The Ghost Of V.C. Andrews: The Life, Death, And Afterlife Of The Mysterious "Flowers In The Attic" Author
Thomas VanCleave / Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed
V.C. Andrews had been dead for years and no one seemed to notice.
“After a while it gets a little unnerving,” said writer Andrew Neiderman over lunch at a restaurant in Palm Springs, recalling a 1989 meeting with three South Korean publishers, one of whom looked particularly perplexed. “I leaned over to the one who spoke English, and said, ‘Can you tell me why she's been staring at me for the last half hour?'” The answer was due to a common mistake: She didn't understand why this hugely successful and beloved female author was, in fact, a 48-year-old man.
Neiderman has been ghostwriting the novels of V.C. Andrews since shortly after she died from breast cancer in December 1986. And though Andrews' death was not a secret (all the major newspapers carried her obituary), in a pre-internet age, it was easy enough to continue publishing books under her name so prolifically that the news of her death might have faded from your memory — if you had happened to hear of it at all. Keeping her alive — even if just in spirit — was simply smart business.
Lifetime has adapted Flowers in the Attic, co-starring (from left to right) Heather Graham, Ava Telek, Mason Dye, and Kiernan Shipka.
James Dittiger / Lifetime
V.C. Andrews became a phenomenon upon the 1979 release of the gothic incest classic Flowers in the Attic, which has endured as a nostalgia-fueled oddity: Lifetime's TV movie version of it — starring Heather Graham, Ellen Burstyn, Kiernan Shipka, and Mason Dye — premieres Saturday night. As opposed to the dreadful 1987 feature film — with Louise Fletcher, Victoria Tennant, and Kristy Swanson — it is faithful to the book. (Among other things, it includes the sexual brother–sister relationship, which the previous version excised.) The groundswell of excitement for the Lifetime movie has been so great that the channel announced last week that it's already developing the sequel, Petals on the Wind.
In 2014, we're used to young adult books being a big part of mainstream culture. Since the first Twilight movie exploded in 2008, it's been boom times for YA book-to-screen franchises; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the top-grossing movie of last year. But it wasn't always like this: Flowers in the Attic's crossover from teen-to-adult zeitgeist was unique, and created the template for the young adult blockbuster. “This was certainly the Twilight and Hunger Games of our time, for my generation,” said 46-year-old Rob Sharenow, Lifetime's executive vice president and general manager. “I can't think of another book series that had that grip on people.”
In life, Andrews was a wheelchair-bound Southerner whose mother was her caretaker. As a best-selling author and unlikely purveyor of fantastical teen-girl nightmares, Andrews became wealthy during her short professional writing career. She had published seven novels at the time of her death; under Neiderman, whose name has never been printed within a V.C. Andrews book, her novels continue to come out at a clip of two a year. A new one, The Unwelcomed Child, will be released Monday.
As eerie as her books were, Andrews' tragic personal life and unlikely rise — which was not even impeded by the small matter of her death — have rendered her equally mysterious. For the first time, members of Andrews' family have agreed to be interviewed about the woman who terrified — and delighted — a generation of readers.
The five books in the Dollanganger series, which made V.C. Andrews into an unlikely literary star beginning with Flowers in the Attic.
Simon & Schuster
Any summation of Cleo Virginia Andrews' life reads like the back cover of one of her books. She was born on June 6, 1923, in Portsmouth, Va., and had two older brothers, Bill and Gene. Press accounts differ on what caused her crippling spine, hips, legs, and neck problems (a People magazine story from October 1980 says it began with a “traumatic fall down a flight of stairs.”). According to Gene Andrews, Virginia was diagnosed in her early teens with rheumatoid arthritis. Medical interventions at Johns Hopkins Hospital did not help. After unsuccessful surgeries, she was, at one point, in a full-body cast. In an email from Joan Andrews, Virginia's sister-in-law (the widow of Bill, who died in 2012), she wrote, “Virginia lived her adult life able to turn her head to a limited degree.” And, Joan added, she was “always in pain.”
Andrews' brothers moved out of the family home, but Virginia continued to live with her parents; after her father died in 1957, it was just her and her mother Lillian. Andrews, who had talent in visual arts, made money doing commercial art for local businesses. And then she began to write.
She mostly struck out at first, but got a few things published. The exhaustive V.C. Andrews fan site The Complete V.C. Andrews has a copy of her first letter to the literary agent Anita Diamant (who was also, not coincidentally, Andrew Neiderman's agent until Diamant died in 1996). It's dated Jan. 13, 1978, and begins:
“Using a pen name, I have written and sold without an agent, three Gothic Romances. Before that, I wrote confession stories, just to finance my more serious efforts. All the while I was writing other tales… one kept bearing hard on my mind, begging to be told.”
