Interview with Ann Patty, Editor of Flowers in the Attic

flowers atticI was twelve years old and three books into the Dollanganger quartet when I discovered that the author—who was still “writing” new books, as she continues doing to this day—had died four years earlier. Already a committed V.C. Andrews fan for life, I took this as such a personal tragedy that when our Hebrew school class was encouraged to donate a tree in Israel in memory of someone we’d loved and lost, I proudly inscribed my certificate with her name. (My mother, as you can imagine, was thrilled.)

That certificate, safely stored away with all the other indicators of adolescent obsession, has always been my V.C. Andrews trump card. You claim you loved Flowers in the Attic, that certificate says—so where’s your tree?

I’m not saying this is how I got Ann Patty, V.C. Andrews’ editor and the woman most responsible for bringing Flowers in the Attic into the world, to talk to me. (In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t send her fleeing in the other direction.) But it does explain why I might laminate this interview and carry it around in my wallet for the rest of my life.

Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me—I’ll admit, I was surprised you were willing, since it doesn’t seem like you ever talk publicly about this period of your life.

AP: The whole V.C. story is very painful and fraught for me, because it’s something I made that was wrested from me with lies and corporate skullduggery. And for a host of reasons, I’ve never wanted to talk about it until recently, when I realized that I was the only person still alive who knows the whole story. And since V.C.’s appeal is enduring, I now feel it’s important to correct all the errors that are out there.

RW: So often when people my age talk about the books we loved as teenagers, or books that became phenomena for reasons we can’t understand, we come back to Flowers in the Attic. There’s so much love for that book among women who grew up with the book, and none of us have ever been able to understand how it managed to claw its way into the world…or why we all loved it so much as teenagers.

AP: I can tell you why you loved it so much, because I’ve thought about this a lot.  A lot.  We did not market it initially to teenagers. I was very young and inexperienced [when I acquired Flowers in the Attic]. I’d only published maybe two or three books at that point—I didn’t know what I was doing. But the book had a real hold on me. I found myself talking about it to anyone who would listen. Later, when I analyzed why this had become such a thing [for teenagers], I realized that it’s a metaphor for exactly the state teenagers are in. They’re imprisoned by their parents, but they want freedom. So the book plays right into that duality that every teenager deals with, where they want to be independent and live their lives independently, but they’re under someone else’s thumb. I think that’s part of it.

The other part is Virginia. I don’t know if you know, but she was in a wheelchair. She had surgery when she was in her teens. Her spine was fused—it didn’t move. From her butt bone to her head, the spine did not move. So it was much more than being in a wheelchair. Much more. She never really had much of a life, so she was stuck in perceptions of the way the world works of a young teenager, because after the age of fifteen, she wasn’t in the world anymore.

There’s other stuff that I’m not sure I’m ready to tell yet.

Do you want to give us any tantalizing hints?

Well, what I will say is that the whole Heaven series, that’s based on another true story.

Another? As in…

Yes, Flowers in the Attic was based on a story she heard when she was in the hospital for a spinal operation.

You’re kidding. It’s a TRUE STORY?

Well, someone told it to her, yes. Some doctor there. So I’d guess that some aspects of it were true—at least the aspect of kids being hidden away. Whether the twins were real, the sex, the time frame, probably not. I think it was just the concept of kids hidden in the attic so the mother could inherit a fortune.

The idea for the Heaven series is also based on a true story and how that all came about I will write about that in the memoir I’m writing about my relationship with Virginia and her books.

Let’s talk about something you can talk about…I’d love to hear your thoughts on the publication process, and how the book was put out into the world.

Basically, I bought the book, I had not been at Pocket for very long. I went to the editor in chief. It was a 98-page manuscript, I said I wanted to buy it, I bought it. It was that simple.

I had always had this vision that I wanted to see those kids on the attic floor on the cover. I kept insisting on it. And once again, I hadn’t been at Pocket Books long, I was—I don’t know—27 years old, I had no cred at all.

We’d been through various jackets, and I just said, “Not right, not right, not right.” Finally there was one, of a woman’s finger pulling a petal off a daisy with a face in the center.

And I still remember my boss coming in to me and saying, “How do you like the jacket?” I said I hated it. He said, “Well, it’s the jacket we’re going with.” I said, “You’re making a horrible mistake.”

He came back to me the next day and said, “Do you feel better about that jacket?” I said, “No! I worked my ass off on this book and you’re ruining it.” And he said, “Let’s go talk to the art director.”

So we went to Milton Charles and explained that somehow he had to figure out a way to show those kids in the attic. And that’s when he came up with the brilliant idea of the house with the cutout.

Cutouts had been done before, but nothing like that, with so much shiny foil,  had been done. And then he found an artist who really got V.C.’s sensibilities, to do the painting on inside cover. After that, it became a template.

Was there any trouble with the material? At some point did anyone raise a hand and say, there’s too much incest in this book? Or was that seen as a selling point?

You know, the incest really didn’t get talked about a lot, because I felt, and I think people who read it felt, it was such a natural occurrence if you’re going to lock two teenagers up and turn them into parents.

The thing that did happen was after it was published—we’re talking a year or two later—there was an article, maybe it was in the Wall Street Journal? It was some national publication, and talked about the incest, and all the Christian groups were getting really upset, and I started getting all these letters, saying, May your soul be damned to hell. One of them said they were praying for my eternal soul until God asked them to stop.

