Persistence. Its importance has been touted by everyone from Coolidge to Carlyle, and local author Romily Bernard agrees. If you ask her about her success in publishing, what she mentions isn’t her first contract with HarperTeen or her current contract with Disney Hyperion, it’s the 246 rejections that came before. She didn’t reach her dream overnight – and doing the job she loves is all the sweeter for the fight.
Charleston-born Romily graduated from Fayette County High and still lives in Peachtree City. She wrote and illustrated her first book, the tale of a witch flying over the town, in the second grade. She was seven at the time because she started school early but she already knew what she wanted to do. Except, she didn’t know anyone else who’d grown up to be a writer and it didn’t seem like a “real” career. So, she went to Georgia State and earned a B.A. in literature and Spanish, then worked at a variety of jobs, from cell phone sales to videography to concert ushering. A major horse fanatic who’d been riding since age three and participating in dressage and eventing since age six, she also taught riding lessons and exercised horses. She worked for an architect during the construction boom, then went into finance and accounting, eventually landing in corporate compliance and HR at a major Atlanta company. She considered law school, but nothing ever felt right.
“I really never stopped writing,” Romily recalls. “I never stopped wanting to be an author. But I just didn’t know how to go about it. I finally turned to Google and I found Georgia Romance Writers. I was writing historical fiction at the time and didn’t know if they could help, but I decided to check it out.”
GRW, a local chapter of the international, 12,000-member professional organization, Romance Writers of America, was advertising for their annual Moonlight & Magnolias conference when Romily stumbled upon them. The four-day event features workshops, special speakers, and networking with authors at all career stages, from beginner to New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, as well as pitch appointments with editors and agents. There, Romily found the advice and mentorship she was looking for.
“That weekend – and joining GRW afterward – changed everything for me,” she says. “I finally knew people who did what I wanted to do. I wasn’t alone. And the organization is fabulous about teaching people to pitch to editors and helping you understand the industry. I’m so lucky that my parents were supportive. I mean, I’m sure the words “I want to be a writer” are terrifying for any parent. We’re called “starving artists” for a reason. But they were completely behind me. I couldn’t have afforded the conference fees without their help.”
In fact, she’s dedicated two books to her mom, who taught Spanish for 44 years, and her dad, an entrepreneur. Her first book, however, she dedicated to her husband, Tony, whom she met in high school, began dating in college, and married in 2007.
“From the very beginning, we’ve always talked a lot about what we most wanted to do with our lives,” says Tony. “For Romily, that’s always been writing. Sometimes, that means sacrifice – staying in so she can work instead of going out. That’s okay. This is her job, and her passion. She has incredible willpower and direction. I’ve always admired that about her.”
Today, Tony manages Romily’s website and is her most valuable source of feedback.
“He’s so much more artistic than I am,” says Romily. “He really gives thoughtful feedback and he never minds the strange looks we get when we do manage to go out and people overhear us brainstorming ways to kill off characters or make something really creepy. He’s just the best.”
While things are looking rosy now, Romily’s journey from discovering GRW to landing her first contract was neither easy nor short. Two-hundred-forty-six rejections, remember.
“It took me a while to find my niche,” she says. “I finished my first novel in college and I wrote four full books in three different genres that didn’t make it. The feedback was always that my heroines weren’t nice enough and that my stories were a little too intense. Then I heard that YA – Young Adult – was actively looking for strong heroines and fast-paced, complex storylines. It sounded like a fit, so I tried it. Writing that first YA felt like finding home.”
But, she wasn’t quite home yet.
“I finally got a pitch appointment with my dream agent,” she says. “And, of course, I was pitching a paranormal when para wasn’t selling. She told me that and I said, out of the blue, ‘well, I’m also working on a series about a female teenage hacker and her cyber-stalker.’ I don’t know what possessed me to say it. The idea had crossed my mind but that was about all. But she loved it! So then, of course, I had to write it.”
Over the next nine months, while still working her demanding job and commuting downtown, Romily wrote Find Me, the YA thriller destined to become her first published novel. From there, everything moved at warp speed. Find Me won a prestigious Golden Heart award in 2012 and she received offers of representation from eight agents, but signed with her original “dream agent,” Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Find Me sold at auction, as part of a three-book deal with HarperCollins’ HarperTeen imprint, and the publisher scheduled a tight release schedule. All three books, plus a bonus novella, came out in just over 18 months between August 2014 and March 2016. Romily quickly realized she couldn’t meet the timeline while still working a regular job. And so, at age 30, she became a full-time author.
