I’m happy to feature author Sasscer Hill’s inspiring journey.
Back in 1994, I wrote a romantic suspense novel and landed a literary agent. I thought the rest would be a slam dunk! Fast forward sixteen years where, still unpublished, and now two agents later, I’d completed two novels featuring female jockey Nikki Latrelle.
I wrote these books because of my passion for Thoroughbreds and my love for and knowledge of horse racing. One of my mentors suggested I make all my writing like the races I wrote–putting that excitement, that pacing, and those amazing characters that populate this world into every chapter. So I began a third Nikki Latrelle with that in mind, and prayed it would land a New York publisher.
In February of 2010, my favorite author Dick Francis died, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my horse farm was hit by the worst blizzard in the history of Maryland. Feeling desperate, I begged a small press owner to look at the first in the Nikki Latrelle series, FULL MORTALITY. He read the manuscript during the blizzard and accepted it the next day.
Miraculously, FULL MORTALITY was published in May of 2010, received rave reviews, and was nominated for both Agatha and Macavity Awards.
The award nominations helped secure a third and better agent with a successful track record. But by the time I finished the third book in the “Nikki Latrelle” series, it was clear that New York publishers weren’t interested in the latest in a series already published by a small press–unless it had humongous sales. A word to the wise: you are unlikely to get humongous sales with a small press.
My new agent told me to start another series. So I did, creating “Fia McKee,” a thirty-two-year-old agent for the real life agency, the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. I finished the manuscript of FLAMINGO ROAD in 2014 and started the second in the “Fia McKee” series in October that year.
My agent began shopping for publishers in December of 2014. The next spring, we caught the attention of an editor at St. Martins, Minotaur, but she had reservations about readers’ interest in a horse racing novel. I immediately went to work, obtaining statistics on the surprisingly strong popularity of horse racing. Things like NBC’s unprecedented ten-year extension agreement to broadcast rights to the Breeders Cup weekend races as well as the eleven qualifying races that precede that two-day, all-star event. I noted how a recent ESPN poll showed horse racing is the most popular non-team sport, beating out tennis, boxing, and even NASCAR! I sent the report to my agent, who sent it to St. Martins.
Less than a week after this, the Carrie McCray committee gave my in-progress novel, the second in the “Fia McKee” series, their “Best First-Chapter of a Novel” award. Within days, this same novel received a Claymore nomination.
But the brightest star to align that week was a racehorse named American Pharoah. Deep in my heart, I’d believed if the colt could pull off the historical and momentous feat of winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, it might nudge a publishing offer from St. Martins my way. White knuckled, I watched the final race at Belmont. When American Pharoah blasted around the track on the lead, rocketed down the stretch, and began pulling away from the Belmont field, I almost had a heart attack. When he opened up and won by daylight, I burst into tears. Turning to my husband, I said, “I think FLAMINGO ROAD will get an offer.”
I could feel the bright star that is my love for horses rising over me. Pharoah’s race drew 22 million television viewers, and the subsequent radio, television, and social media attention was phenomenal. Within a week, American Pharoah appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and a day later, I received a two-book offer from St. Martins Minotaur.
But I was surprised to learn that the first Fia McKee novel would not come out until the spring of 2017, a wait of almost two years! My last book had been published in 2013, and I surely hated waiting for so long!
I was aware that some publishers are asking their authors to write novellas and short stories to keep these writers in the public eye during the intervals between their full length novels. The obvious answer for me was a new Nikki Latrelle. But as I was under contract to St. Martins, I knew the time slot was very compressed. A novella seemed like just the thing.
I believed the tale of Nikki’s early years would make a poignant and satisfying read. Imagine a fatherless thirteen-year-old girl whose mother dies suddenly. In a sense, this mother has abandoned her daughter, leaving her in the hands of a lewd, malevolent stepfather. Nikki has no family, and when the stepfather forces his way into her bedroom, she flees. Her best times were spent with her mom at the racetrack, so this is where she runs.
Nikki is forced to steal food, sleep in race horses’ stalls to stay warm, and avoid the police and her stepfather who search for her. But just when things seem to be going right for her, Nikki crosses paths with a young man who makes her stepfather seem like a saint.
The novella is out, it’s selling well, and hopefully St. Martins Press will be pleased to see I produced it. This week, I shall begin the third in the Fia McKee series.
Sasscer Hill, a former Maryland racehorse breeder, trainer, and rider, uses the sport of kings as a backdrop for her mysteries. Her “vivid descriptive” prose about greed, evil, heart, and courage propelled her “Nikki Latrelle” novels to multiple award nominations, including Agatha, Macavity, and the Dr. Tony Ryan Best in Racing Literature awards.
Where to find Sasscer…