Andrews then goes on to describe — with building suspense, and dramatic use of ellipses — the plot of Flowers in the Attic. “A young wife is suddenly widowed,” and though she has no job skills and is in debt, “she has one solace,” which is that if she tricks her father into re-inheriting her in his will, “she is the sole heir to a tremendous fortune.” In order to wait out her father's death, the widow must secretly stick her four children, whom he doesn't know exist, in his attic until he dies; the widow's mother, who has “no heart,” is complicit in this plot. As the years pass, the youngest children, twins, “cannot grow” in the dark attic. And Cathy and Chris, the two older kids, “struggle to keep themselves sane, decent, honorable…but they are tested time and time again as they reach adolescence.”
The letter concludes: “I call my novel, which is not truly fiction… FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC.” (Andrews always said that a doctor who had cared for her during her teen hospital stays had been hidden away for years, and his story had stuck with her; he became the character of Chris Dollanganger.)
She now had an agent in Diamant. But until Humphrey Evans, an assistant at Diamant's agency, passed Andrews' short version (fewer than 100 pages) of the Flowers in the Attic manuscript to his friend Ann Patty, an editor in her twenties at Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books division, no one wanted to publish the book.
“I met an agent once who told me that it had been rejected by 24 publishers before it was bought,” said Patty in a telephone interview.
Evans and Patty went to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB in New York, and after she came home, Patty read Flowers in the Attic. “I read it, and I thought, 'This is really amazing. It's like a crazy fairy tale,'” Patty said. “She had a particular style. You wouldn't call it a good style, but it was a style. It was so unique. I just thought I'd never read anything like this. Never.”
Patty bought Flowers in the Attic, her first acquisition as an editor, for $7,500 to publish as a mass-market paperback, which was distributed widely, from bookstores to supermarkets to airports. She wrote Andrews a long letter about how she thought the book should develop plot-wise, and they worked on the manuscript back and forth through the mail. As the book's November 1979 publication date approached, Patty and her boss realized that they might need to ready a sequel — the feedback from bookstores, which had received the book in galley form, was ravenous.
Patty flew to Andrews' home in Virginia to meet her in person for the first time and wasn't sure what to expect. Though she relied on the wheelchair, Andrews stood to write. Joan Andrews described it this way: “Her early novels were written standing up at a chest-high desk using a typewriter. She would be at that desk sometimes 10 to 12 hours writing. She once showed me the soles of her shoes where they were worn through and the bones were protruding on the bottom of her feet.”
“I thought she was an older Southern woman,” Patty said about that first meeting. “I was really young, I had never published a book. So when I met her and found her to be crippled, it was like this huge shock. And then it all became clear: She was that teenager. If you think about her emotional life and her experiences and independence — which there was none — her life kind of stopped when she was about 14 or 15.”
“She never had a romance,” Andrew Neiderman said.
A rare — and frank — interview with Andrews was published in 1985 in a book called Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror. In it, Andrews told Douglas E. Winter, “When I wrote Flowers in the Attic, all of Cathy's feelings about being in prison were my feelings. So that, when I read them now, I cry.”
Andrews was on the verge of becoming a publishing sensation at the age of 56. And she was dependent on her mother to eat and take care of herself. She had dedicated Flowers in the Attic to her mother, but, according to Patty, Lillian Andrews never read any of her daughter's books.
“You could say that Virginia is locked in the attic and her mother is the grandmother,” Patty said. “But she seemed normal. I would take Virginia out for a walk around the neighborhood. And I would pretend I was a kid and get on top of her wheelchair and we would zoom down hills. She would say, 'Don't tell Mom.'”
Within the first year of its publication, Flowers in the Attic sold almost 3 million copies. Though it hadn't been initially marketed as a young adult book, teenagers and middle schoolers found it quickly and went crazy over it. My own memories of reading it — as well as the quickly published sequels, Petals on the Wind (1980) and If There Be Thorns (1981), in what became known as the Dollanganger series — are circa seventh grade in 1982. We would read the books aloud on the school bus, laughing and gasping. The religious lunacy of the grandmother and the incest plot were of a campy, hilarious, thrilling piece in the mind of a pre-teenager, and not unlike watching General Hospital, which was also at its peak at the time. That you end up rooting in subsequent books for Cathy and Chris as a couple was simply mind-blowing.
Especially because upon rereading Flowers in the Attic, I was surprised to see that Cathy and Chris' first sexual encounter is, by most definitions, rape. As in, he forces her to have sex while he’s in a rage, and eventually she sort of gives in, after which he says, “Don't hate me, Cathy, please don't hate me. I didn't mean to rape you, I swear to God.” She replies: “You didn't rape me. I could have stopped you if I'd really wanted to.” They then fall into mutual terror that Cathy will become pregnant. Yikes.
As a whole, reading Flowers in the Attic as an adult, I saw Andrews' skills in a new light: The book manages to balance the over-the-top drama of the tyrannical grandmother and betraying mother with the utter tedium of years-long captivity.
