First Novels That Bloom in the Spring, Tra-la, Breathe Promise of Merry Sunshine*
Staff -- 1/15/01
*With thanks to Sir William S. Gilbert
Dial Press (June)David Schickler studied international relations at Georgetown University because he wanted "to learn something about the world"--but the world he had always dreamed of living in and writing about was New York City. His short stories were good enough to earn him a coveted place in the MFA program at Columbia University, but his dreams of being a working writer in Manhattan would have to wait another six years.
After a stint teaching English and drama at a boarding school in Vermont, Schickler found himself back home in Rochester, N.Y., living in a basement room in his parents' house, teaching at a local private school and collecting rejection letters that "were getting progressively longer and more complimentary." Schickler credits one of his students with giving him an unlikely way to get his submissions noticed. The student often submitted her work in brightly illustrated envelopes and Schickler soon began packaging his own stories in the same way. One envelope (and, of course, the story inside) caught the attention of an editor at GQ, who recommended Schickler to his now agent, Jennifer Carlson.
When not in the classroom, Schickler was hard at work on Kissing in Manhattan, his "novel in stories." The centerpiece of the book is the Preemption, a "mysterious, gothic, sexy, but hopeful" New York apartment building with a prophetic doorman named Sender and an improbable cast of tenants--including a shy accountant who uses the Preemption's antique elevator as a late-night confidante. "I was seeking magic, humor and bliss in my own life," says Schickler, "so I created a world that offers those graces to its inhabitants. I tried to write a book that has dark urban muscle, but that also has romance in its bones and its heart. In all the characters, the bedrooms, the gothic nightclubs, I meant to testify to the dark but welcoming soul of New York City."
Schickler was in the midst of rehearsing a student performance of The Tempest when he was summoned to the school office for a call from his agent. Her news, Schickler remembers thinking, was just about as good as it could get--the New Yorker would be including "The Smoker," one of the stories from Kissing in Manhattan, in its Summer 2000 Debut Fiction issue. But the good news would soon get even better. The day after The New Yorker appeared, Schickler's agent had copies of the manuscript on editors' desks. By the end of the week he had a
Sales Tips:Dial editor Carla Riccio remembers that when the manuscript of Kissing in Manhattan arrived, she and publisher Susan Kamil locked themselves in their offices, read it straight through and came out determined to make a preemptive offer. "It reminded me of nothing I had ever read before," says Riccio. "It was wholly original and fresh." Schickler has another novel in the works for Dial, and Riccio is certain that "he will have a long career and we want to be there every step of the way."
St. Martin's (June )Frustration with people's attitudes toward dogs motivated animal control officer Diane Jessup to write a novel featuring a sympathetic pit bull. "Many people don't seem to understand or respect how close a friendship people can have with dogs. I wanted to write something that showed the depth of commitment that can come between a human and a dog. When I was younger, our local humane society sold the dogs to the University of Washington for research, and I was aghast that if my dog were to get loose, this fate awaited her and was allowed. I was 14, and that's actually when I started writing the book."
Out of the blue, over 25 years later--on her 40th birthday, no less--Jessup, who had written two nonfiction books about pit bulls, was contacted by literary agent Jane Rotrosen who wanted information about setting up a pit bull rescue program. During their discussion, Rotrosen mentioned that she wished someone would write a novel featuring a pit bull so that people could see what these dogs are really like. "I was too proud to say, 'I have a manuscript,'" Jessup remarks, "but I said, 'I wonder if I've written it.' I had never read a book on how to write a manuscript, so it was single spaced and not spell-checked very well, and it was quite ghastly in the middle. It took me two weeks to get up the nerve to send it."
Shortly thereafter St. Martin's senior editor Michael Denneny happened to visit Rotrosen for the weekend. "He picked up the manuscript and ended up taking it back to New York with him," Jessup explains, adding that he actually read it before Rotrosen looked at it. Jessup was given six months to make revisions, which she juggled with her job and caring for 14 dogs. "I treadmill the dogs twice a day; I would write sitting beside the treadmill. Most of the book was written in the car while I was driving to and from dog training and to and from work. I haven't had a wreck yet, so it worked for me."
When asked why dogs like pit bulls have such a bad reputation, Jessup replies, "Look at who owns them--every person who is violent and wants to have a dog between them and society has a pit bull now. If those people owned golden retrievers, we'd be afraid of golden retrievers. Given the way these dogs live, being tormented all day, it's a testimony to the breed that someone isn't killed every day. Pit bulls are actually the most reliable with people." She should know--she owns 10 of them and uses them in her seminars on training people to handle aggressive dogs.
It is her expertise and passion for dogs that helps bring the story of Damien, the pit bull in her novel, so unerringly to life. "I do honestly think I understand where dogs are coming from," Jessup tells PW. "Dogs make a Peter Pan out of you if you let them. I'm now a single mother of 14, as I like to say."