My husband thought I should get some gold stationary, write: “STOP” and sign it God.

Obviously I didn’t do that.

What about when it became clear that the book had been embraced by teenagers? (And when did that become clear?)

It became clear pretty early.

Did that raise any new concerns about the material in the book?

No, at least no one ever discussed concerns with me.

Did the teenage audience change how you marketed her future books?

Basically, all our marketing was was putting the book out, with floor displays and radio advertising.

I’ll tell you a story about Virginia’s first author signing, which happened at a bookstore near Rockefeller Center, which is where Simon & Schuster was. We brought Virginia up, which was very complicated, because of her spine. So we have her set up in the basement of Brentano’s. I think this was maybe for Petals on the Wind—it was after she was really big.

So we’re down in the signing area in the basement, and there’s a few teenage girls kind of hovering and staring at her, and clearly afraid to come up and get their book signed. And, a few of them did, and I kind of acted like a barker, and got them in there. But basically, most who came to the signing were employees of Pocket Books going around and around and around again so it looked like someone was at the signing, but practically no one came.

I think her kind of readers weren’t the kind who knew about signings. We must have advertised the signing in the NY Times, but those weren’t her readers.

The kind of readers she had been not in the usual book world. It’s not like that anymore because marketing to younger readers has become so much more sophisticated.

This may be something that’s only of interest to me, as the world’s biggest My Sweet Audrina fan, but can you talk a bit more about how that book came about, smack in the middle of the Flowers series?

In 1982, I got a hardcover imprint, Poseidon Press, and  it seemed to me that a new, standalone V.C. Andrews novel would make a splash in hardcover. At that time, I still reported to the people at Pocket Books. Soon after that, I began reporting to Simon & Schuster. And when the book became a failure, I can still remember Dick Snyder [former Chairman and CEO of Simon & Schuster] calling me up and saying, “When there’s this much money involved, it’s not your book anymore. It’s my book.” You can’t do this (publish V.C. in hardcover) again.

So I never did publish her originally in hardcover again, but I did start  putting out small hardcover editions for libraries for each of the titles, at least I did until the franchise was taken away from me.

What about the book itself—was My Sweet Audrina something she was so eager to write that she broke off from the Flowers series to write it? Or was it a manuscript she already had, and you just decided this would be the right time to publish it?

When I met Virginia, she had two other novels I knew of. One was Gods of Green Mountain, which was science fiction and was finally published by Pocket as an e-book a few years ago. The other was an 800-page novel called The Obsessed. Some websites claim Flowers in the Attic came from The Obsessed, but it didn’t. The two have nothing to do with one another.

Then there was My Sweet Audrina, which I think she had already written when I met her. Or had written at least part of it. But we definitely wanted a sequel to Flowers in the Attic to be the next thing published, and we  wanted it fast, so we had to speed up the process. When I was working with a new V.C., everyone understood that I dropped everything else and disappeared from the office for a week or two..

My Sweet Audrina probably had been written previous to the publication of Flowers. Virginia had for years just kept writing new novels, even though they didn’t get published. There is also another unpublished manuscript, Castles of the Damned, which is a medieval romance of about 900 pages. Her brother still has it.

There are plenty of popular mass market books—do you have a theory about why this book is still so successful? Why are we still talking about Flowers in the Attic twenty-five years later? Does that surprise you?

Flowers in the Attic is a great book, what I call an awful classic. Why is it so good? Because it captures the truth of being a captive. You have to remember, Virginia had been living in captivity for all those years, in her wheelchair, totally under the control of her mother, who she did not have a great relationship with (and who never read the books).

When the hostages came back from Iran, in an interview, one of them said that the only book that gets it right is Flowers in the Attic. Virginia was a hostage, as most teenagers feel like hostages to their parents. That’s the power.

What’s it been like, having been the editor of such an infamous book? Is it like the world’s greatest cocktail party opener, or more of a skeleton in your closet?

The thing is, I am not a reader of that kind of fiction. I would never have read a book like Flowers in the Attic, and most of my friends have never read it.  They know of it only if they have daughters of a certain age. Most of the people in the literary world I inhabit barely know who [V.C. Andrews] is. What people now know me for is Life of Pi. If I mention V.C. Andrews, it means not that much.

As for how I feel about it? I’m very proud of it, because I think without me it never would have been published. I did a lot of editorial work on the novel.  I did even more on all her subsequent novels.  In some ways, I was more a collaborator than an editor.  And I’m extremely glad that I was able to help Virginia liberate herself from the closed world she had lived in for so many years, and have a larger life.   In the end, even given what happened after her death, I am proud of my contribution.  I parlayed that into my imprint, Poseidon Press, and from that I launched the sort of publishing career I desired.

Do you think a book like Flowers in the Attic could be published today? Or published to the same effect?

No. It can’t happen the way it happened. The book was 98 pages when I bought it. You’d never get it through an acquisitions committee.  And it’s not like anything else. You know, the other book I was most successful with was Life of Pi, and no one else wanted to buy that either! Many of of the people in publishing are risk-averse to anything completely uncategorizable; not so much the editors, but the marketers, who have largely taken over. They’re scared of anything different. They don’t know what to do with it. Could a publishing story like this happen today? Doubtful, at least in New York corporate publishing. Look at 50 Shades of Grey, first self-published.  Probably that would be the route such a novel would have to go today.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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