The Hornet's Nest
Simon & Schuster (Nov.)
Jimmy Carter isn't the first American president to win a Nobel Peace Prize, but he is the first to write a novel: The Hornet's Nest, historical fiction drawing on real events of the Revolutionary War. "I've written a lot of books, about one a year," he reports. "I've written different kinds of books deliberately because that's challenging to me." S&S editorial director Alice Mayhew tells PW, "I published President Carter's memoir [An Hour Before Daylight] in 2001. I knew then that he was working on a novel, but I didn't know it was set in the Revolutionary War."
"I've been interested in history all my life," remarks Carter, "especially since my decision to run for national office. I've also done work on my family history." The Carter family has famously lived in Plains, Ga., and those Georgian roots reach back to the 18th century. "I've also had a desire to tell an historical story that has rarely been covered adequately"—namely the Revolutionary War as it was waged in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. "The last of the war was almost exclusively fought in the South," Carter states. "The British secretly planned a major move up through the Carolinas and Virginia to take New York City."
The Hornet's Nest has been buzzing in Carter's mind for some time. "I began seven or eight years ago to do a detailed study of the war down here," he says. It was fascinating for him to read about just how torturous it was for American colonists wavering between loyalty to the king and to the revolutionary spirit. The book's primary protagonist is Ethan Pratt, who moves from Philadelphia to North Carolina in 1763, and then travels to Georgia with a group of Quakers. "All the historical facts in the book are accurate," says Carter, adding that his own ancestors are models for some of the characters. Pratt, he reveals, is a fictional figure bearing the family name of his father's mother.
Because Jimmy Carter remains so thoroughly immersed in world affairs, how does he carve out time for his prolific output? "I'm still a farm boy in my daily life," he confesses. "I get up at 5:00 and write until 8:00, when my life begins at the Carter Center. When I'm home at Plains, I can write for hours every day. I write rapidly. I don't mess around with it."
Carter's intent is to be informative, of course, but also to entertain. He expects his Sunday School fellows to be "shocked." He explains, "I'm not restrained in my language and I have some pretty interesting love affairs in there." Others will be surprised to learn that Carter painted the cover art himself after nothing else suitable could be found.
"I write on a computer, and I probably printed up six drafts," he says. "When I'd go to Africa or Asia, I'd run off a copy and make corrections on the trip. This book has been around the world a couple of times." And the whole experience? "It's been delightful. I might write another novel, maybe even a sequel to this."
Sales Tips: Carter reports, "I'm going to do more publicizing for this than for any other book I've written." S&S plans a 300,000 first printing, a nine-city tour and plenty of advertising and promotion. "It's an exciting and suspenseful reading experience, and it reveals a part of our early history that will be a revelation for many, many readers," promises Mayhew. "The characters in the book, with their courage and ferocity, will live in your mind forever after."
Houghton Mifflin (Oct.)
The first thing one realizes in a conversation with Edward Docx, talking from his home in England, is that he's an old-fashioned guy in his literary taste, and an up-to-the minute observer of contemporary mores. It's those qualities that come together in his debut novel, The Calligrapher, which combines the esoteric love poems of John Donne and the arcane craft of calligraphy in a contemporary love story.
The protagonist is Jasper Jackson, a 20ish London calligrapher who is transcribing Donne's Songs and Sonnets for a rich client. While Jasper's job is intellectual, his inclinations are amorous; he's an enthusiastic philanderer who has loved and left women all over town. When he finally falls in love for the first time, his surprising comeuppance comes in a double jolt that will leave readers reeling.
Docx began his novel with a confirmed idea of what he didn't want to do, which was to write in the "tricksy style in which many novels are written these days." In other words, he's a classicist at heart, a lover of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He feels strongly that "the enterprise of a novelist is not to experiment with form but rather to produce a telling record of new things in a form already established."
