In the Image
Dara Horn's intricate first novel weaves back and forth in time to tell the story of a young New Jersey woman named Leora and Bill Landsmann, an elderly Jewish immigrant who befriends her. Landsmann is a traveler whose trying life in Europe and America affords Leora a window onto meditations about good and evil, the existence of God and whether people's experiences shape them or vice versa. The book, set in Amsterdam, Austria and turn-of-the-century New York, has several parallels to Horn's own brief but full life.
Born in Short Hills, N.J., to parents who loved to wander, Horn estimates she's visited more than 40 countries in her 25 years. She always assumed she'd be a journalist—at age 14 a piece she wrote about Jewish historical sites in Spain was published in Hadassah magazine—and was somewhat surprised when she found she had a novel in her. That revelation struck her on a train ride in England, where she was spending a year on scholarship from Harvard studying modern Hebrew literature at Cambridge (she is currently working toward her Ph.D. in comparative Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard).
"I was never interested in news reporting, but in how people see things and remember things," says Horn, who lives in New York City with her husband, a lawyer. "I never thought I had the imagination to make things up, and then I realized I didn't have to. I could just listen to other people's stories, and connect things." At the start she thought the book would be about tourists, but then she realized that there were other issues she was eager to explore. "I wanted to write a book that believes in happiness. Many are so cynical." She wrote the first chapters as short stories, and about halfway through saw how they related. In part she was inspired by the Book of Job, which asks why bad things happen to good people. Her penultimate chapter is a rewriting of that story in verse. The book is full of allusions to the Hebrew bible. "I put this sort of thing in every few pages, almost as a game for myself," she says.
Already 150 pages into her next novel, Horn is sure at this point only that it's about brothers and sisters, whereas In the Image is about parents and children. While writing, she assumed her readership would be Jewish, but in fact, "It's for anyone interested in theological or spiritual approaches to life." (As soon as she says that, she worries that that makes the book sound "self-helpy.")
Alane Mason, Horn's editor at Norton, glows when talking about her author. "I'm in awe of her," she says. "She's such a wise young woman. Her writing is straightforward and translucent. It's not about letting you know how smart she is. You feel the prose, the storytelling, is a passage to something else. What's remarkable about Dara is that she brings a richness of allegory without stepping over the line into fantasy." —Suzanne Mantell
Sales Tips: The Jewish Book Council, which helped develop a readership for Anita Diamont and Nathan Englander, among others, is sending Horn on an 11-city tour of Jewish book fairs, and Norton's own tour will build from that. Mason says that the Jewish themes will appeal to the broad literary market in both indies and chains. Basically Norton is expecting the book to be a runaway success; in Mason's words, "I can't imagine anything else happening to it."
"It's a big, fat, ugly comedy," says Victor LaValle. That describes not only his debut novel, but also its main character—Anthony, the narrator of The Ecstatic, is a 318-pound schizophrenic man living with his family in Queens.
Getting into the head of an obese character was not a challenge for LaValle, as he himself once weighed close to 400 pounds. In an article published in the December 2000/January 2001 issue of Nerve magazine, LaValle recounts both his methods for finding sexual partners when he was so large, and the impetus for his subsequent weight loss. As he tells it, when Vintage acquired his short story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus (and published it in trade paperback in 1999), the realization that there would be an author photo on the book pushed him to lose more than 150 pounds. The Ecstatic is autobiographical in some ways, says LaValle, "mostly in that I'm someone who has dealt with weight and mental illness."
It took LaValle about three years to write the novel, beginning with a first draft in which Anthony was much more similar to the author—or so he thought. "I showed it to Virginia Smith, my girlfriend at the time who's also a writer and a great editor, and she said, 'This guy is great-looking and he gets all the women. Why are you writing about some fantasy guy?' That was a wake-up call." Once Anthony became an overweight character with mental problems, the book veered toward poignance and dark comedy
The latter draws readers into The Ecstatic, says Crown editor Christopher Jackson. "Humor is his way into the story and character, and once you're brought in and engaged by this absurd dark humor, he subjects you to moments of real beauty and insight and heartbreak, but in a way that's enjoyable to read. That's rare."
