I can’t remember yesterday, but when it comes to books that broke the ice around my heart (to paraphrase Kafka), I remember. Knopf editor Carole Baron and I were having lunch, talking books, when Rosellen Brown’s 1992 novel, Before and After, came into the conversation. We had both loved it, and we both wondered if it would hold up. Next thing I know, there’s a hardcover edition in my mailbox. (Thank you, Carole!)
And yes, it does hold up, which is why I was excited by the news that, in October, Sarabande Books is publishing The Lake on Fire, Brown’s first novel in 18 years. The manuscript came to Sarabande editor-in-chief Sarah Gorham via email from Brown, asking if she might want to take a look. “Brown was one of the novelists I read obsessively as I was growing up in literature,” Gorham says. “And although Sarabande seldom publishes novels, and then usually under 250 pages, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity.”
The Lake on Fire is set in late-19th-century Wisconsin, with Jewish immigrants struggling to farm, and then moves to Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. It’s historical fiction, a departure for Brown, but Gorham says the book “has all the fantastic elements Brown is famous for: a driving narrative, love interest, the pathos of wicked weather, cruel poverty, and fantastic excursions around the city of Chicago.”
Gorham edited the manuscript and “it went really well,” she tells me, adding, “Though Rosellen might have a different view!” This prompted me to ask Brown about the edit process.
Brown’s comments were exclusively about copyediting: “There were 840 notations—almost all about capitals after colons,” she says. “I think a complete sentence should begin with a capital so I went back and changed them all.”
This book has been “in and out of my drawer forever,” Brown says, conceding that it is a major transition for her. All her other books are contemporary and mostly take place in New Hampshire, where she used to live. She moved to Chicago, to Obama’s neighborhood, she notes, 20 years ago, and now lives not far from where the World’s Fair took place. She says that walking there, she “was overwhelmed at what had been and how nothing was left: it’s a statement on how ephemeral things are—how nothing stays.”
I ask Brown if she did much research for the book. She tells me that there isn’t much information about what brought Jews to the farmlands of America, but there are a great deal of books about the World’s Fair. “I enjoyed the research,” she says, “this being my first historical, but it was informal—not hard research.”
Brown gets back in touch with me later to add that Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was in the back of her mind when she conceived the book. In The Lake on Fire, Chaya leaves home for Chicago, as does Carrie Meeber, Dreiser’s heroine. Brown teaches a course called Writing Chicago and tells me, “I impose at least one chapter of Dreiser on my helpless students, for which they are not grateful.”
The Lake on Fire is also Brown’s first book with acknowledgements “to her first readers.” Previously, no one saw her novels before submission except her husband. So on many levels, this book is history in the making for Brown. It was too different from her previous works for FSG, her longtime publisher. But though she wanted to write a historical, what she did not want was to shop it around.
“I go to AWP every year, and I walk through rooms of small presses and I see all this exciting stuff,” Brown says. “I wanted a small press for this book. I’m not 25; I don’t need the money and I don’t need a job [she teaches at the Chicago Art Institute]. I chose Sarabande; sent it to Sarah, who called and said she loved it; and that was it.”
The late Virginia Barber represented Brown, and when looking for a new agent, she considered Gail Hochman. They had met decades ago (Hochman remembers a party in Chicago; Brown remembers the book fair in Miami), but as Hochman says, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s a lovely lady and she’s done some beautiful books.”
Hochman, who has been an agent since 1977, says Brown has “been a mentor to several of my clients.” Hochman has always admired Brown from afar and calls her “accomplished and just a nice, modest person,” adding, “What a great thing to be able to say about someone in today’s world.”
Brown approached Hochman with the same ease as she did with Gorham. She sent a note: “I have a new manuscript, and I need an agent.”
Hochman took a look. “I’m always very honest and upfront,” she says. “It’s a great old-fashioned novel where place comes alive, but I was aware that it was not an easy sell in the marketplace. Everyone is looking for edgy, quirky.” She understood that the book needed a classy small publisher that would embrace it.
“The book is wonderful,” Hochman says. “The scenes kept popping in my head; they stayed with me. And of course, her language, her sentences... beautiful.”
Describing the Jewish immigrant farmers, Brown writes: “Driven to improve their chances, they had chosen wrong, and were covered with the dust of failing farmers. They seemed to attract catastrophe—the rain that soaked the hay before they got it in, the calf that strangled in the womb... the wind that took down the chimney pipe and let the rain flood in and soak the quilts and bother the babies. Each, if you traced it back a few steps, was a result of their incompetence. And luck—luck was nothing but their enemy.”
“This is a happy publication,” Hochman concludes. “The experience with Sarabande has been wonderful: thoughtful editing, thoughtful cover. It’s a success story all around, a simple story. We’ve gone with a solid, robust publisher, and we all feel good about it.”
Gorman says she “hopes the book flies into the hands of thousands of readers.” She adds, “It’s particularly timely in its portrait of the gap between rich and poor: the dazzling Columbian Exposition on Lake Michigan and the horrifying conditions in Chicago’s cigar factories, for example. It’s a potent reminder of where our country is heading, yet again.”