--Hilary S. Kayle
Sales Tips:Denneny believes that Jessup's novel will appeal to anyone who loves dogs. "This is not a subject area I've ever published in, but when I read it, I became utterly convinced that this is the way dogs experience the world. Diane gets inside a dog's head and she's a natural-born storyteller. Fans of Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs will certainly go for this book." Through the Internet and other channels, St. Martin's will reach out to a variety of dog groups, humane societies and groups who rehabilitate abused dogs.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Apr.)For MacArthur award-winning playwright Han Ong, the inspiration for his first published novel came, appropriately enough, while he was watching a play. "There was an instance where I was bored and my mind drifted," recalls Ong, 32. "Suddenly, instead of what I was watching on the stage, I saw a set filled with white furniture. I saw this character walking around, making suggestions about the furniture arrangement, and I realized he was a feng shui master. And I knew, for some reason, that he was telling lies."
What exactly those lies consisted of would not be clear to Ong until he sat down to write the manuscript, which he began in mid-1997 and finished in early 1999. The novel revolves around a scam perpetrated by William Paulinha, a young, gay, Filipino-American street hustler, and his partner, Shem C, a failed writer embittered by his ostracism from Manhattan's social elite. Passing himself off as Chinese feng shui master William Chao, Paulinha not only bilks upper-crust New Yorkers of hefty consulting fees but also deliberately supplies them with wrong advice--suggestions that would, should feng shui's principles prove valid, destroy their prosperity and well-being. As Paulinha narrates, "Every attitude you thought of as urban and mundane I owned, but these people... were more than happy to preserve me in the brine of ancient stereotype: a soul directly linked to the ancestral past."
Ong, who is Chinese-Filipino, was born in the Philippines and emigrated to Los Angeles with his family in 1984, when he was 16. In his junior year of high school, he ran away from home and became exposed to L.A.'s subculture of gay prostitutes. The experience inspired his theatrical debut at 25 as both playwright and actor with The L.A. Plays, which was followed by the stage works Dark Bakersfield and Middle Finger. From age 23 onward Ong also wrote fiction, a dream ever since a "sickly" childhood where he "was alone and read a lot." "I've written three novels before this one, each one better than the last," he reports. "I didn't think of it as an apprenticeship--I always thought that I'd be able to sell each manuscript--but it didn't pan out that way. In retrospect, I'm glad."
Ong met his agent, Susan Bergholz, of the eponymous agency, in 1999 after a reading at New York University with Hawaiian author Lois-Ann Yamanaka, a Bergholz client who agreed to pass on the word that Ong was shopping around a completed manuscript. Bergholz signed him and sold Fixer Chao to FSG executive editor John Glusman six months later. While the 1997 MacArthur award theoretically gives him the luxury to produce at a leisurely pace, Ong, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, remains furiously creative. He is already at work on another novel, and his latest play, Mysteries, will be produced off-off-Broadway in May.
Sales Tips:"I see the book as a latter-day Confidence Man," says Glusman. "It introduces a distinctive new voice in Asian-American writing and at the same time works firmly within the American picaresque tradition of Conrad, Huckleberry Finn and Jack Kerouac." FSG plans an author tour to New York, L.A. and San Francisco and will be offering jacketed galleys.
Warner Books (Apr.)"One of the most moving moments in researching Cane River," says its author, "was finding the $800 bill of sale for my great-great-great-great-grandmother." Tademy's first novel is historical fiction based on extensive two-year research into the "slave branch," as she says, of her family, "which is my mother's side." Her quest took her to central Louisiana, where four generations of maternal ancestors lived and died on the Cane River over a period of 135 years. The result is a family saga that sweeps from the early days of slavery though the Civil War into a pre-civil rights South.
"I spent lots of time walking the land," Tademy says. "I hired local guides and visited all the sites, many of them underwater now, that I found mentioned in the documents I uncovered. The area was French speaking, isolated and heavily Catholic. And the church documented everything about a person's life. There were census records, government documents, plantation logs, auction receipts. Along the way I joined the local genealogical society."
Before writing the book Tademy left her position as corporate v-p for Sun Microsystems because "I had this feeling there was something else I was supposed to be doing. At the time I didn't know exactly what it was. To fill the time I got involved with genealogical research. It was very strange leaving this terrific job simply because of a strong intuition. Something irresistible was nudging and coaching me. Normally I am a very rational, organized, disciplined person. But now, looking backward, I can see it was inevitable."
Given the abundance of hard historical evidence, why a novel? "The deeper stories sought me out," Tademy says. "I made lots of leaps of faith in fleshing them out, also including in them family stories and traditions. And I wanted to tell the stories in narrative form, through dialogue and action. All the names are real, and the events, too. I did add some filler events for transitioning and to keep the stories moving smoothly. Because of the liberties I took it made more sense to call the book 'fiction.'
"The process was absolutely fascinating. Many of the facts seemed to contradict one another. It was this huge puzzle I had to figure out and piece together. As I assembled the elements of the story, two themes emerged: the power and strength of the family and the choices people make about how they're going to live their lives."
Hooked on genealogical research, Tademy is "halfway finished" with her second novel, which is about her father's side of the family--"He had a completely different family background."
Sales Tips:Jamie Raab, Warner Books publisher and Tademy's editor, describes Cane River as "a great, rich family saga and a wonderfully absorbing, mainstream reading experience. Lalita examines some unexplored American issues." Raab believes the book is so moving and revelatory because of the truth that emerges from the narrative: "The greatest cruelty of slavery was the destruction of the family." Warner is positioning Cane River as appealing to the same audience as Alex Haley's Roots and is backing the book with a major advertising and promotional campaign.