Jackson had been following LaValle's career for some time and was a fan of both Slapboxing with Jesus and a short story that appeared in an anthology Jackson worked on with Kevin Powell. "My boss was away when I read The Ecstatic, which in a sense was a good thing, because he basically went on my enthusiasm alone," reports Jackson. Vintage acquired paperback rights in conjunction with Crown.
LaValle, who teaches at Columbia University, has taken a year off in order to work on his next novel, the story of a wealthy father and daughter who, in battling with each other, destroy the small town fueled by their family fortune. LaValle doesn't have a publisher for the new book yet, but he does have some idea what won't be in it. "No one will be fat or crazy, and nothing's happening in Queens," he says. "I'm even tempted to make them all Asian." —Natalie Danford
Sales Tips:"One of the things that excites me about Victor as a black reader and a black editor is that he draws from this promiscuous group of references," says Jackson. That wide range is apparent in the long list of authors who have already praised the book lavishly—everyone from Ishmael Reed to Antonya Nelson to Charles Baxter to Binnie Kirshenbaum. First printing will be a hefty 20,000 copies, and the book is to be included in the Crown African-American ad campaign with advertising in both Black Issues Book Review and Quarterly Black Review.
The Piano Tuner
During his first year of medical school, Daniel Mason came up with a rather innovative means of procrastination—writing his first novel. He'd spent the year between Harvard undergrad and medical school in San Francisco researching malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border, and it was hard to come back to hours of rote memorization in the library. He discovered the therapeutic aspects of writing. "Having been to another place and coming back and going to school, with the impact of what I've seen still resonating," says Mason, "I was thinking a lot about that experience." Although he is not certain where the story for The Piano Tuner originated, Mason says he heard about a botanist who transported a bathtub to the jungle, which got him thinking about manmade things in a natural setting.
So Mason imagined Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll in 1886 Burma (now Myanmar), who asks the British War Office to ship a rare Erard grand piano to his remote post. "A person who brings a piano into the jungle is already thinking of unusual things," says Mason, "but the idea of someone having to go there was even more interesting." And when the climate wreaks havoc on the fine instrument, naturally Carroll needs someone to come out and tune it. "Once I had the idea about the piano tuner, I set out from there."
Edgar Drake, the mild-mannered Erard expert, leaves London to travel across Europe, the Red Sea and India into Burma, leaving his wife and his life behind. "The story is very linear," says Mason. "It's a story with a direction and a story about a journey." A common theme of the book, he adds, "is how people change when they see certain things and how they are not quite the same afterwards."
Mason says he has always loved good stories—from Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth in his youth, to American classics such as Steinbeck into adulthood. "There were times when I thought of doing creative writing," he tells PW, "but it's harder to do medicine or biology on the side." He wrote short stories in high school and in one class at college, but The Piano Tuner is Mason's first try at a novel.
Now halfway into his third year of med school, Mason says he will take a six-month break to tour and do research on his next book (he has a two-book deal with Knopf) and then get back to school and graduate the year after that. "Medicine is just such a great field for writing because you are exposed to so many different people and their problems." He says writing and medicine are equally compelling for him. He acknowledges that, "It's harder to fit writing into residency. But I can't imagine not doing it."—Bridget Kinsella
Sales Tips:Senior editor Robin Desser says The Piano Tuner—which has already been compared with Conrad's Heart of Darkness—exhibits "rollicking storytelling and takes you to a faraway, wonderfully exotic place. And the language is gorgeous." In a rare move, Desser (editor of Memoirs of a Geisha) will accompany Mason on part of his extensive author tour. "People are really going to respond to him as a person and to the book on its own," she tells PW. "He has the unusual combination of someone whose language is so beautiful and who is in such control of his storytelling." As for being 26 and a doctor-in-the-making, it will certainly help get Mason noticed and, perhaps, a comparison with Ethan Canin. Knopf backs up its excitement for this title with a 150,000 first printing.
