I met Gina Centrello in 1999, so the surprise news that she has retired as head of the Random House Publishing Group struck a personal chord with me.
Our first meeting came shortly after Gina had been named publisher of Ballantine Books, and, since I had a multibook deal with the house, she was now going to be my boss. I had worked with two extremely talented publishers—Linda Grey and Claire Ferrarro—and was sorry I would no longer be writing for them. But, while I was excited about working with Gina, I was taken aback at the panic that set in among some agents and editors at her arrival. Several authors were looking for ways out of their contracts, and others were fielding calls from agents to gauge interest in jumping to another publisher.
I was one of the writers who got such a call. “Has she said she wants me to leave?” I asked my then literary agent.
“Well, then maybe I should set up a lunch,” I said. “After all, she is Italian.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” my agent said.
“Not to you,” I said. “But there was a time when Italians couldn’t get published. And now there’s going to be one running the shop.”
Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, among other pen names, was a friend and I remembered him telling me how difficult it was to sell his first novel in the 1950s. He was down to his last few dollars and asked his agent if the book was the problem. His agent told him the book was not the issue. It was his name. His real name—Salvatore Lambino. They weren’t going to bite on a book with that name on the cover. Salvatore went home and came up with as non-Italian a name as he could: Evan Hunter.
Within a week, that novel—The Blackboard Jungle—sold to publishers and, a short while later, to Hollywood where it was made into a hit film. I called Evan and told him about Gina getting hired. “I don’t like hearing this news,” Evan said. “I love hearing this news.”
Evan never forgot he had to change his name to get a book into the stores. So, I set a lunch with Gina. I knew the second we met I wasn’t going anywhere. She was smart, funny, and didn’t dance around the words. She had something to say, and she wasted no time in saying it. She knew other writers were looking to get out of their contracts and, while it may have taken her by surprise, she didn’t let it get in the way. If they didn’t want to work with her, she was going to stick with the writers who did.
I stayed, and it was one of the best decisions I have made. Gina became more than my publisher. She became my friend.
A true friend shows up not just during good times, when the dice are rolling your way, but most especially during the dark days, when the brutality life often brings lands at your door. That brutality happened for me in the winter of 2012, when my wife of three decades, Susan Toepfer, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
It was during that time, when every day seems shrouded in darkness, that Gina showed up in a big way. She called. She emailed. She called again. She emailed again. Always checking on me—not as a publisher concerned about meeting a deadline, but as someone concerned about her friend as he watched someone he loved fight a battle against a disease that never surrenders.
I managed to finish one book during Susan’s illness. But after she died on Christmas Eve 2013, I shut it down. Gina checked in on a regular basis. She never mentioned the missed deadlines. Instead, she asked about my children, my dog, my next trip to Italy. I was the one who brought up the fear that I would never write another book. Susan was my first reader and a top-tier editor in her own right. Gina assured me I would go back to writing books for no other reason than that I loved it.
As was often the case, she was right. It took longer than either of us expected, but I went back, determined to make up for lost time. Since 2019, I have written and published five books and am now working on my sixth. There are many reasons for this output, but Gina ranks at the top.
With Gina’s retirement, she leaves behind an imposing legacy and a first-rate team of talent. I am still with Ballantine/Bantam and am lucky enough to be in the company of professionals I once admired from afar and now get to work with on a regular basis.
But there is little doubt I will miss Gina Centrello.
A great publisher.
And, even more, my forever friend.
Lorenzo Carcaterra’s next book, Nonna Maria and the Case of the Stolen Necklace, will be published by Bantam in May.