Pocket Books (Mar. )When things weren't going too well personally and professionally, former Dutton/NAL editor Joseph Pittman said to himself, "If I wanted to start my life over again, how would I do it?" Since Pittman couldn't make that kind of change himself, "I did it through fiction. I would have liked to run away at one point; I think everybody d s. And I think that's the fantasy of Tilting at Windmills. Everyone wishes they could do it, but they don't, and here's a story of some guy who did. And it's not always easy."
Although his novel is not strictly autobiographical, Pittman's main character leaves his full-time PR job to take a break from his professional life, and this past fall, Pittman left his full-time editing job at NAL. "Like Brian, sometimes you realize to make a change, you have to force a change. It was the change I wanted to make two years ago and couldn't. Thanks to the book I could do it this time and see what else is out there. Of course, as an editor, I would tell first-time authors, 'Don't quit your day job.' And then there I went and didn't follow my own advice."
Like Brian, Pittman is giving himself six months to enjoy unstructured time. "I'm going away to England for a month just because I want to. I've never done anything like that before; now I have the freedom to do it."
When Pittman decided to write his novel, he already had a head start. "I've had the character of Brian Duncan in my head and on paper for six or seven years. I knew his situation. Here's a guy who is about to propose to this woman. He learns of her betrayal and then he leaves town. That's what I had. Then years later I saw the phrase 'tilting at windmills,' and it just struck me. Then I had the title and my mind just started going from there."
It took Pittman about a year to finish the manuscript, though he didn't write on any schedule. "Over the summer, for two months I wrote the bulk of the book and then I didn't write for three months, but the story was never out of my head. I would make notes about where it could go. And then one day I sat down and just started churning out pages again."
It wasn't all that straightforward, Pittman admits. "There is a little girl, Janey Sullivan, in the story. She's seven years old, which is not an easy age to write. Luckily I have lots of nieces and nephews whom I could draw on for experience and for voice. One of the more rewarding things I heard from early readers was how perfectly she'd been captured. I like hearing that because if Janey d sn't work, the book d sn't work."
When asked what he hopes to leave readers with, Pittman tells PW, "You never know what tomorrow holds. Some good can even come out of the bad things that happen."
--Hilary S. Kayle
Sales Tips:Pocket Books senior editor Amy Pierpont calls this "Love Story for 2001. It is at heart a story of redemption and romance. It's both a love story and a bit of a tragedy. Joseph has a unique writing voice; he captures a moment in time so wonderfully and really takes the reader along for an emotional roller-coaster ride. And the way he describes small-town life is so astute and visually beautiful." Pierpont believes Tilting at Windmills will appeal to readers of Nicholas Sparks, Robert James Waller and Barbara Delinsky.
Simon & Schuster (Mar.)Seasoned journalist Amy Wilentz, author of The Rainy Season, a 1990 book on Haiti since Duvalier that was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous articles for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, is unreserved about the switch from writing nonfiction to working on her debut novel. Says Wilentz, "I loved writing fiction. It was the greatest." She often used narrative and other fiction techniques in her reporting, she explains, "and I found it even more satisfying and just as intellectually rigorous to use my journalistic training in the service of fiction. I think that the most exciting thing about the fiction of ex-reporters is the way their experience informs the work. A lot of writing is about the small things in life, but as a journalist I have seen the way the world behaves in a larger scope, and that helps to shape narrative." Wilentz points to the career of Graham Greene, who successfully wrote both fiction and nonfiction, as a model for her own.
From 1995 through 1997 Wilentz was the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker; she stayed on for a year after that assignment ended, freelancing for various publications. It was then that she began Martyr's Crossing, which took her three and a half years to complete. It concerns a child's death at a border crossing and the resulting unrest--both political and personal--in the lives of the boy's mother, his grandfather (a Palestinian intellectual living in the U.S.) and the lieutenant who refused to let the child and his mother pass.
"It's based on several incidents that happened at the crossing between the West Bank and Jerusalem when I was there," says Wilentz. "Pregnant mothers have miscarried and babies have died, and of course in recent battles a lot of kids have died in gunfire." Wilentz predicts that due to its setting the book will draw readers interested in the Middle East, but that it has wider appeal on personal terms as well. "The book is political, but it's also a psychodrama. It's really the story of a father and his daughter and the strains on their relationship caused by living in conditions of war. It's about her survival through this terrible conflict and the final decisions she makes about her relationship to the war and to family. Ultimately it's about rising above the political to the human."
Wilentz, who in the past has won both the PEN Martha Albrand Prize and the Writers Award, continues to write nonfiction, although she now focuses on opinion pieces rather than lengthy articles. And she has enthusiastically begun work on a new novel. After traveling the world as a reporter, what exotic locale will Wilentz visit now in her fiction? "So far," she says, "this next one's set in New Jersey."
Sales Tips: Martyr's Crossing is part of Simon & Schuster's Choice Fiction program, which showcases premier fiction to booksellers. The novel will be featured on the publisher's Web site and will also be the subject of national print advertising in the New York Times and the Washington Post. It has already received glowing advance praise from the likes of Susan Minot, Madison Smartt Bell, Susan Orlean, Kurt Andersen and Samuel G. Freedman.