“I won’t lie,” she says. “That period was extremely stressful because I was writing so much so fast. But the response was incredible. Teen readers are so passionate and I was amazed by how quickly they took to the series and to the main character, Wick.”
One of those fans is Starr’s Mill sophomore Sophia Bender (see her review of Find Me on page 89). Sophia and her mother, Patricia Lawrence, met Romily at the horse barns when Sophia was 12 and made an instant connection.
“When Sophia found out Romily wrote books, she was so excited,” Patricia recalls. “Now, sometimes Romily asks her to read the manuscripts in advance and it’s so exciting. But they also talk about horses and life and everything else. Romily has become an incredible friend – to both of us. She’s so well-rounded, so wise, and she works so hard. She’s all about life being a marathon, a process. She’s exactly the kind of person you want your teenage daughter to be friends with.”
As if Romily weren’t busy enough in 2014, she also took on another task at the suggestion of her editor.
“They were looking for a funny middle grades adventure story with a male protagonist,” she says. “At first I laughed it off because I tend to write pretty dark. Then, suddenly, I thought ‘what if the Stepford Wives happened in middle school?’”
The result was her new Munchem Academy series, which she writes as “Commander S.T. Bolivar III.” While the original requester decided to pass on the series, Disney Hyperion snapped it up and began publishing in October 2016. The first book in the series, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” focuses on a reform school that turns “bad” kids “good” by nefarious means.
“Writing for a younger audience and from a boy’s perspective was really fun, but challenging at times,” Romily says. “And it’s a little surreal to have Disney illustrators working on my cover. It still amazes me that this is my job now.”
One of her favorite things about her career is meeting and working with other authors who are just as passionate as she is.
“I once shared an editor with Kwame Alexander and his literacy outreach is just astounding,” she says. “And I had the opportunity to have drinks with Ellen Hopkins at a conference in 2014 and she’s just as beautiful, intelligent, and fierce in person as you’d think. Then there are my critique partners. Natalie Richards is as humble as she can be, and the day Pintip Dunn hit the bestseller list, she called to talk about my baby. I feel really lucky to have such a great group of people who understand and who will really read my books deeply and give great feedback.”
Her critique partners feel the same way about her.
“Romily once told me that, if we gave one of my heroines ten bucks and carton of Kool menthols, she could take over a small country,” says fellow writer Sally Kilpatrick. “That is how I think of Romily. If we gave her ten bucks and a carton of Kool menthols, she could take over a small country. She’s so business smart and so meticulous with her writing, but then the end result feels effortless. Even better, she’s a stalwart friend, a conscientious critique partner, and a brilliant artist. I kinda love her.”
Even when her daughter, Alodie, was born last May, Romily responded like a writer.
“I was on deadline for Disney,” she says. “I had planned to go home from a doctor’s appointment and work when the doctor said ‘you’re having this baby today!’ I didn’t have my bag, but I had my edits. So, I lay there and started editing while they induced me. I emailed Sarah from the hospital bed to tell her what was happening and she swears that, in all her years as an agent, no one else has emailed her while in labor.”
Romily’s schedule hasn’t slowed down a bit. In addition to the second Munchem Academy book, she has a new YA series, Never Apart, coming out in 2017 and has other projects in the works. She’s also “figuring out and enjoying” motherhood, DIY remodeling their home with her husband, and spending time with Tony, Alodie, and their rescue dogs, Turbo and Tripper. When she needs a break or a chance to change gears, she rides her horse, Tempe. It’s a crazy life sometimes, but she wouldn’t trade it.
“I fought myself for a long time,” she says. “I think a lot of us do that, spend too much of our lives doing what we think we should do instead of what we want to do. I think it can be especially tough as women, because we’re taught to be accepting, even when it isn’t good for us. But all of us sit down to a banquet of consequences eventually. At some point, we have to be honest with ourselves about what we really want – and then go after it – or we will regret it.”
She fully admits, however, that the process isn’t easy.
“I saved every single rejection letter I received,” she says. “I used to joke that I was going to paper my bathroom in them. There were certainly plenty of nights I cried in the tub. But I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I kept going, kept working. You have to have courage to follow a dream. Very few people luck into overnight success and the journey can be so, so scary. But dreams usually come true because we work to make them happen, so work.”