Brandon author signs three-book deal with major publisher
BRANDON — Katherine Burdine is living the dream of any writer who has ever toiled away in obscurity. Armed with a three-book deal from Random House, the 29-year-old is just weeks away from the release of her debut novel, “The Bear and the Nightingale,” on Jan, 10.
And she’s local. After spending the bulk of her twenties traveling, living and working everywhere from a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii to a boarding school in France, Burdine has settled in Brandon and is currently working on her second novel.
So, how did this happen? Let’s say… organically.
Burdine, who writes under the pen name Katherine Arden (Arden is her middle name) sat down for an interview at the Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury’s Marbleworks a few weeks ago to share her literary journey.
BIRTH OF A NOVEL
“The Bear and The Nightingale” is a retelling of an old fairy tale set in medieval Russia. According to Random House, “On one level, (Burdine’s) book is a story of how Christianity moved into rural Russia, forcing out the traditional pagan beliefs. And on another level, it’s a story of a young woman rebelling against repression and expectations, while continuing to honor the ancient spirits that protect her family from a harsh winter.”
Burdine started the book in 2011 while living and working on that macadamia farm in Hawaii, because she was bored. Apparently, picking macadamia nuts in Hawaii is not all it’s cracked up to be.
“I have a lot of feeling for migrant workers,” Burdine said. “It’s not easy work, and it’s very repetitive. I got bored and thought I’d write a book.”
The idea didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Burdine said she started to read at age three and read voraciously throughout her school years.
“I love books based on fairy tales,” she said, sipping her tea. “However, I had no idea how to write dialogue. I wrote part of a novel in high school. There were dragons in it. It was terrible.”
Despite a love of reading and writing, Burdine said it took years to make the connection to “novelist” as a vocation.
“I always loved making up stories,” she said. “I loved to read, but I never made the connection between my scribbling down stuff and the books in the bookstores until after college. That was a big step, going from this lapsed hobby to ‘Oh, I can make a living at this.’”
And the Russian setting isn’t random either. A native of Austin, Texas, Burdine spent a gap year after high school in Moscow, then graduated from Middlebury College in 2011 with a duel major in Russian and French.
And that’s how she landed in Hawaii, sort of.
“I originally wanted to join the CIA or the Foreign Service,” Burdine said, “but I was burnt out after Middlebury and wanted to go someplace warm.”
BEST LAID PLANS
Burdine finished the book after eight months, and gave it to her father and stepmother in Texas to read.
“My dad said, ‘That’s not terrible,’” Burdine recounted, adding that he was very skeptical prior to reading the book.
Her stepmother bought Burdine an editing session with a friend in Dallas who is a writer and editor, and that’s when the momentum started to shift.
“I sent it to her and she read it and said, ‘You don’t need an editor, you need an agent,’” Burdine said.
The woman introduced the young novelist to an acquaintance who was an agent, but nothing happened with the book for 18 months. Burdine went to France and taught English at a boarding school for a year and started another novel.
She ended up parting ways with that agent and signing with agent Paul Lucas of Janklow and Nesbit in New York. It was July 2014.
“He sent the book out to publishers in September and three weeks later, we had a deal,” Burdine said.
The young writer had already returned to Hawaii and decided to get her real estate license, part of her plan to get a “real” job. She got the book deal and the real estate license on the same day.
And not just any deal. The publishing industry imploded in 2008 along with the country’s economic meltdown, which led to mass layoffs and the closing of big publishing houses, the merging of others and a shot to the gut for independent publishers. Agents and editors all over New York were looking for work, and the goal became less about talent and more about selling.
But despite that seismic shift in the industry, in the summer of 2014 Burdine found herself in the middle of a good, old-fashioned bidding war among multiple publishing houses for the rights to “The Bear and the Nightingale.” In the end, it was Random House who won the bidding, offering Burdine a three-book publishing deal.
“I got lucky,” Burdine said.
The novel was originally scheduled for release in January 2016, but was no match for “Game of Thrones.” Author George R. Martin was racing to finish the sixth book in the hugely popular book and television series, and it, too, was scheduled for release that same winter.
“My book would have been buried by all the hype of George Martin’s book, so the publisher decided to hold “The Bear and the Nightingale” until this winter,” Burdine explained. “But in some ways, it was good because it gave me a year to finish my second novel.”
That book is titled “The Girl in the Tower,” and is a continuation of the story that begins with “The Bear and the Nightingale.”
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
After securing her publishing contract, Burdine left Hawaii and went back to Texas for an extended visit, then traveled to Sweden and bummed around Europe for a while until a college friend said she should come back to Vermont.
That was October 2015. She has since met her boyfriend, Evan Johnson, who is the assistant editor at the Mountain Times newspaper in Killington, also owned byThe Addison Independent’s publisher Addison Press. They live in Brandon.
Burdine is fine with the quiet Vermont life. It gives her the peace and time to work on her second book ? she’s currently ensconced in editing and revisions.
“I think being a writer in New York would be more stressful,” she said. “I like it here.”
That said, Burdine and Johnson will travel to Paris next year, where she may stay for a few months to write.
While it is common for writers to lament the craft as a solitary profession, Burdine doesn’t necessarily agree.
“It is and it isn’t,” she said. “There are a lot of people gunning for you to do well, editors, proofreaders, agents.”
Burdine was asked if she has any bad habits.
“I like to bake,” she said.
So, that’s a “no.”
Burdine lives a clean life. She is vegan, meaning she doesn’t eat any animal products. She is a rock climber and practices yoga. She doesn’t drink or smoke.
“I like to know where my head’s at, at all times,” she said honestly. “Plus, I have to get up and sit down and think up stuff everyday, so I think it’s best to have a clear head.”
And her best advice for aspiring writers?
“Finish what you start,” she said. “Starting is good, but you learn so much more by finishing what you start.”
Burdine’s easy-going friendliness is not how all writers are described. “It’s OK for writers to be eccentric,” she said, “but not to be jerks.”
In the meantime, there is a book to sell. After a big launch party in her hometown of Austin on Jan. 10, Burdine will be traveling to events in the Northeast, including Cambridge, Mass. on Jan. 13 and Barnes and Noble in New York on Jan. 24.
In fact, Barnes and Noble chose “The Bear and the Nightingale” for its Young Readers Program, the first fantasy novel to be picked for the program in 25 years. The selection means Burdine’s book will be displayed prominently at every Barnes and Noble bookstore in the U.S.
Locally, Burdine will be at Phoenix Books in Burlington on Jan. 26 and at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury on Feb. 9.
Burdine is taking it all in stride, excited to be a writer with a contract, but also keeping her feet firmly on the ground as her book is set for release to the world.
‘It’s super crazy,” she said, acknowledging her success. “But, sitting and dwelling on it will only make it paralyzing.”
Find Katherine Arden on Facebook, or visit her website, www.katherinearden.com.
Lee Kahrs is the editor of The Brandon Reporter.