Picador (July)Hugh Bowman Jr., one of the main characters in Malcolm Knox's debut novel, Summerland, is, by the author's account, "not a very nice guy. Charming, but not very nice." This wouldn't be a problem, except that Hugh is based, in part, on a close friend of the author's. "When I told Random House that Hugh was partially based on someone I knew, they were worried about a defamation case and whether he was going to sue the pants off us," says Knox. "I was never concerned with that because I knew he wouldn't. I was really concerned with our friendship."
Knox's friend was "just fine" with the character and the book, the story of Richard and Hugh, two best friends who are born into wealth and privilege and who grow up to marry their childhood sweethearts. When Richard realizes this idyllic existence is a sham, the story becomes, in the words of Picador publisher Frances Coady, "a cruel dissection of friendships, love, secrets and betrayal."
"It's a book about class in Australia, which is a fraught issue because, even more than in America, Australians likes to think of themselves as an egalitarian, classless society," says Knox. "The people in the book, in a sense, grow up very quickly but also don't grow up at all. In terms of professional and material development, everything g s at a highly accelerated pace, but their emotional development is retarded."
Knox, who lives in Sydney and writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, laughs at the term "first-time novelist"--with good reason. It was in 1988, while backpacking through Europe, that Knox first decided he wanted to write fiction. Over the next 10 years he produced eight full-length novels. He sent only one of the manuscripts to a publishing house, however, and never heard back from them. One night Knox was lying in bed when something told him to start working on the story that would become Summerland. He got up, sat down at his desk and began writing. Six weeks later the novel was finished.
Aside from being written so rapidly, Summerland was unique compared to Knox's previous works in another way--a publisher read it. Knox's wife, Wenona, was directing a film based on a contemporary novel. Knox gave his manuscript to the novelist, who was also writing the screenplay, and she passed it along to her publisher. Random House Australia published Summerland in 1999 and it has, according to Knox, "earned its keep." Picador U.K. purchased the worldwide rights and made deals with Germany, Italy and the U.S., where the novel will be released in July.
Knox says his previous works all contributed to his development as a writer and that Summerland was just the right book at the right time. "I've been doing these novels for a long time and they kept falling over on their own ambition. Craftwise, I thought I could run before I could walk. Because I wrote this so quickly, it had unity and the voice was consistent."
The universal themes of class and the self-destructive power of wealth in Summerland have translated into success overseas and drawn comparisons to a contemporary Australian The Great Gatsby--all of which seems not to faze Knox. He simply had a good time writing the novel and is glad his friend endorses the book. "I had a lot of fun with the idea of trying to stuff it up the establishment, but the funny thing is, I've been contacted by members of that establishment and they all love the book."
Sales Tips:"This is a haunting story that stays with you," says Coady. "It brings to mind Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Ford Maddox Ford and Patricia Highsmith. In other words, Summerland is a literary novel that also works as a gripping psychological mystery." Picador publicity director Sara Leopold adds that "enthusiasm at sales conference was unusually high, and the first printing was pushed to 50,000." Picador's publicity plans include a tour for Knox and hardcover editions of Summerland to be given away at BEA.
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese (July)Irishman Julian Gough always planned to be a novelist. As a teenager, he surmised that his 20s would be best devoted to becoming a rock star, his 30s would be a perfect time to be a writer, and his 40s would be devoted to film. As it happened, Gough recorded four rock albums during his 20s, including an Irish top-10 single, with his rock band Toasted Heretic. Now, at 34, he's about to fulfill the second part of his master plan, as his first novel is published this coming summer.
Juno and Juliet revolves around twin sisters during their first year of university in Galway and chronicles their early romantic encounters. Juliet, the narrator, starts off as the more reserved of the two, always deferring to her striking and charismatic sibling. Eventually, however, Juliet comes into her own, emotionally whole and equal in beauty and charm to Juno.
Gough began writing fiction intermittently between gigs with Toasted Heretic. Not surprisingly, one of his first efforts was a novel about "a young man in a rock band who has adventures." However, he "printed off about five copies and let his friends read about themselves," then stuck it away in a drawer.
Ultimately it was a woman who left him who inspired him to write Juno and Juliet, which is really, he admits, "a very long love letter to her. When she left I had this gigantic hole in my life. I realized for the first time that other people are real--as real as me. They want things and feel things and aren't just walk-ons in the great drama of my life. And I grew fascinated with this discovery. So I stared to explore this new world by creating someone real, what they need, imagining it all from the inside."
At its core, says the author, Juno and Juliet is about a girl awakening, coming into self-consciousness--much as Gough did when his lover left him. "I was also interested in deconstructing myself, what made me," he says. "So with Juliet, I tried to imagine what a life would feel like if someone with my essential character or personality grew up as a girl and became beautiful in the eyes of the world."
Despite "not having a clue" as to how to get the novel published, Gough landed top-tier U.K. agent Pat Kavanagh who then sold the book to Nan Talese, publisher and editorial director of her eponymous imprint at Doubleday, during the 2000 London Book Fair. Talese says she was "immediately impressed with how fun and intelligent it was."
