Annie Ward and I had an instant affinity: we’re big fans of “bad” women—the ones who know what they want and go out and get it. My first clue as to how in sync we are was her amazing new novel, Beautiful Bad, coming in March from Park Row Books, which is touting it as 2019’s thriller of the year.
When I spoke with Ward, I discovered we had a lot more in common. We both love New York (she lived in my neighborhood in the early 2000s) and love foreign places (one of Beautiful Bad’s settings is Eastern Europe). And then there are those women. The heart of the book is the tumultuous relationship between two friends who meet in their 20s in 2001. Maddie is a teacher in Bulgaria, and Johanna is an aid worker in Macedonia. There’s drinking and rule breaking and the excitement of living in an unstable region. And, of course, there are men. One in particular, a military Brit, forms the apex of this ultimately unholy trinity. The book also features family life, when it moves to sleepy Kansas. But above all, there is tension and a sense of mystery and unbalance.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for Beautiful Bad. Ward’s editor, Erika Imranyi, editorial director of Park Row Books, read it overnight and tells me that she felt it had “a unique blend of cleverness and edgy dark, and all the hallmarks of the domestic thrillers that are working right now: a man you can’t trust, a woman you can’t trust.” She adds, “It’s also wide in scope—an international canvas of intriguing places.”
Imranyi, who bought North American rights in a heated auction, says she was excited to get it. “I immediately thought it was special, with its strong voice and memorable characters.”
When Harlequin decided to grow its trade list and launched Park Row Books, Imranyi, who’s been at Harlequin since 2011, says she was the logical choice for editorial director. “The imprint wanted to publish my kind of books, the ones that hit the sweet spot between commercial and literary.”
Beautiful Bad, Ward tells me, began as a memoir. “I write what I know,” she says. And she knows about everything and everyone appearing in Beautiful Bad. Ward, originally from Kansas, followed a man to Bulgaria in the mid-1990s, during the country’s transition from socialism to capitalism, and found work in the region as a journalist and travel writer, and also as a script doctor for an Israeli-American film company. She was there for five years, during which she received a Fulbright Scholarship; left the man; found a best friend (who was a CIA agent operating out of Skopje, although Ward didn’t know this at first); wrote a novel (The Making of June, her first psychological thriller, released by Putnam in 2002); and met her future husband, Josiah Richards.
The Making of June fared as many debut novels do: good reviews, few sales. By then she had moved to New York, where Richards suddenly arrived with stories of his experiences working with a private military company in Iraq and Yemen. His stories got her thinking about another book, although she admits she was daunted by her debut experience.
In 2007, Ward was married to Richards and living back in Kansas, and she started on the memoir. She handed in the finished manuscript in 2009 to her agent at the time, Doug Stewart, who advised her to fictionalize it, which she did. Then he turned it down as “not his thing,” saying she should find someone who was passionate about it.
Stewart says he knew the book would be a perfect fit for someone else, and when he heard about Ward’s deal, he cheered in his office. “I always root for talented writers who are also fabulous people.”
Ward says that after Stewart’s rejection, she “took to her bed.” But actually, she adds, “he was right, and he started a magical process.” When she finally got out of bed, she went into her office, looked up the agents for every thriller on her shelf, and wrote to all of them (she estimates she sent out 50 emails). One who responded was Madeleine Milburn, whose agency is based in London.
“I spotted it in our submissions account in March 2016,” Milburn says. “It was a smart email and an intriguing first three chapters. I requested the complete manuscript straight away.”
Of Beautiful Bad, Milburn wrote to Ward, “Wow… just WOW! I think your voice is remarkable—sophisticated and mesmerizing—and your premise is fascinating. I’m totally hooked in by your characters and the atmosphere you’ve created, and I’m desperate to read more.”
Ward tells me, “It was the letter of my life—I felt like I was going to pass out.”
The contract was signed in January 2017, and the goal was to have it done in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair. “Because of the big international flavor of the story,” Milburn says, “I wanted the manuscript to be ready so I could submit it simultaneously to the U.S. and the U.K. in a run up to the fair.”
Milburn accepted a preempt offer from Quercus in the U.K. and, after seven U.S. offers, proceeded with a major stateside auction. “The most passionate publisher with the most ambitious vision won,” she says.
The book went to Imranyi in a high-six-figure deal. Ward, meanwhile, was standing by in Kansas. “The time difference made it all the more exciting,” Milburn says. “I could do all the deals and then discuss options and strategies [with Ward] in the evenings when I got home.”
Beautiful Bad will be published in separate editions in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada (HarperCanada) with three different editors, but they consulted with each other on the manuscripts.
As for PR, “We’re coming out with guns blazing,” Imranyi says. “We’ve got aggressive marketing plans with store visits and festivals. It’s our big book for 2019.”
To get started, Imranyi brought Beautiful Bad to this year’s BookExpo. She handed it to PW reviews editor Peter Cannon, who walked it over to me right after. I put it front and center on my shelf, because Peter knows his thrillers and I had a feeling it was a winner. Milburn, in her original letter to Ward, called Beautiful Bad “unputdownable upmarket fiction that challenges readers as much as it pulls them in.” I couldn’t agree more.
A movie sale is inevitable, and the book has sold in 11 foreign territories so far: Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, and Slovakia. Ward is over the moon. “I’m ready to do whatever to promote this book,” she says. “If they want me to ride a pony, I’ll be riding a pony!”