Robert Beatty always imagined his mystery/thriller Serafina and the Black Cloak taking place at Biltmore Estate. As the book’s release approaches (with events planned at the Biltmore Park Barnes & Noble on Saturday, July 18, and at Malaprop’s on Saturday, July 25), he says he came to appreciate the setting more and more as the story grew.
While writing, Beatty asked himself, “What do my daughters love?” At the time, his youngest loved to sneak up on him. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be if you lived at the Biltmore Estate and you snuck around that place?’” he says.
Having his story jell was particularly rewarding for Beatty, because writing Serafina, a middle-grade book, was the culmination of a passion that started when he was 11. “I was bored one day. My mom gave me a typewriter, and said, ‘Here, play with this,’” Beatty says.
That same year, Beatty also began his lifelong work with computers. He went on to start his own company, Plex, and pioneer cloud computing. “I never disliked the tech side,” he says. “Loved that. Still do.” But after spending 90 hours a week at Plex, he says, “I’d just be exhausted by the time I got home and wouldn’t be able to write very well.”
Then Beatty’s wife, Jennifer, contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She’s cancer-free now, but the diagnosis was a wake-up call. Beatty left his company and, inspired by the Western North Carolina scenery in the film version of The Last of the Mohicans, he and his family relocated from Michigan to Asheville.
Once here, Beatty began writing full time. His daughter insisted on reading his output, but because Beatty’s fiction was aimed at adults, he felt obliged to refuse. Then one day his daughter came in with a manuscript she’d found among his papers — a fantasy novel about a girl who becomes a knight in medieval England. When Beatty explained that he had written it a long time ago and that he didn’t write books like that anymore, “She literally said, ‘You should. I loved it. This is awesome. Write more like that.’”
Rewriting that manuscript, Beatty says, “was like going back to when I was a little kid.” And instead of the brusque rejections he’d gotten when he submitted his adult work, this time agents responded with enthusiasm and encouragement — though none offered representation.
Then Beatty’s wife suggested that he write another book for kids, something “sort of dark and spooky, like a mystery.” That night, he came up with the story that became Serafina — that of an unusual girl who lives in the basement of the Vanderbilt house and who must solve a series of mysterious disappearances. Within days, he had a rough draft.
Over the next year, Beatty engaged his daughters and wife in the revision process, brainstorming with them over dinner and after school. “They worked very closely with me, fine-tuning Serafina’s character,” he says.
When the family agreed Serafina was ready, Beatty went to a writer’s conference in New York City where he signed up to speed-pitch the book. “They ring a bell,” he says. “In that three minutes, you have to convince the agent he wants to read your manuscript.” All 10 agents whom Beatty pitched asked to read the book. Within weeks, Serafina sold to Disney Hyperion.
So Beatty’s lifelong passion for writing bore fruit, and the programmer/pioneer/entrepreneur embarked on another career. Asked what he’s enjoyed most about the launch, he says, “Making the trailer.” That was a family affair as well: One of Beatty’s daughters appeared as the title character in a gorgeous dress made by Beatty’s wife. He also got permission to film the trailer at the Biltmore Estate, and so was able to make a movie in one of the locales that first attracted him to Asheville.
“It was like a dream come true,” he says.
WHO Robert Beatty presents Serafina and the Black Cloak
WHERE Barnes & Noble, Biltmore Park, on Saturday, July 18, 2-4 p.m. barnesandnoble.com
WHERE Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, on Saturday, July 25, 3-5 p.m. malaprops.com