Gough cites Jane Austen as a major influence on this first novel. "What I love about her is the quiet way in which she tells devastating stories. She captures the intense drama of everyday life. That's what I tried to do with Juno and Juliet."
Sales Tips:After reading Gough's novel, Doubleday sales reps requested that it be included in the publisher's summer "Fiction for the Rest of Us" campaign, which will promote it alongside new work by established names. Talese says Juno will appeal to "the young and hip who read Melissa Bank and to a much broader audience who enjoys Roddy Doyle." Galleys will be widely distributed to booksellers, and Gough will attend BEA and bookseller dinners.
Ballantine (Mar.)Joanna Hershon jests that a parodist might condense her debut novel into the tabloid headline "Two Brothers, One Good, One Bad, and the Woman Who Comes Between Them." Then she regrets her facetious reduction. "I'm interested in prototypical, almost biblical scenarios," explains Hershon, 28, an actor, produced playwright and Edward Albee Writing Fellow. She earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where she workshopped in 1996 with Michael Cunningham during an early stage of Swimming. Hershon recalls, "I was concerned with structure and plot, and Michael advised me to pay attention to what I really knew--the emotional truth." Although readers might detect ech s of Cain and Abel in her telling of long-term familial repercussions after a "good" brother kills his "bad" sibling in a jealous outburst, she stipulates, "I'm not trying to do what Jane Smiley did with A Thousand Acres--a deliberate retelling of King Lear. In that case there were all kinds of direct parallels. That's not what's happening here."
What is happening entails a three-part structure that dramatizes the onset and aftermath of fraternal violence. In part one, Aaron brings his college girlfriend Suzanne home to rural New Hampshire for a weekend visit. When Suzanne meets Aaron's brother, Jack, sexual sparks ignite. A puzzled observer is eight-year-old sister Lila. This section is told principally through the points of view of Suzanne and Aaron, with lesser intrusions from the youngster. Part two, seen entirely through Lila's eyes, picks up a decade later. Now a college student at New York University (the same college Aaron and Suzanne had attended), the young woman is emotionally stunted by the loss of her brothers. She realizes that she's never been told what happened the night that Jack died and Aaron disappeared. Two weeks later, in part three, Lila tracks Aaron down, but he's unaware of her identity.
"Finding someone is only the beginning," Hershon notes. "Most of the people we see in the first third of the book are there 10 years later. It's an interesting gap in time. The book is suspenseful in that we want to know what's happened to the characters." She confides, "I struggled with the structure for a year and a half before returning to my first instinct. The reader knows what Lila d s not. I didn't realize how ambitious the structure was." Yet this structure is necessary, Hershon believes, to convey her notion that "an event that could have been innocuous can become pivotal to everybody. I'm interested in family mythology, in the day-to-day stories we tell each other that shape our lives and what happens to us."
Acquiring editor Dan Smetanka says, "Joanna takes the commercial and universal theme of family, then creates an entirely new universe through her prose and perspective. The characters are complicated and intriguing, and her ear for dialogue is incredible." Calling Hershon "definitely a writer to watch," Smetanka reports that Swimming is the first in a two-book deal--"That's how much we believe in her."
Sales Tips:Smetanka characterizes Swimming as "a younger, sexier Map of the World. It's an engaging domestic drama in the commercial yet literary vein of Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller and Anna Quindlen." Smetanka cites Hershon's considerable charisma as one reason Ballantine is sending her on a publicity tour.
Random House (May)To most civilians, the United States military is like a foreign country, says Thomas E. Ricks, who covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post. "It's a major American institution, yet it's also mysterious. So I write about the military as if I were a foreign correspondent."
With his outsider status (he's never served in the military) and insider connections, Ricks is in the perfect position to act as tour guide to this exotic country. As a nonfiction author, Ricks wrote Making the Corps (Scribner, 1997), a look at the Parris Island, S.C., marine boot camp. As a reporter, he coauthored a 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on current defense issues for The Wall Street Journal before he moved to the Post.
And now, as a first-time novelist, Ricks, 45, will lead readers on a tour of the modern military with A Soldier's Duty. Ricks describes the book as a "military thriller of ideas" inspired by Graham Greene's topical, politically charged "entertainments" such as Our Man in Havana and Brighton Rock.
A Soldier's Duty deals with a romance between a male and female officer against the backdrop of the culture wars waged inside the Clinton-era Pentagon. The key questions that arise during the course of the story, Ricks says, have to do with duty and personal honor. "I wondered what happens when duty and personal honor are in conflict," Ricks explains.
Ricks chose to tell his story as a novel rather than a nonfiction book to protect his sources. "I didn't see a way to candidly address the issues I had in mind without betraying confidences." Nonetheless, he put his reporting skills to work, interviewing many of the same people for his novel that he quotes in his reportage.
"In many ways, this is a 'reported' novel," Ricks adds. Not surprisingly, he discovered his sources were more willing to open up to a fiction writer than to a newspaper reporter.
Ricks's work as a fiction writer helped him develop a deeper understanding of the people he covers as a reporter.