The Divine Economy of Salvation
Priscila Uppal lists a litany of ways she differs from the first-person narrator of The Divine Economy of Salvation. "I am not a nun. I did not attend a Catholic boarding school. I am not middle-aged or of Irish descent. I did not perform an initiation ritual on a teenage girl that turned violent. As a first novel, this is probably as far from autobiography as one can get."
But, while her novel is not autobiographical, Uppal concedes, "I have included things I observed as a teenager: how girls react in groups, how they create enclosed worlds with their own rules, the power struggles between women."
The Divine Economy of Salvation's initial publication was in Canada in February. Uppal, a professor of creative writing at Toronto's York University, had already published three books of poetry there, the first volume appearing in 1998 when she was 23. Algonquin editor Antonia Fusco, who purchased U.S. publication rights, says, "I was surprised by the sophistication and level of skill for such a young writer. The book has a mystery at the core of its plot, but it is not a mystery—it is about mysteries."
In a convent in Ottawa, Sister Angela receives an anonymous package containing an object that she recognizes as connecting her to a crime committed 25 years earlier, when she attended a Catholic boarding school. There she became involved with a group of rebellious teenagers and an initiation rite gone wrong. Now, Sister Angela seeks the identity of the sender of the incriminating parcel while wrestling with issues of sin and redemption.
Of the work's genesis, Uppal says, "It started with the voice of Sister Angela confessing to me." Does she know where Angela came from? "I honestly really don't." Beginning at age 15, she started writing, but never completed, many novels. "I instinctively knew I was practicing writing a novel. With this one, I had more confidence. It was very vivid. This one came out of all the practice." The first draft, she says, was written during the summer of 2000. "Going back and forth between Angela's life as a 14-year-old girl and her present life as a nun, the book was written in pieces. Whichever scene came to me, I wrote it down. Eventually I put them all on the floor and started putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Mysteriously, there was already a very clear internal order to what had been created. I put it together, and then I spent the next year and a half editing what was there."
"I am not a religious person myself," Uppal notes. "I did go to a Catholic elementary school, but my parents are not Catholic." Her father is a Sikh who was born in India; her mother, from Brazil, practices Candomblé, a form of Voodoo. "My faith is literature," says the author. "Literature is what creates meaning out of the chaos around us." —Charles Hix
Sales Tips:Fusco believes the recent preoccupation with girlhood aggression makes The Divine Economy of Salvation especially timely. Citing Donna Tartt's The Secret History, she sees a similar readership for Uppal's tale involving a lethal initiation rite. "There is a psychological darkness in Priscila's work, but it's not oppressive." The book jacket quotes a Canadian review: "Unforgettably divine. Think of Lord of the Flies but with a pack of teenaged girls marooned in a boarding school." Says Fusco, "It feels to me like a classic handsell."
The Guru of Love
Houghton Mifflin, Jan.
"Like many Asians," says Samrat Upadhyay, who moved to the U.S. from Kathmandu at the age of 21, "I came over with the intention of studying business. But after one semester, I knew my heart wasn't in it." Upadhyay transferred and went on to earn a masters in creative writing from Ohio University in Athens and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Hawaii. It was there that he wrote "The Good Shopkeeper," the short story that launched his writing career. When Heidi Pitlor, Houghton's in-house editor for The Best American Short Stories, read it in the 1999 collection, she immediately contacted Upadhyay. He sent her a sheath of stories, which the two then winnowed down to the nine that appear in Arresting God in Kathmandu, winner of a 2001 Whiting Award.