Hence his ambitious decision to interpolate Donne's poems into a modern romance, tying their trajectory to the hero's growing insights about the nature of love and his own false notions about women. Since Docx had specialized in Renaissance literature at Cambridge, he was well acquainted with Donne's works, and he realized that they are beautifully illustrative of the emotional arc of a love affair.
Docx says that he was lucky to have had the help of Professor John Carey at Oxford, author of the definitive biography of Donne, with whom he met occasionally to check that he wasn't "off the track." Even so, a "huge amount of work went into making all those Donne poems resonate," Docx admits.
Learning the art of calligraphy provided Docx's second challenge. He joined the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, and read texts at the British Library under the tutelage of Tony Curtiss, one of the Fellows of SSI. One of the things he hates, he says, is books where "you don't believe that the hero is what he says he is," so he was very conscientious in explaining the art of calligraphy as his hero becomes immersed in his exacting labors.
Lest readers fear a novel that features two esoteric subthemes, Docx emphasizes that his main intent was to tell a modern love story. One of the "new things" he describes with sparkling wit in The Calligrapher is the sea change in the battle of the sexes, where women as well as men can be the aggressors in a love affair, as sexually promiscuous as males have been in previous eras. "The geometry of male-female relationships has been reversed," Docx says.
Docx made his mark in Britain as a cultural arbiter, serving as literary editor for the London Express and as columnist for the Sunday Times. He was, he confesses, secretly writing novels all the time, but when he finally decided to get serious, he quit his day job and devoted himself to The Calligrapher. He ran the publishing route just like anyone else, though. "It's Darwinian here; you're published on merit alone."
And merit there must be, since out of some 20 reviews there so far, 16 have been "crazily good." Rights have been sold in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland, with publication set for next year.
Given that Docx's hero seems to be familiar with all the good places in London for trysts, romantic meals and carousing good times, one must ask whether he himself is a bachelor. He is amused. "I'm not married. I'm in a relationship with a woman. I'm very good at ex-girlfriends who do me the great honor of still talking to me. It helped me get more than one female point of view."
And, one might add, to write a rollicking good story that proves once again that love makes the world go round.
Sales tips: A professional calligrapher's handsome transcription of Donne's "Woman's Constancy," a poem pivotal to the novel, is in the hands of media editors who attended a "curtain-raiser" lunch in Manhattan last month, and will soon reach other reviewers. Docx will tour major markets on the East and West coasts. In the words of Lori Glazer, executive director of publicity at Houghton Mifflin, "The combination of story line, exquisite writing, charming author and John Donne poetry''—plus a stunning jacket—should gain lots of attention.
One Pill Makes You Smaller
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Sept.)
"Tall," "leggy" and "buxom" are not adjectives generally associated with 11-year-old girls, but regardless of how unwelcome those attributes were, they typified Lisa Dierbeck at that already awkward age. Growing up on Manhattan's Upper East Side in the 1970s, Dierbeck recalls "this strange and intriguing phenomenon where cool, 17-year-old guys would want to hang out with me, and I thought, 'Wow! They don't even care that I'm 11.' "
Dierbeck has brought her adult understanding of that precarious situation to bear on Alice Duncan, the protagonist of her nuanced first novel. Alice also calls the Upper East Side home and is surrounded by artists in the '70s, a "self-consciously amoral" era, Dierbeck says, when "adults behaved like children and children behaved like adults." When Alice is shipped off to a run-down art camp in North Carolina by her careless older sister, she meets J.D., a charismatic man enchanted by her beauty and innocence. "It's a story of a very young girl at some ways in war with her own body," Dierbeck says. "It is a real phenomenon from a statistical perspective; young girls enter puberty at younger and younger ages, so she's wrestling with a divided self which feels like it's half sexualized, half innocent.
"I'm fascinated by moral gray zones and ambiguity," Dierbeck says. While writing the novel, she put a sign above her computer that stipulated "No Judgment"; she didn't want to create either evil villains or angelic children.
