Rhoda Lerman was known as a writer’s writer. Jewish, feminist, inspired by spirituality and folklore, she was compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer and dubbed “the female Saul Bellow.” Having written works of fiction and nonfiction over a five-decade career, Rhoda died in 2015, leaving behind a novel she’d been working on for the previous 10 years. That’s where I came in.
It was literary agent Murray Weiss who first contacted me about Rhoda’s final manuscript (actually, manuscripts—there were a few different versions of the novel). He wondered if I might revise, consolidate, and basically do whatever editorial work was necessary to get her final brilliant work to market.
I don’t normally read an author’s backlist before taking on a project, but this wasn’t a normal job, and I was determined to stay true to Rhoda’s voice. Surely some sort of preparation was necessary. So, I did the world’s best kind of homework, savoring the exquisite pleasure of discovering a new writer, awestruck as I studied Rhoda’s remarkable body of work. Her novels featured long, brilliant sentences that surprised me again and again. (A PW review from April 1989 called her “the very opposite of a minimalist.”)
Each book was completely unlike the previous one. Rhoda must have driven her publishers crazy as they struggled to market and sell such a boundlessly imaginative storyteller. Her plots were unpredictable. She had no limits. In other words, Rhoda was a genius.
Weiss organized a phone interview for me with the Lerman family. When Bob spoke of his wife Rhoda, his love was palpable, and I sensed her strong spirit. It was clear how important it was to him and his two daughters to publish Rhoda’s masterwork. I gushed to them about how I adored her earlier novels—especially God’s Ear, a funny but serious book in which a real estate agent is tormented by his father’s mischievous ghost. With my enthusiasm for Rhoda’s work so evident, the gig was mine.
The manuscript I began work on was 150,000 words. Among other narrative goals, I hoped to deliver a finished work of 100,000. An editor’s job is to respect the author’s vision, but how does one make these changes and maintain an author’s integrity when one does not have her ear? I had to listen very carefully to Rhoda. I had to become Rhoda’s ear.
Rhoda’s new novel, Solimeos, might be characterized as literary, as her prose is exquisite. Maybe it’s satire. Also, it has elements of magical realism. It follows Axel von Pappendorf, a naive boy in World War II–era Germany whose father is an aristocratic Nazi linguist. After the war is lost, Axel and his family are spirited away to the Brazilian jungle to help create a new, occult-obsessed German Reich. Twisted passions, ayahuasca visions, startling historical discoveries, vengeance, and much more ensue. It’s a love story, but complicated.
What I already knew from my study of Rhoda’s work was confirmed by the manuscript: she eschewed modern condescension to readers, continually challenging them. The only other writer I worked with who crafted similarly lengthy, lyrical sentences filled with surprising clauses and illustrative digressions, but nonetheless executed with pitch-perfect aplomb, was Caleb Carr.
In long passages, Axel and his linguist father trace the ancient roots of words like Og and I back to Osiris and Pergamon. Sometimes I’d happen upon an outrageous plot twist and would protest—this came out of nowhere! But how much of this was too much? Rhoda was a commercial and critically acclaimed writer. She might challenge her readers, but she would not want to drive them away. Some of these beautiful words had to go.
Solimeos, the new novel from the female Saul Bellow, was published this spring by Wicked Son Books, which is headed by Adam Bellow. That’s some nice karmic resonance. But there’s more. In her novel Animal Acts, the animal-loving Rhoda explored the consciousness of other species in a story about a woman on a cross-country trip with a gorilla.
Rhoda passed this passion for animals on to her kids. Wanting to check on her beloved malamute, who had recently passed away, her daughter Jill consulted a pet psychic. When the animal communicator connected with the Great Beyond, someone else crashed the party. It was Rhoda! Jill later told me that her mom had interrupted the psychic session to let her know how much she loved what I had been doing with the book and how much she appreciated my passion and compassion.
Never before had I received such otherworldly praise. Hearing it was, of course, a surprise—but then, in a way, after getting to know Rhoda, was it?
Dana Isaacson worked as a senior editor at Penguin Random House for 13 years.