Although Upadhyay wrote two novels as a graduate student, "I was struggling with the form and what it should be," he says. "With The Guru of Love I found a balance between the technique of my short stories and the broader canvas of a novel." Not surprisingly, it too grew out of a short story, but an unpublished one that Upadhyay workshopped at Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland, where he teaches. "I workshop all my work with my students," he explains. "It really helps them when they see I am struggling with my writing. Some students offered me pretty good critiques. When I sat down and revised it, it kept growing. After about 50 pages, it became clear to me it wanted a larger form." As with his short stories, Upadhyay worked on the novel without a plot outline. He describes his writing as "imagistic. I don't like to articulate what will happen."
All of Upadhyay's work to date is set in Nepal. In The Guru of Love, he chronicles an affair between a math teacher and one of the students he tutors. The differences between the two women—the teacher's wife is from a privileged background, his lover is not—point up the political changes in Nepal and the need to accommodate both traditional and modern desires. Even so, Upadhyay does not regard himself as a political writer. "I'm more interested in how individual lives are affected by what happens in history.The Guru of Love deals with a moment in Nepali history, the pro-democracy movement of the early '90s. The revolution is the backdrop."
Like the main character in his novel, Upadhyay is pulled in two directions. As the first Nepali to write in English in the West, he is influenced by both his native land and his adopted culture. "I feel like I have a strong storytelling voice, and that's part of growing up in Nepal and listening to the stories of the myths," he says. At the same time, he was educated at a Jesuit school in Nepal, where he read such classic Western children's books as the Hardy Boys. —Judith Rosen
Sales Tips:When Upadhyay sent Pitlor the stories for Arresting God in Kathmandu, he didn't have an agent. "He didn't come up through knowing people," says Pitlor. Although the two kept in touch after the short-story collection came out, Pitlor had no idea that the recently married Upadhyay, who had a baby daughter, was working on a longer work until she saw him at the Whiting Awards ceremony and he mentioned the new novel. "It was good, very good," says Pitlor. " The Guru of Love really delivers on the promise of Arresting God in Kathmandu. There are no flags or whistles. It's third person, no gimmicks."
The Tea Rose
St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne (Oct.)
Studying in London 15 years ago, Jennifer Donnelly was captivated by the Brick Lane Market in the city's East End. She and her landlord, a fellow American, "walked underneath this overpass for a subway and when we came out the other side, there were these Cockney men singing— competing vocally to get you to come and buy their wares.… The area was very, very dirty and tumbledown, as close to Dickensian London as you could get, with crumbly buildings and people selling everything from old jewelry to silks to old-fashioned candy. You heard the singing, you saw people that looked like Fagin scuttling around, and the place just captured my heart."
This singular atmosphere provided the setting and heroine Fiona Finnegan for Donnelly's fiction debut. "I saw how good-hearted these people are, and that once they get to know you they're extremely loyal. But they are rough and tough and two-fisted, too—very loud, with a great sense of humor. I just fell in love with them."
Donnelly's novel, a rags-to-riches tale of romance and triumph in turn-of-the-century London and New York, showcases her love for both rose gardening and tea. "I've just always loved tea," she says. "I'm an unrepentant guzzler." Fiona makes her fortune from a tea salon she opens in New York City's Gramercy Park. The author explains, "She comes across this rundown building. The thing that makes her want it more than anything is when she sees mounds of tea roses growing. They've been left to their own devices, so they're wild, growing all over the place. They're a metaphor for her, too. Tea roses are supposed to be very delicate flowers, but they're tough little buggers."
Like her heroine, Donnelly went through years of struggle before achieving success. "My agent and I got shown the door at every major house in New York for a long time," Donnelly admits. "People were saying, 'No one wants to read this sort of old-fashioned story anymore.' Well, I wanted to read them. When I was growing up, books like The Shell Seekers or The Thorn Birds were it. My mother and aunt had piles of these books and I started reading them when I was 13. I had to sneak a few, though, because there were racy bits." Nowadays, adds Donnelly, "I think people feel that we have to read only great literature and watch Fassbinder films. I'm not doing that—I'm at home holed up watching Titanic and reading the latest Danielle Steel. And I think that's what most of the rest is world is doing, too."