Courtesy of the Andrews family
Sarah Weinman, news editor at Publishers Marketplace, described the book's appeal as timeless. “It's the same reason Jane Eyre resonated with people,” she said. “It's why gothic novels have always found an audience; it's why romantic suspense has always done well. It's this feeling that readers can fall into; they get absorbed by all the characters. They get caught up in the calamities. There was a great melodrama to what V.C. Andrews was writing.”
Girls weren't the only ones reading Flowers in the Attic, either. Lifetime’s Sharenow remembers the V.C. Andrews tsunami well. “It was so controversial and exciting that my group of guy friends all read it during its peak of hotness,” he said on the phone recently. “There's definitely a Dickensian feeling to the character structures. The wickedness of the grandmother is pure. And the extremity of the situation — you can't help but understand, and in some way relate to, the trauma of what these kids are going through. And, of course, the complexities of the forbidden love element, there's something very tantalizing about that, and fascinating. Those are things that don't go in and out of vogue.”
Patty and Pocket Books paid Andrews a $50,000 advance for the next two Dollanganger books, the Flowers in the Attic sequels. It was a lot more than $7,500, but since the deal was done before Flowers was published and became such a hit, it was short of what she would make in a few years. But then, “the royalties started pouring in,” Patty said. “I would say two to three years after publication, she was wealthy.”
Andrews' life started to change. “She bought a beautiful estate home on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach,” wrote Joan Andrews over email. And, according to Joan, Virginia got an IBM computer so she “could sit and write and her productivity increased.” Perhaps most important, she bought a van that could comfortably fit her wheelchair. “She became very mobile and loved getting out and about,” wrote Joan.
“She started to have much more of a life,” said Patty.
She even traveled abroad. As the Dollanganger series continued to explode, Virginia was enjoying huge success in the U.K. as well as the U.S., and her British publisher wanted to celebrate her. Jonathan Lloyd, the company's sales director, remembered it well.
“She came with her mother,” Lloyd said in a recent phone interview. “We had a big party and dinner, I think at Claridge's Hotel in London. I remember going up to her room, knocking on the door, and as if by magic, the door seemed to open. And there's a long corridor at the end in semi-darkness. At the end, there's this woman sitting in a wheelchair looking at me. All I could see was her violet eyes. Slowly the chair came toward me; I almost screamed!”
Lloyd escorted her downstairs. “She wasn't really used to parties,” he said. “I remember she had rather a lot of drinks. My boss at the time used to smoke cigars, and we gave her a cigar. She got very wild. Her mother, in the end, said, 'I'm taking her away, I'm taking her upstairs.'”
While she was experimenting with actual personal interaction, her relationship with readers was growing more confident, even as she branched out from the Dollanganger family. There was the insane, gripping child-rape novel, My Sweet Audrina, which was published in 1982. But 1985's Heaven was the beginning of her next family saga, about the dirt-poor (but very good-looking) Casteels of West Virginia; Pocket gave her a $2 million advance for a two-book deal.
Virginia Andrews (with flower).
Courtesy of the Andrews family
If Flowers in the Attic was inspired by a story Andrews had heard as young person, Heaven and the subsequent Casteel series derived from a memoir purchased for Andrews to adapt as fiction. According to Patty, Humphrey Evans came across a woman's true account of being sold by her father.
According to Joan Andrews, Virginia's devotion to writing Heaven and the sequel, Dark Angel, contributed to her death. “She knew she had a lump on her breast, but would not take care of the situation until she finished the current novel she was working on and also the sequel,” Joan wrote. “By then the cancer had begun to spread.”
Bill Andrews — Virginia's brother and Joan's husband —”even went to the Edgar Cayce Institute there in Virginia Beach and researched what could be done holistically, she so wanted to keep her strength up to continue writing,” wrote Joan.
Andrews confided to Patty that she was sick. “She made me swear that I wouldn't tell anyone.” Patty kept the secret, and two months before Andrews' death, Pocket Books offered her a $3 million contract for two more books — the third Casteel series novel, and a prequel to Flowers in the Attic that would tell the grandmother's story.
In the 1985 Faces of Fear interview, Andrews had complained that she wanted to “branch out” from the children-in-jeopardy genre she had created. But, she said, “I am supposed to stay in this niche, whatever it is, because there is so much money in it. I mean, I have tapped a gold mine and they don't want to let go of it.”
Indeed, they did not. Andrews died on Dec. 19, 1986. Four days later, according to a Washington Post story, “a memo was prepared for Simon & Schuster's staff stating that 'V.C. was writing right up until the time of her death and there are a number of novels remaining to be published, including the prequel to Flowers in the Attic, which Pocket Books will release in the late fall of 1987.'”
The plan to bring V.C. Andrews back from the dead had been hatched.
Ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman in his Palm Springs backyard.
Kate Aurthur / BuzzFeed