She also didn't want anyone in the publishing industry to see her manuscript until it was absolutely ready. Six years ago, Dierbeck began work on a novel about an adult Alice Duncan who thinks she has run into the man who raped her when she was a child. But in the course of developing Alice's background, she realized she had two novels: one of Alice as a child, the other about her as an adult. After asking writer friends like Pagan Kennedy, Dale Peck and David Rakoff to look at her manuscript, Dierbeck gave it a final polish.
"There was just something so clean about it," says FSG senior editor Ayesha Pande. "And I thought that Lisa's story was really impressive—that she's not some young person straight out of an M.F.A program but that she had labored and taken her craft very seriously and that this meant something to her beyond a big contract. I just found that to be an indication of somebody who really wants to live the writing life and knows what it entails."
Sales Tips:"We're going to wait for some of the buzz before proceeding," Pande says. (PW has already weighed in [Forecasts, June 16], with a starred review of Dierbeck's "weird and inspired paean to lost innocence," calling it "a tour de force... genuinely original [and] compulsively readable.") FSG isn't relying solely on the novel's literary cachet to kick-start sales, though; Dierbeck's work will be on the New Releases table at 80 Barnes & Noble stores, and Borders has selected it for its Original Voices program. As Pande says, "There's a certain... sensational aspect" to the topic of underage sex that may bring attention to the novel, no matter how literary and restrained its treatment of the subject may be. Pande says that One Pill should appeal to fans of Mary Gaitskill, Alexander Chee and Mary Karr.
The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters
(Little, Brown, Jan.)
"In movies, I felt I was in the wrong culture. I'd always go to a bookstore before I'd go to a movie," says film producer Elisabeth Robinson. But it wasn't until after she'd wrapped the film version of Graham Swift's Booker Prize—winning novel, Last Orders, that she felt she could take the time off to write a novel. "I saved up enough money for a year and thought 'Okay, I have to put everything on this dream. I have to show the same grit my sister showed.' "
That sister was fighting leukemia; the relationship Robinson developed with her during her illness inspired the relationship between the sisters in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters. In the novel, Olivia, a cynical film producer, is "working on the fourth draft of her suicide note" when she gets a call that her sister Madeleine has a terminal illness, just as she learns her studio has green-lighted her first film, an adaptation of Don Quixote.
Robinson, who has worked as a book scout in New York for UA and Warner Brothers and in an executive-level position at Paramount Pictures (she was a producer on Braveheart), says that the experience mirrored her own. "When my sister was sick, I was flying back and forth between London and Detroit." It's no accident, she adds, that Olivia is working on Don Quixote: "Quixote is the greatest idealist, Sancho is the pessimist," says Robinson. "But there always remains the question, was Don Quixote crazy or did he know what he was doing—do you have to be crazy to keep going?"
Yet, that's exactly what Olivia does, all the while becoming more and more frantic. "I actually worked on a version of it that didn't get made: the producers wanted to tack on a happy ending," says Robinson. "The experience taught me that you need the same type of lunatic hope to get a movie made that you need to fight a terminal illness." She explains that the battle between cynicism and optimism provided much of the emotional framework for the book, which is told through a series of funny, wise and often caustic letters from Olivia to her sister and assorted doctors, colleagues, relatives, friends and lovers.
In defense of the epistolary novel, Robinson says, "Letters are a very focu=sed, intimate dialogue between two people and there's a built-in suspense in the natural gaps that provide an inherent drama. In screenwriting, I thought in terms of scenes and in this I thought in letters, which made it manageable." She adds that ultimately it wasn't the modern marvel of movies that inspired her novel's structure, but something much more ancient: "Once, I was in Marrakech, where there's a central square where all these storytellers come, and this one storyteller started at 9 a.m. one morning and by 11 there were hundreds of people around him. I realized he was doling out his story so that he could keep someone interested who'd been there since 9 a.m. and also catch new customers. Now they do the same thing with soap operas; there are people who've been watching for 20 years, and people who tuned in yesterday who are hooked. That's how I want people to read my book."