When success finally arrived, it came like the old cliché—in threes. In August of 2000, Donnelly tells PW, she sold a children's picture book, Humble Pie, to "the legendary Dick Jackson" at Atheneum. "And if that wasn't enough," she adds, "Stephen Gammell, the Caldecott-winning artist, wanted to illustrate it!" Then, in March of last year, she got a call from her agent saying that St. Martin's had purchased The Tea Rose. "Up to that point in my life," says Donnelly, "I'd never danced on a table, but that night, I danced on my dining room table, waving a bottle of Veuve Clicquot over my head." Finally, last summer, a YA novel of Donnelly's was purchased by Harcourt in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in England—in a two-book deal, no less.
"It was, and is, an incredible feeling," says Donnelly. "Equal parts joy and immense relief. It feels like the bleeding stopped, or that my horse just won the Triple Crown."—Hilary S. Kayle
Sales Tips:Editor Sally Kim is confident that Donnelly's saga will appeal to Barbara Taylor Bradford fans. "What I really thought from the moment I finished it was, 'This is really A Woman of Substance for our time, for a new generation.' This is an old-fashioned, sweeping epic, infused with a touch of modern sensibility—a towering love story that people really want again. It's also a wonderful historical story but with an edge, and a very modern touch."
Simon & Schuster (Feb.)
Like many young professionals, Keith Blanchard, Maxim magazine's editor-in-chief, imagined what it would be like to own Manhattan. Not in a literal sense, but a literary sense. Eight years later, The Deed, his debut novel, emerged. "When I graduated from college," Blanchard reports, "I started the first novel that everyone does—no plot, just characters—and got drunk on my own writing and produced 200 pages of garbage. I got that out of my system, but a couple of characters emerged that I liked." And as for the book's premise, he adds, "that just came to me. I thought about a lost family Bible from the 1700s or 1800s that's hidden somewhere in the family—nobody knows who has it—and a family graveyard in upstate New York."
The Deed centers on Jason Hansvoort, a single college grad working at an advertising agency, serial dating and trying to find his place in life. His mundane existence is turned upside-down when an attractive law student tracks him down. Amanda is a member of Manahata, the tribe of eponymous Native Americans who sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch in the early 17th century, and her research shows that there exists a lost document that conferred ownership of Manhattan on a Dutch benefactor and his descendants. She believes Jason is the last in line, the heir to Manhattan Island and everything on it—and she can prove it in a court of law. Jason, of course, is skeptical but his attraction to Amanda makes him play along.
"I did a lot of research on the history of Manhattan," says Blanchard. "I spent a lot of time in the library figuring out where stuff is now in relation to the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, and overlaying maps in my mind. I also had to learn what life was like back then since the novel starts with a scene from 1635 and then returns to the present day."
Not surprisingly, the editor-in-chief of one of the country's most popular men's magazines (and the second most popular, after Cosmo, among college women) accurately captures today's single professional man and his issues—career and dating. "He really has a wonderful way of capturing the language," says S&S editor Geoff Kloske. "He's got a great ear for how young urban professionals talk these days."
As evidenced by the eight years it took to complete, writing The Deed was a long journey for Blanchard. "I had a very time-consuming day job so I had to sneak in work on it. There were a lot of nights filled with Jolt Cola, writing until four in the morning," says Blanchard. "It's like playing the guitar: if you don't play every night and you put it back in the case, it sits there for two months." Blanchard also found writing for the magazine and the novel at the same time to be, at times, enervating. "It's a different kind of writing, though, and I treasured it because it was all about me with no deadlines or people telling what to do."
