldn’t be happier that people are enjoying her writing.
“I'm so excited to see the book resonating with so many readers,” she said. “Writing is such a solitary experience, and it’s rewarding to share it with others.”