In Artifact (Bloomsbury, July), Arlene Heyman has created a character for our times. Lottie Kristin, born in 1940s Michigan, is in love with life and with her work as a biologist. I fell in love with Lottie from the very first chapter, where she beheads laboratory rats and extracts their salivary glands in an experiment, then comes home to wake her sleeping husband for sex.
The story moves back and forth in time, from Lottie’s tragic teenage pregnancy, through marriage and motherhood, to her discovery of the career that defines her. That she sprung from the imagination of a 78-year-old psychiatrist and psychoanalyst whose first book, published in 2016, was a story collection titled Scary Old Sex (Bloomsbury) is all the more wonderful.
Heyman tells me the trajectory of Artifact, her debut novel, in the most casual way. Here is a delightful, unpretentious woman. Her accomplishments are impressive, but it’s her attitude that wins me over in the first five minutes. When I comment that Lottie is so independent and sexually aware from the get-go, Heyman says, “Well, why not?”
She tells me that “this is a book I wrote and rewrote in many parts. The inspiration was a friend of mine, Jo Anne Valentine Simson, a scientist. There’s not so many women scientists. It was such a different field from mine that I was fascinated.”
Heyman graduated from Bennington with a BA in literature in the 1960s, where she studied with Bernard Malamud, then got an MFA from Syracuse University. She taught for five years, wrote short stories, and went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Why medicine? I wondered.
“I had to make a living,” Heyman explains. “I was in psychoanalysis at the time and was afraid I’d end up only writing about writers and writing. I wanted to be a psychoanalyst, and at that time you had to become an MD. Psychoanalysis is flexible; it’s dealing with people at their most naked, which you do with literary characters. It’s about understanding, being moved by humanity.”
Heyman always wrote, except during the three years she took to finish medical school. She wrote the story at the heart of Artifact “so many times,” she says. In the late ’70s, it was an 800-page novel, a “baggy monster.” In fact, Heyman tells me, Simson (who is thanked in the acknowledgements) stopped talking to her because the character based on her had so many lovers. “You can imagine how many in an 800-page book!”
The monster was eventually cut to 215 pages and published as a novella that won a contest in Epoch magazine in the ’90s. Everyone said the novella should be a novel, but in the meantime there were short stories—and many agents. When the last one couldn’t sell a collection, a writer friend offered to send it to her agent in the U.K., Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath Literary Agency.
“I loved the stories,” Hobbs recalls. “You see so many books but nothing punches through.” Still, she was reluctant. “I didn’t want to say, ‘I love these stories and I will sell them.’ I didn’t want to disappoint Arlene. I thought, ‘This is tough: an American woman in her 70s, a first book of short stories.’ ” So she was frank, telling Heyman that it would be difficult but also that she would do her best.
Hobbs says Heyman told her, “I’ve got nothing to lose—go ahead.”
Scary Old Sex ended up in a mini auction, where it went to Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury, and sold in seven territories. Heyman says, “Victoria told me, ‘I can’t sell short stories, but I can’t not try to sell this.’ In a month she had three offers!”
Hobbs says she was thrilled when Artifact landed in October 2018. “ ‘Artifact’ is a short story in the collection, and it was a potential longer piece, but again I was careful in my expectations,” she says. “Because Arlene is so original the road can be tougher.” But, she adds, Pringle read it immediately and was “totally delighted.”
In November, Hobbs sent it right to Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury in the U.S. “We didn’t talk to anyone else,” Hobbs says. “Although there wasn’t a contractual obligation, there was certainly a moral one.”
At Bloomsbury, Miller and editor Callie Garnett agreed to read it together. “I read it in one gulp,” Garnett remembers. “I fell completely in love and rhapsodized about it to both Nancy and Liese [Mayer, Bloomsbury’s editorial director of fiction].” Garnett says she was completely absorbed “from the moment Lottie was cutting off the rats’ heads and at the same time obsessing about her rejected journal article. She was so excited about her profession. I told Nancy I wanted it so badly.”
The deal for world English rights was made by the end of November, and the contract was signed in February 2019. “I love Arlene’s work,” Garnett notes. “She’s so frank about the body, about sex. I really relate to her. We went out for breakfast and it turned into a long, rambling meal. We both love Lottie, with all her flaws.”
Artifact will publish simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K., and marketing plans include print and social media. Sadly, the cancellations of the London Book Fair and author events because of the coronavirus outbreak will limit face-to-face promotion, but this is a book that can expect a long life.
As Hobbs says, “Arlene brings an unsparing eye, yet she’s really compassionate, not sentimental. Give me women in their 60s, 70s, 80s. They have experience. They’ve been stewing, composting, a long time”.