Still, the process was enjoyable enough that Blanchard already has another novel in the works, though on a different timeline: "Give me just five years this time." —Michael Archer
Sales Tips:Kloske says Nick Hornby fans will enjoy The Deed. "Even though Keith is the leader at a men's magazine, in house, both men and women have found the novel appealing," says Kloske. "That's one surprise. This definitely isn't a novel about beer and babes. It's a wonderful romantic comedy and a caper novel." Simon & Schuster plans a first printing of 75,000 and major national advertising and print publicity.
Broadway Books (Oct.)
Like her hugely popular Italian memoirs, Frances Mayes is generous in her expressions of appreciation: for her ability to write full time, for the opportunity to publish a novel, for the forthcoming film of her memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, now in production, with Diane Lane as Mayes. Speaking from a rented house in the "shockingly unspoiled" Cotswolds in southwestern England, Mayes describes writing her first novel, a family saga set in the deep South, as a trip full of surprises. She didn't expect the process to be more revealing than memoir writing, which it was; she didn't expect to miss her characters when she was through with them, which she did, and she didn't know that the revision process would be so vital and invigorating.
The book tells the story of JJ Mason and his sister Ginger, who reunite in the small Georgia town of Swan to piece together the life of their mother, Catherine, whose body has been mysteriously exhumed nearly two decades after her suicide. The story explores the intricacies of family life as the siblings piece together bits of the past. Though Mayes says she always planned to write a novel, the trigger was the death of her own mother two years ago. "I realized," she explains, "that I'd never go back to live in the South. I wanted to revisit the sense of place I absorbed by osmosis and language. I love the ability Southern writers have to make place as much a character as the characters they were writing about. I wanted to create that sense of place."
Like other Southern families, she says, hers was one in which no one ever told the whole truth. "They buried things. I was always second-guessing them." As a result, she found that the novel-writing process opened up things she hadn't thought she ever wanted to think about. "The novel felt revealing about things in a metaphorical way even though the story is fictional."
Mayes worked on the book from July till December 2001 after some initial thinking on it three years ago and a detour to write In Tuscany. "It was an intense time. I had kept lists in notebooks of Southern expressions and words and bits of conversation that capture the pitch of Southern talk. It was odd to be closed up in a study in Italy and be writing about the South."
Unlike many other novelists who describe being "led" by their characters, Mayes felt as if members of the Mason family were just waiting on the front porch for her every day. "It was a spooky experience that something that's not real become real to you. I liked it. This family didn't exist and then I made them. There was an intense sense of creation, like making a baby. But it was wonderful to finish it. I didn't know if I could write a novel."
Fiction writing is clearly just one of Mayes's many accomplishments. She's working on a book now about a year of travel: "I've figured out how to make vacation and work coincide," she gloats. Though the author was not interested in discussing age ("a peculiar American obsession"), she tells PW that she taught for 23 years, published six volumes of poetry and became a grandmother for the first time this year. —Suzanne Mantell
Sales Tips: Executive editor Charlie Conrad says there will be a blitz of ads around publication and a big-deal campaign and tour. First printing is set at 150,000 copies, with orders coming in extremely strong. "We're reintroducing Frances as a first novelist. I don't believe her books are huge because they're about Tuscany. She taps into something readers want, whether it's the story of reinventing her life or her beautiful writing. There's real word of mouth on her books."
The Death Artist
On April 14, 1989, a devastating fire ripped through a Chicago art gallery, destroying almost four years' worth of canvases by internationally recognized painter Jonathan Santlofer. Depressed, the artist headed to Rome and the American Academy, where he tried to find new subject matter for his paintings. He also started writing. "I had always been interested in writing and had written, but almost exclusively on art and culture," Santlofer tells PW. "For some reason the idea of writing fiction seemed right at that moment and I started writing stories and a novel, though not The Death Artist—that came later. Looking back, I doubt very much I'd have written this novel if it hadn't been for the fire. But I needed something else to sustain me creatively, which is exactly what writing did. The fire made me brave. I simply did what I wanted to do."