Sales Tips: According to Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, "Everyone who has read Elisabeth's book has gone wild for the way she captures the telepathically intense bond between two grown sisters. Robinson has given Olivia Hunt an extraordinarily vivid voice—competitive, sassy, outrageous, heart-melting—and readers are electrified." A 100,000 copy first printing will be supported by the publisher's "Calling All Sisters" campaign, in which ARCs come with a special card that says "If you love this book we'll send one to your sister."
My Cold War
With his first novel, My Cold War, about to hit the bookstores, Tom Piazza arrives with a handful of published books already under his professional belt. Four deal with American music; the fifth, Blues & Troubles, is a 1997 short-story collection that won a James Michener Award. Cal Morgan, now editorial director of ReganBooks, published both the stories and Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Times (1999) while a senior editor at St. Martin's. "Tom is one of three or four writers I brought with me when I moved here four years ago," says Morgan. "His writing has a way of finding its way into the bloodstream."
Not that Piazza found the novel an easy nut to crack; he confesses to a series of false starts. "With the other novels I'd tried to write, I had a Big Idea beforehand, which is probably why they didn't work out," he conjectures. "On this one I just started writing."
My Cold War is not, however, devoid of Big Ideas. Many ricochet inside the head of John Delano, a professor of Cold War Studies at a tony Massachusetts college who is stalled in writing his magnum opus, a history of the Cold War era. He is more adept at analyzing the shallows of American culture than his disintegrating psyche. Fearful he is fraudulent, Delano seeks to expel his languors by probing recent American History with a capital H. In an odyssey that is both interior and exterior, he revisits the suburban Long Island of his youth, the famous grassy knoll in Dallas and the 1965 Newport Folk Festival before a ploy to reconcile with a younger brother takes him into the Heartland and an encounter with white supremacists. "The book raises very challenging questions about American culture that stayed with me for weeks," says Morgan. "Delano is such an interesting character. At times he's an absolute laser and at times he's blind."
A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently a resident of New Orleans, Piazza is oblique about his age, dodging a direct question by saying, "Like the narrator, I grew up in the Baby Boom era, I guess you'd say." (His protagonist was born in 1955.) "The town where I grew up was the model for Atlanticville in the novel—one of those post-war housing developments that made you feel as if you were walking around in an architect's model. Treeless streets. Identical or nearly identical houses. The sense of timelessness and no history. Yet also the sense of gigantic forces at work: duck-and-cover air raid drills in grade school; civil defense tests on the radio. I think that was the essential boomer experience, psychically speaking—that weird sense of dislocation, the feeling of being totally ahistorical and at the same time having the sense that enormous historical forces were marshalling themselves far away to destroy the world."
Sales Tips:"With the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up, My Cold War is for anyone who remembers growing up in the suburbs in the era between JFK and Watergate," says Piazza. "Or for anyone curious about it, especially book clubs with an interest in that period." He is conducting his own auto tour with arranged readings from New Orleans to New England. Morgan advises, "Booksellers should be aware that there are two very strong audiences that will respond to the book for two different reasons. Older readers, the baby boomers, will identify with the main character and his conflict, while younger readers will respond to the book's ongoing cultural critique and commentary." As ReganBooks' lead fall fiction title (with a 40,000-copy first printing), the book is backed with heavy marketing muscle.
Joanne and Gerry Dryansky
Fatima's Good Fortune
Fifty years ago, Gerry Dryansky, a junior at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, New York, called a pretty freshman named Joanne for a date to a New Year's Eve dance. The date went more than well; they married secretly when Gerry was a freshman at Princeton and Joanne was still in high school. Some years later, with $6,000 in their pockets and a baby on the way, they boarded a freighter for Europe, planning to stay for a year. They're still there, living in Paris, where they've raised two children, and got to know such ultimate Parisians as Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. Gerry is now the European editor of Condé Nast Traveler and, as their two children are now out of the nest, they travel a lot.
A few years ago, the couple decided to collaborate on a screenplay. They won an option from a European producer, but nothing further happened. They tried again, five times, always with the same result. This was discouraging, but they found that they loved working together. Why not try a novel?
