Many poets and novelists have broken out of publishing's editorial ranks, from Jill Bialosky at W.W. Norton to Daniel Halpern and Dan Menaker at HarperCollins and FSG's Jonathan Galassi. And more than a few literary agents have written their own proposals after years of hustling them. More unusual is a publishing veteran with a thriving career who dares to explore her visceral battle with overeating and manic depression in a memoir. Much to agent Betsy Lerner's credit, her Food and Loathing: A Lament (S&S, Feb.) has beguiled early readers with its poignancy and acerbic humor.
Lerner is no stranger to introspective autobiography. As a young editor at Houghton Mifflin in 1994, she published Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and Autobiography of a Face by the late Lucy Grealy—two works that fueled the trend toward memoirs of women's identity that began with Susanna Kaysen's national bestseller Girl Interrupted (Random House, 1993). "Wurtzel's book was about mood, Grealy's was about appearance. Both are absolutely essential issues to my life," Lerner told PW. "I felt that my role in life was to help these people tell their stories, and that I was able to because it was my own secret story."
After moving to Doubleday, Lerner remained an editor until 1999, when she became a literary agent with the Gernert Company. "I always wanted to tell my depression story," she admitted. "Every time someone else told their story, I became agitated. But I couldn't imagine writing a memoir. So I tried to write my story as a novel."
After several attempts, Lerner discovered that writing in her own voice came more easily. But it also required that she broach an issue she found embarrassing. "I had to talk about food because it was so intertwined with my depression," she explained. "A mood disorder, though highly overrated, is a bit sexy and romanticized. But there's nothing exciting about being overweight or bingeing, and yet I couldn't unbraid it from my story or I wouldn't be telling it honestly. I think every woman is obsessed with food and her body, and because of it, we're really robbed of enjoying our healthy bodies."
As she faced her demons, Lerner recalled working with Lucy Grealy on Autobiography of a Face. "Lucy showed great bravery as she wrote about being disfigured, which she couldn't change," Lerner explained. "I always thought it was so tremendous, her ability to make universal the experience of feeling ugly even though her experience was something quite singular. I learned a lot from her."
Lerner may be a fledgling memoirist, but Food and Loathing isn't her first book. An award-winning poet with an M.F.A. from Columbia University's creative writing program, Lerner is also the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers (Riverhead, 2000), a guide she believes has attracted colleagues with writing aspirations to her client list, among them Basic Books publisher Liz Maguire (who succeeded Lerner's husband, John Donatich, when he became publisher of Yale University Press last month), Viking v-p and editor at large Carole DeSanti and Lerner's own literary agent, Henry Dunow. Lerner is proud of that achievement, but she discounts Forest as a literary debut. "I felt that was my editor persona writing," Lerner said. "I tricked myself into writing that book without feeling that I was a 'writer.' "
This time around, it will be hard to convince herself otherwise. Buyers at Borders and Barnes & Noble are comparing Food and Loathing to such sleeper hits as Marya Hornbacher's Wasted (HarperPerennial, 1998) and Why Women Need Chocolate (Hyperion, 1996) by D. Waterhouse. Ann Binkley, director of public relations at Borders Group Inc., picked it up after a rep from rival publisher HarperCollins recommended it to her, and found that "Lerner's honesty about food and women's body image just nails it." Though Binkley acknowledged that "with a few obvious exceptions, the subject matter doesn't usually translate into fantastic sales," she emphasized that "we believe in this title and are supporting it." The book will receive front-of-store placement, as well as coverage in the free in-store magazine Inside Borders.
Edward Ash-Milby, who buys memoir and biography at Barnes & Noble, attributes the book's appeal to its innovative packaging (the white jacket features a mirror that distorts a gazer's image), as well as Lerner's wry voice, accessible style and keen introspection as she explores issues of self-esteem, weight and mental illness. "She's so candid and funny—I just devoured it," he said.
Such enthusiasm, combined with a February 3 appearance on Today, first serial sale to Self and features in Elle, More, Fitness and Body & Soul—along with a five-city tour—could make Food and Loathing one of the season's most cheerful laments.