What he did was create a psychological thriller that is centered, not surprisingly, in the world of art. Shortly after former NYPD detective Kate McKinnon makes a dramatic career change—to art historian—a string of perfectly executed murders begin to plague the New York art world and the killer begins sending Kate cryptic messages that only she can decipher.
The Death Artist's protagonist started out as a male, but Santlofer decided along the way that a female would be more effective. It wasn't, he reports, an easy transition. "It was really hard to think like a woman, but eventually I got inside Kate's head and knew what she felt and thought. I even spent a day at Barney's to figure out what Kate would wear—and it was obvious. I'd look at certain designers and think, 'Oh, no way Kate would wear that!' "
A longtime thriller devotee, Santlofer wanted to set his work in the art world, both to give the layman an insider's look and those involved a sophisticated view of their milieu. The idea certainly grabbed the attention of Morrow editor Trish Grader. "He had me from the first page. I read the manuscript overnight and was crazy about it. I thought it had an enormous amount of potential because this isn't just a tremendous serial killer novel, it's also an expert writing about his field. It's fresh because it centers on a world that hasn't been presented in commercial fiction in the last couple of decades, that I can remember."
For Santlofer, who's once again a major force on the art scene, the writing experience has been "wild and exciting." He sees his novel in a very different way than his artwork. "Maybe because writing is newer to me, it's harder. At this point in my life, art is just less... painful," he explains. "An artwork goes out into the world very differently than a book. Almost anyone can buy a book as opposed to a serious piece of art. I love the idea that many, many people can enjoy the book." —Michael Archer
Sales Tips: "Rather than going toward an audience," says Grader. "I was thinking this is something new and we're going to be able to play up the nonfiction elements in all our promotions and marketing, which is exactly what we're doing." Grader notes that Santlofer's nine-city tour will be centered on museums and art galleries across the country. Morrow also plans an aggressive publicity campaign; advance quotes for the novel have been received from Nelson DeMille, Susan Isaacs and Phillip Margolin. Rights have already been sold in France, Italy, Spain and Poland.
Cloud of Sparrows
"I'm always doing some kind of writing," says Takashi Matsuoka. "I've written and completed novels that didn't sell, and I was disappointed then, but it turned out for the best because they weren't very good. This one is." With a self-deprecating chuckle he adds, "Pardon my lack of modesty."
Speaking from his home in Honolulu, where he lives with his mother and 15-year-old daughter, Matsuoka, 55, marvels at the success met by Cloud of Sparrows. His debut strides across a vividly imagined landscape of 1861 Japan with the ruling Shogun and the entire domestic tradition under attack both from vicious enemies within and the dismaying introduction of Western thought.
One of Matsuoka's failed novels was set in Honolulu, another in Pennsylvania and California. But one sleepless night in the summer of 2000, "I woke with the title, the beginning and ending, with key characters and dramatic turning points in the story," Matsuoka says. "I got up at 4:30 and began writing."
The historical and ethnic milieus were at last a perfect fit. Matsuoka's parents are both children of Japanese immigrants: His mother grew up in Hawaii and his father was born in San Francisco. Matsuoka himself was born in Japan and didn't reach the U.S. until he was two. For years, his father and mother regaled him with stories of his forebears and their country, and as a young man he earned degrees in history and sociology from the University of Hawaii.
Aside from the crisis of political turmoil, the novel's drama also arises from the clash "between the Japanese protagonists and the Western protagonists," says Matsuoka. One of the latter is a beautiful young missionary, whose presence is a catalyst for romance. "I have Zen practitioners in the novel too," he says, agreeing that his own Buddhist practice had an impact on his work. "It does have some spiritual content," he says, "but it's not heavy-handed. You know, there's always a spiritual or psychological conflict between forgiveness and revenge. Before Zen, I was revenge-oriented. The book represents a change inside me toward forgiveness."