A Soldier's Duty's origins date to 1995. After reporting on the military effort in Bosnia that year, Ricks began jotting down ideas, descriptions and bits of dialogue and threw them into a folder. In January 1999, while flying from Washington to Korea, Ricks found himself on a long trip with a laptop computer. He took the opportunity to begin writing an outline for what eventually became A Soldier's Duty, which he finished on a recent similar trip to Turkey.
"As a reporter, I hated long plane trips," Ricks says. "But as a novelist, I loved them."
--James A. Martin
Sales Tips: A Soldier's Duty is a military thriller that harkens back to the days of Anton Myrer's Once an Eagle, a cult book in the military for decades, says RH editor Scott Moyers. Civilians are A Soldier's Duty'starget readership, though the military audience isn't being overlooked. In addition to traditional marketing efforts--RH has hired retired marine colonel Fred Peck to act as a freelance publicist for the military market.
Overlook Press (June)Few things about The Root Worker came easy for 50-something novelist Rainelle Burton, who started out as a technical writer before becoming a freelance editor. "It's really hard," she says about changing writing styles. "The [first draft of the] book read like a computer manual. That's why I had to rewrite." But editing, too, can have its drawbacks: "When you're editing someone else's work, it's hard to get away from their voice."
Although Burton followed the dictum to write what you know--the Lower East Side of Detroit in the 1960s, where she grew up--her choice of subject was also problematic. "I started to write about root working as nonfiction," says Burton, "but I couldn't get any cooperation. Even people I knew who lived there denied it existed."
A derivative of voodoo, root working took hold in Detroit and a few other black urban communities, as well as some rural areas in the South, in the 1930s. Burton describes it as "dereligionized voodoo. In voodoo, you call on God to help you. People go to root workers when even God can't help." They trade food money for "fixes" like candles or charmed plastic rings.
According to Burton, root working continues to thrive, although stories about it rarely surface in the media. In 1984, the New York Times ran a story on two women who gouged out their sister's eyes at the suggestion of a man who claimed that the sister carried evil. More recently, a naked woman was found walking on the freeway near Detroit carrying her baby, whose eyes had been gouged out.
Burton emphasizes that even though "The Root Worker is based on the real-life community I lived in, it's not autobiographical. It's a story about fear and conflict--emotional, physical and spiritual--from a child's perspective. It's about the whole dynamics of this community, where the line between religion and superstition can become very blurred." It is narrated by 11-year-old Ellen, whose mother, whom she refers to as "the Woman," believes that Ellen is responsible for the family's problems.
Once The Root Worker was finished, Burton's writing difficulties did not disappear. After completing the book in 1994 and finding an editor at a writer's conference, her career was put on hold due to what Burton describes as "a major bout of depression." Because of it, she was unable to answer the editor's calls or letters. Two years later when Burton was better, the editor was gone. But Burton persevered. "I picked it up again and rewrote it. Depression d s bring out a whole lot of clarity. I was able to hear Ellen clearly. I wrote what I heard. Sometimes we censor that voice. I let go of that, and I let her surprise me."
Today sans a "fix," Burton's writing career is starting to take off. Not only is The Root Worker due out, but this semester she will teach a course on creative writing at her alma mater, Wayne State University. A second novel, set near Burton's rural home close to Detroit, is also in the works. --Judith Rosen
Sales Tips:Publishing director Tracy Carns wasn't looking for the company's first novel by an African-American writer. "We bought it because we thought it was a terrific literary novel. We were all really struck by the same thing--the author's voice. It's raw and p tic at the same time. We'll do the usual thing we do for literary books, with an African-American component. We're going to start out with a lot of galleys."
Morrow (Mar.)A scrap of paper nearly prevented John Searles from writing the novel that is now generating buzz in Hollywood and the publishing industry.
Searles's quest to write began in earnest in 1989 after the tragic death of his younger sister from diabetes. Then pursuing a business degree at Connecticut State, Searles decided to change the course of his life. "If my sister hadn't died, I wouldn't have struggled to become a writer. It was the worst thing that happened in my life, but somehow it set me free," Searles says. He applied to New York University's Gallatin School to pursue his dream of writing and was awarded a Dean's Scholarship. Despite his parents' protests, he moved to New York.
As an NYU graduate student, Searles wrote his first novel. He sent the manuscript to a "friend of a friend," an editor at a publishing house who eventually responded with a polite rejection letter. When Searles opened the returned manuscript, a scrap of paper fluttered out from among its pages. It was a note written by an editorial assistant who had been assigned to read his manuscript. In the note, obviously not meant for the author's eyes, the assistant wrote that she "could barely make it to page 60."
"I was devastated, and I thought I'd never write again," Searles, now 33, recalls. The assistant's stinging assessment was soon balanced by encouraging ones from other people, including his agent. The book never sold, however, and Searles moved on.
Then one day, a sentence formed in Searles's mind: "Whenever my father disappeared, we looked for him on Hanover Street." It was soon followed by another: "My mother drove us slowly along in our orange Pinto, gazing into shadowy windows." From there a story began to take shape. "I decided to write again, but this time just for myself," Searles says. This time around Searles set out to write a story told as lyrically as possible but one that also "kept you reading." The result: Boy Still Missing, a literary page-turner in which the 15-year-old protagonist's erotic encounters with his father's mistress leads to an accidental death.
