My honored guest author for June is my fellow Tulsan Julia Bryan Thomas. Julia is the author of The English Boys, 2016, a Library Journal Debut of the Month novel, Penhale Wood, 2017, which earned starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. An alumna of the Yale Writer’s Workshop, Julia graduated college with a degree in education and taught first grade for 25 years while also pursuing writing. After having four manuscripts that failed to be published, she began to feel dazed. But she never gave up. Her 2022 novel, For Those Who are Lost is set on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Guernsey and tells the story of a woman’s split-second decision that will affect a family for decades to come. The blurb of her latest, The Radcliffe Ladies Reading Club, reads: “A heart-wrenching, inspiring, extraordinary love letter to books set against the backdrop of one of the most pivotal periods in American history, The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club explores how women forge their own paths, regardless of what society expects of them, and illuminates the importance of literature and the vital conversations it sparks.” Julia is married to Will Thomas, who writes the Barker and Llewelyn Victorian mystery series.
Julia Bryan Thomas
As soon as I could hold a pencil, I wanted to be a writer. This desire was nurtured by my love of books. We had a daily library period in my elementary school and by third grade, I was the one student who never had to be encouraged to read. While everyone else was throwing spitballs and braiding each other’s hair, I was devouring everything from Charlotte’s Web to biographies of the First Ladies. I had a difficult childhood, and books provided me with a refuge, as the worlds created in them became my own. I was Bobbie from The Railway Children, watching every afternoon as the train went by, hoping my father would return. I was Anne of Green Gables, realizing that Marilla had been wanting a boy to work on their farm, determined to win her over. Books were an escape, a joy, and an opportunity for me to figure out what I wanted out of life, and I couldn’t imagine a more meaningful occupation than to help others have that feeling, too.
I met my husband at the beginning of my freshman year, and instead of having a normal first conversation, I gave him what was essentially a litmus test based on my own system of beliefs. Do you read? What sort of books appeal to you? Do you have any interest in writing? Rank your top ten favorite books and explain why you like them! No one had ever asked him anything like that before and not only did he find it stimulating, we both knew in thirty minutes that we had met our soul mate. The love of books and writing has always been one of the cornerstones of our relationship.
Writing can take many forms throughout one’s life. The papers we write in school, the assignments we do for our jobs and careers, the letters to the editor when something outrageous happens in our community. I worked for a local newspaper as well as in a congressman’s office, where copy and content had to be created on a daily basis. But it was when our children were in high school that we came back to the profound knowledge that we were meant to write books, and we decided to begin, encouraging each other along the way.
We took our time, five years, in fact, happily scribbling away in notebooks and tapping away on typewriters. Eventually, we typed his and her manuscripts and sent them out to agents. My husband scored a wonderful agent and a three-book deal with Simon and Schuster for his Victorian mystery series. I wallowed in the land of rejection slips.
So, we embarked on our second attempts. He wrote his next Barker and Llewelyn novel, and I wrote another unpublishable three-hundred pages, wondering where I was going wrong. I edited his books, learning more every day about the process and dynamics of writing. I journaled. I attended writing workshops and read books about improving your writing skills. But still, I couldn’t break through the invisible wall to publication.
The second book led to the third, the third to the fourth, and then by the time I had written a fifth manuscript, I threw up my hands and decided it was never going to happen.
But eventually, I realized the difference between us. He spent his entire life studying the Victorian Era, from films to theater to books, and his series was a natural channel for him to create something he was deeply invested in. On the other hand, I had not found my one true interest and had attempted a lot of different types of writing to try to find myself. I had, however, put in a decade of practice, honing my skills. Once I realized this, I decided to focus on a subject I knew: the acting world and mystery. In 2016, he published his seventh book, Hell Bay, and I published my first, a contemporary English mystery, The English Boys, which was a Library Journal Debut Novel of the Month.
I’d finally written about something that interested me, and I followed it up with Penhale Wood in 2017, which earned starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal.
However, I didn’t have a clear idea for a third book, and I realized that since I had never properly studied writing in college, I wanted the opportunity to do so. In 2018, I applied for admission to the Yale Writers’ Workshop and was selected to attend the program in the summer of 2019.
It was a revelation in every way. I loved going back to college and living on the campus at Yale, but I especially enjoyed the opportunity to study writing with great writing teachers and students serious about moving forward with their writing goals. There, I learned my strengths and weaknesses and found the gaps in my previous education which needed to be filled. At the end of the final session, our teacher advised us to write a one-thousand-word essay and submit it to our small group once a month for their feedback. I used this as an opportunity to try my hand at different types of writing, from fairytales to nonfiction material. One month, I wrote a historical short story about the five thousand children who were evacuated from the island of Guernsey in a single day during World War II. I loved the research and enjoyed combining historical facts with creative writing.
The idea wouldn’t let go of me, and during the pandemic summer of 2020, I sat down and wrote a full-length novel based on my research. I fell in love with my story. For Those Who Are Lost was published in June 2022 and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award, a notable novel from the Historical Novel Society, and has now been selected by the Library of Congress to represent Oklahoma at the National Book Festival for 2023.
Even though my husband and I have had two very different paths to writing, both were legitimate and fulfilling. I’ve learned that getting published is all about falling in love with writing and creating a story that only you can create. It’s about perseverance, even when the whole world seems to be telling you to quit. And it’s about understanding yourself and your identity and doing what you were meant to do.
As Barbara Kingsolver says: “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” I happen to think that’s excellent advice.