With Cloud of Sparrows (the name comes from the family castle of a young nobleman, Lord Genji), Matsuoka tells PW, "My intent was to entertain. As a writer, the very first thing you have to do is interest your reader. My mother is quite ill, but I told her, 'Hang on. I'm a late bloomer.' So as I was writing, I would give her completed sections. That perked her up a lot because she looked forward to it every day, and she's so happy about this, that I've written a story that relates to our heritage." —Robert Dahlin
Sales Tips:Not only is Delacorte high on Matsuoka's novel (a 100,000 first printing has been announced) but so is Universal, which quickly picked up film rights. "I can remember turning the first page, and it was like opening the door into a dream world," says senior editor William Massey. "Like Shogun, it's a big epic adventure, but this also has a really subtle and poignant series of love stories. It's Shogun meets Cold Mountain and it appeals equally to men and women because there's so much emotional depth as well as scenes of great derring-do." Delacorte has also purchased the sequel to Cloud of Sparrows, which Matsuoka reports is proceeding well.
This Side of the Sky
Since the mid-'90s, Elyse Singleton had been working on the manuscript for This Side of the Sky, the story of two friends from Mississippi who remain close through the years of segregation and World War II, when they serve as WACs. At the same time, she made her living as a freelance writer (under the names Janet Singleton and J. Elyse Singleton), crafting articles on everything from monkeys in Malaysia to Friends star David Schwimmer, for magazines as diverse as New Zealand Women's Weekly and USA Today. "Journalism is like having parents, though not particularly rich ones," she says. "Writing a first novel is like being an orphan. Nobody waits for it. Nobody, other than oneself, legitimizes it with the insistence that it should exist."
During those years, Singleton labored to create fiction that would be both literary and enjoyable. "I wanted to write a book that was entertaining, but not so lowbrow that people like me would be grateful for the brown paper bag the clerk covers it with at the checkout counter," she says. "Also, I wanted to create a great black heroine. I grew up watching movies in which white women were portrayed as stunningly attractive creatures for whom men would brave typhoons, gunfire and supervillains. Yet I never saw anybody so much as cross a busy street to get to a black woman."
Singleton's novel is based in historical fact, but not on any one particular person, although a year after coming up with the story, she did discover that a great-great-aunt had joined the WACs in the 1940s. Singleton, who notes that both her grandmothers were born around 1910, felt perfectly comfortable writing about women two generations older. "People my Aunt Anna Lee's age, including grandparents and two other great-aunts, have been influential in my life," she says. "I feel I know their generation as well as my own." BlueHen founding editor Fred Ramey contends that This Side of the Sky offers access to a rarely examined slice of history. "We're looking at the experience of two African-American women in a time that is lost to us, and these are experiences we don't usually read about," he says.
Singleton submitted her novel directly to BlueHen (a Penguin Putnam imprint based in Denver) and has signed a two-book deal. Prior to that, she approached agents with her work, but while many praised it, they also questioned its commercial potential. Ramey reports that one or two of the 10 or so works of literary fiction that the press publishes each year come in over the transom. For her part, Singleton is pleased with the way things have worked out. "With BlueHen, I've really enjoyed the clout of a big house and the attention of a small one." —Natalie Danford
Sales Tips:Marketing for This Side of the Sky looks to be as varied as its author's freelance career. Caitlin Hamilton, marketing director for BlueHen, plans national publicity, with particular emphasis on African-American markets. "The book has several publicity hooks, though, so we'll also reach out to historical fiction fans, people interested in reading a different story about World War II and those who enjoy a good romance," she says. Efforts will include promotion to the Black Caucus of the American Library Association at its August meeting, as well as events in Denver (where Singleton lives) and Chicago (where she grew up). This Side of Sky is also a fall Barnes & Noble Discover title, and Singleton will be featured in the October issue of Essence.