His agent, Joanna Pulcini, sold Boy on the basis of its first four chapters. Within a few weeks Patricia Burke, the v-p of Paramount Studios, was touting his manuscript as a possible film. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith proclaimed Searles's debut novel as "one of the hottest properties on the movie market." A blurb from Frank McCourt proclaims Searles a "masterful storyteller." And Wally Lamb writes that he read Searles's novel "hungrily, compulsively, worried sick for a troubled young character about whom I cared deeply."
Despite such heady praise, Searles plans to keep his day job as senior books editor for Cosmopolitan magazine and to resume his creative writing teaching duties at Marymount Manhattan College after an upcoming author tour. No movie deal has been signed yet--but Searles isn't sitting around waiting either. He's already working on another novel.
"I still have that scrap of paper in a box," Searles adds. "I was always pretty tough in life, but that note made me tough as a writer."
--James A. Martin
Sales Tips:Boy Still Missing is a "real word-of-mouth book," says Sharyn Rosenblum, Morrow director of media relations. "It was an immediate house favorite. The enthusiasm drove us to go back to press on our galley run, doubling the original quantity." A publicity tour is scheduled for New York; Connecticut; Boston; Portland, Maine; Vermont; Washington, D.C.; Charlottesville, Va.; L.A. and San Francisco.
All in the Family
The apple d sn't fall from the tree," or so the proverb tells us. Among this season's first novelists are a few who bear out that saw, following in the authorial footsteps of their well-known parents.
Initially Stanford Diehl chose a very different calling than his father, Primal Fear author William Diehl. But after more than a decade as a journalist and editor, he succumbed to a life of crime writing. In Angel in the Front Room, Devil Out Back (Longstreet, Apr.), Diehl tells the
payola from the owner of a roadhouse, and then saw the house burst into flames."I think Stan has a great gift for character. It's really a terrific read," enthuses senior editor John Yow. He speculates that Diehl came to Longstreet because of the house's success with crime writer Fred Willard, whose own first novel, Down on Ponce, was blurbed by Diehl's father. Diehl, who grew up in Georgia, where the novel is set, may have also been swayed by Longstreet's location in Marietta.
John McPhee told his children, "Don't ever be a writer. Every book is just angst-ridden," recalls daughter Jenny McPhee, translator of Paolo Maurensig's Canone Inverso and coauthor with her sister Martha of Girls,with photos by third sister Laura."He was trying to save us, but it was in our genes." McPhee continues to disregard her father's advice as she finishes her debut novel, The Center of Things (Doubleday, July), a love story set in New York that brings together old movies, quantum physics and tabloid journalism.
According to Doubleday senior editor Amy Scheibe, who worked with McPhee at Knopf, the book was a complete surprise. "I didn't even know she was working on a novel. She took me to lunch to tell me she finished her novel. Happily I read it and totally fell in love."
For Maud Casey, daughter of writers John Casey and Jane Barnes, writing The Shape of Things to Come (Morrow, Apr.) was "kind of like going into the family business. I was familiar with people in bathrobes playing solitaire at odd hours. The writer's life was something I was familiar with, but the process was mysterious."
Given the strong advance comments of Margot Livesey and Anne Rivers Siddons, Casey d sn't have to worry. Her novel--about 33-year-old Isabelle, who g s home to live with her mother after being fired from her job--has been praised as witty and wise. In it Isabelle reinvents herself at a succession of temp jobs, culminating with one as a mystery shopper for gated communities.
Alexandra Styron, daughter of writers William and Rose Styron, also heeded the writing siren's call and began All the Finest Girls (Little, Brown, June) five years ago when she was an MFA student at Columbia. "One is very lucky to have a lot of people in your family doing what you do," she says. "You don't have to fight an uphill battle to become a novelist." Still, she admits, she didn't let her parents read her book until after it was sold.
Styron denies that the novel, which is written in the first person, is autobiographical. "I'd be naÃ¯ve if there weren't some speculation about that. It's about a young woman," she explains, "who g s to an island in the Caribbean to bury her nanny. It's as much her discovery about her nanny as herself."
Short stories afford long looks at an author's creative agility, as witnessed by several first collections.
Los Angeles provides the setting for Marisa Silver's Babe in Paradise (Norton, July). Silver--writer and director on such films as Old Enough and He Said, She Said--has produced "a very mature collection," says v-p and senior editor Jill Bialosky. "The stories are edgy and dramatic, and the characters are very real. They live on the edge of Hollywood's glamour." Three stories involve Babe. In one, she's a girl whose house is threatened by fire. In another, she breaks into a home where a mother lives with her handicapped son. In the third, Babe's a limousine driver. "Each story is like a novel," says Bialosky. "Each opens up an entire world."
Laura Glen Louis is a film editor for nonprofit educational films, reports Harcourt senior editor Walter Bode. In her collection, Talking in the Dark (Apr.), "The stories are about our most intimate relationships," says Bode. "They're about love and its dangers, the risks you take when you give yourself to someone else." An older man falls for a golddigger in one story. In another, a woman makes love to her daughter's boyfriend. "All the stories have an edge," Bode adds. "When you start one, it never ends where you thought it would."
