The sudden death of Oscar Hijuelos at age 62 in October 2013 was a shock to the literary world. The widow of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, knew he’d been working on a novel, but in the throes of grief forgot about it until she came across the finished manuscript a couple of months after his death. She is still very vulnerable talking about her husband and his work.
“I was in a very bad place right after his death,” she says. “I still am. But I realized that this was so important. This novel was his last complete work of art, and my decision to look for a publisher happened quite quickly. I called my agent that December and said, ‘I want you to arrange for me to meet with a number of editors, a very discerning group, and I will meet with them in January and February. And from that group, I will choose five editors.’ And that’s what I did.”
Ultimately, Gretchen Young, Grand Central Publishing v-p and executive editor, won her over. Carlson-Hijuelos tells Show Daily, “Her fervor and her visceral understanding of what Oscar was doing in this novel was so clear. It was just above and beyond all of the other’s interests. She showed extraordinary passion, she fought for this novel. She really did.”
Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise (Grand Central, Nov.) stems from Hijuelos’s early fascination with explorer Henry Morton Stanley, whom he’d first read about as a teenager. He later discovered that Stanley was a close friend of Mark Twain, which set Hijuelos on a journey to find as many references as he could about their relationship, sparse as they were. Notes Carlson-Hijuelos, “He decided that he’d found very rich, fertile terrain to explore and began the novel around 12 years ago. The book is about two men who were giants in the 19th century, who admired one another’s achievements, who were writers and served as journalists, who shared a passion for learning, deplored slavery, and loved art. The book is a kind of whirlwind of passions and intrigue and friendships.” She adds, with her voice breaking, “It’s also a reflection of Oscar’s own philosophies about life, love, family, art, and death.”
At Book Expo today, there will be a celebration of Oscar Hijuelos and his posthumous novel at the Downtown Stage, 2–3 p.m. Lori Carlson-Hijuelos will be joined by close family friends author Gay Talese and playwright John Guare, who will read from Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise. Publishers Weekly’s reviews director Louisa Ermelino moderates. There will also be a q&a with audience members.
Carlson-Hijuelos, also a writer, is a BEA veteran. She is heartened by Grand Central’s idea to honor her husband’s work here. “I remember when Mambo Kings was presented to the public, it happened initially at Book Expo. And Oscar often talked about that with me, how thrilling that was for him. I think it’s a very beautiful way to introduce Oscar’s final complete novel.”
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.