Nelson Algren Award winner Matthew Iribarne lives in San Francisco, but his Astronauts and Other Stories (June) takes place all over, says Simon & Schuster senior editor Mary Sue Rucci. "It's Charles Baxter territory," she says. "The stories explore the quiet moments in life that transform, the sort of thing that Lorrie Moore d s so well." She adds, "Paternal and fraternal issues run throughout the book." The title story concerning two brothers, one of whom has become schizophrenic, begins with memories of the first moon walk.
"In The Torturer's Apprentice [Feb.], John Biguenet brings you into each story with the first sentence," says Dan Halpern, editorial director of Ecco. "These stories have an immediate clarity of vision. They're beautifully proportioned. They have content. You can see a European influence here, a touch of Calvino. There's also a Latin American influence. John likes a note of magic realism, but he puts his own stamp on it. These stories haunt you." Biguenet, an O. Henry Award winner, lives in New Orleans, and some of the stories are set in Louisiana.
First-prize winner of the 1999 O. Henry Awards, Peter Baida died at the age of 49 before publication of A Nurse's Story and Others (Univ. of Mississippi Press, Apr.). "Peter asks big social questions in these stories," says Moira Crone, fiction series editor. "What do we owe each other? What d s society owe its members who are ill or who have gone astray? In A Nurse's Story, a woman who has devoted her life to caring for people in upstate New York becomes involved in a strike, which upsets the hierarchies in town. "The stories are not preachy," notes Crane. "They're socially conscious, like Grace Paley stories."
Two debut collections will be coming this summer from Houghton Mifflin's Mariner imprint. Due in June is The Bostons by Carolyn Cooke, whose stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Being billed as a fusion of Grace Paley and Annie Proulx, the book features "a vivid range of lovable, if slightly damaged, characters." The stories in Arresting God in Kathmandu (Aug.) are by Samrat Upadhyay, the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West. According to HM editor Heidi Pitlor, "The author focuses on a different way of thinking about love and sex--he's exploring a different kind of emotial terrain as well as his country's exotic geographic terrain." Pitlor, who edited both Mariner titles, adds, "Ultimately, both of these collections involve characters who are struggling within the constraints of society and its perceived rules."
New Authors, New Imprints
We celebrate first fiction here, but singularity heightens the occasion still further with brand-new imprints and lines introducing their own debut novels.
Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson, late of MacMurray & Beck, are cofounding editors of
Sourcebooks inaugurates its new Landmark fiction imprint in April with a first novel, a bestseller in England, Man and Boy by Tony Parsons (Book News, Dec. 18). "All of us in book publishing got started because we love books," says publisher Dominique Raccah, "and many of the books that moved us to become part of the business were novels. That's why we started Landmark. We're into great storytelling, which you can get with a book about a father and his four-year-old son, as in Man and Boy, or in fiction in the Robert Ludlum tradition." The latter genre is represented by The Medici Possession by Jonathan Harris, a first novel set for the fall. "That's the story of the search for the Amber Room," says Raccah, "a room constructed of amber by Soviet czars that disappeared in World War II." To promote Man and Boy, Sourcebooks will tour Parsons, while print ads will direct readers to a Web site where they can read the novel's first chapter. "It's a real word-of-mouth novel," predicts Raccah.
New American Library initiates its trade paperback Accent line in May with Her Daughter's Eyes by Jessica Barksdale Inclan. "After the manuscript had reached people's desks in the company, all of whom loved it, we knew we had to find a special way to launch new authors like this," says president and publisher Louise Burke. "How could we do something special for issue-oriented women's fiction, fiction that is totally accessible, fiction that reaches your heart? We created Accent to turn books like Her Daughter's Eyes into that sort of event." Inclan's plot involves a 17-year-old who is pregnant and determined to keep her condition and her baby a secret. "Accent books will primarily consist of first novels, but we're not being overly ambitious," says Burke. "We're not going to fill a slot every month." June will bring Tending Roses by Lisa Wingate, and August introduces Gracelin O'Malley by Ann Moore.
First novels associated with the book business are a tiny subgenre, but HarperCollins enlarges it significantly with three upcoming entries.
First is As Long As She Needs Me by Nicholas Weinstock, an April release from HarperCollins/Cliff Street Books. Protagonist Oscar Campbell is the personal assistant to the tantrum-prone Dawn, head of the powerful Dawn Books in New York City. Things really start happening when she orders him to plan her wedding. "Publishing provides the background for an old-fashioned screwball comedy," reports Diane Reverand, senior v-p and Cliff Street publisher. "It's about an assistant devoted to his boss and, later, to the wedding columnist he falls for." The book biz provides satirical fodder, as when Oscar must quickly come up with a cover for a new action novel by a Tom Clancy-type author. He grabs a bodice-ripper jacket, throws some blockbuster type onto it and hands it to the dismayed writer. Oscar wins the day, however, when he convinces the author that the cover will attract a whole new female audience to his books.
About the Author by John Colapinto (Aug.) is a first novel by "the perfect writer," says v-p and executive editor Robert Jones. "I worked with John on As Nature Made Him, and when I bought that, it turned out that he'd been working on a novel off and on for 10 years." It concerns Cal
Volume 247 Issue 3 01/15/2001