"We didn't want to write another American take on France," says Gerry. "It's been done too many times before. But from the neighborhood cafes where we would take a laptop to work on our screenplays, we would occasionally see a woman in a djellaba walking a dog. Joanne became fascinated by her and started to wonder about her story." And this is how Fatima's Good Fortune came about. "I talk, he types, we're tolerated," says Joanne.
Fatima is an illiterate Tunisian woman whose husband has divorced her in the casual Muslim way, via letter. Her sister, servant to an aged countess in Paris, dies in a freak accident, and the countess, from an eccentric sense of noblesse oblige, sends for Fatima to replace her. Intending to earn just enough money to get to Wisconsin where the husband has emigrated, Fatima arrives in the terrifying big city completely unprepared for her new duties. An American writer, in cheap digs next to Fatima's in the servant's quarters, befriends her; he is the first gay man she has ever met—one of many "firsts." When you can't read, bottles of olive oil and shampoo in the supermarket look identical. The regulars at the Café Jean Valjean downstairs rescue Fatima from several disasters, and gradually, through determination, grit and her own solid good nature she begins to make a new life for herself.
"The story becomes a kind of fable or parable," says Joanne, "and actually I'm somewhat turned off by today's naturalism. It's more about good luck and bad luck than winning and losing."
Sales Tips:The book has already sold to eight foreign publishers, clearly a good omen. "A comparison is to Joanne Harris's Chocolat, which did well everywhere," says Miramax president and editor-in-chief Jonathan Burnham. "It has an evocative fairy-tale quality, but it's also a social comedy and it has a certain moral quality. We gave out 2,000 copies at BEA to booksellers because we feel that this is a strong candidate for a handsold book. The marketing is primarily to women. We're bringing the authors over for a tour, at least of the East Coast, but that hasn't been set in stone yet. Their own story is such a compelling one that it should help to sell the book."
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
The Legend of Fire Horse Woman
Thirty years after Farewell to Manzanar, her touching memoir about a Japanese-American family's internment during WWII, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston returns to the same subject, this time fictionalizing the material with a novelist's flair. The Legend of Fire Horse Woman tells the story of three generations of women and the way their lives unfold within the confines of a detention camp.
"It's not as if you deal with a subject once and that's it," says Houston, explaining why she returned to the subject of her much-read first book. "It wasn't my intent to do internment when I started the novel."
Divided into five "acts" and alternating between past and present, the book has three central characters: the Japanese matriarch Sayo, who was born under the tragic Fire Horse sign and sent to America to marry under deceitful circumstances; Hana, her submissive daughter; and Terri, her spirited, American-born granddaughter. A dashing father-in-law and a heroic Native American lover are also part of the mix.
Houston's earliest conception of the work was as an oral history about Japanese picture brides; from some of the women she interviewed she got the idea for a story about a picture bride who covers up a terrible truth in order to marry, then breaks free to live a romantic and tumultuous life amid the hardship of a prison camp.
She planned to set the book in the early 20th century and move it forward to the bombing of Hiroshima, but after a year or so and 500 pages, she found herself stalled in 1910. "I couldn't get to WWII and internment. This was historical material, historically significant. I couldn't fictionalize it." It took a series of short stories about the imprisonment experience, published in various magazines and anthologies, to help her jump the barrier that had held her back from embroidering on reality. "The facts in the novel are true," she explains, "even though it didn't happen like that."
Houston, 68, says she always wanted to be a writer but had two strikes against her: she was a woman as well as an Asian-American. Her husband, novelist James Houston (he is co-author of Manzanar), was the first person to offer encouragement when he suggested she tell her family's story. "I was married in 1957, and my whole thing was to support my husband." She says this in wonderment. "It wasn't until Farewell to Manzanar that I entered the writing world. Now, I write all the time. I love it." Besides having another novel already in the works, Houston is trying to figure out how to turn Manzanar into a movie musical, along the lines of Miss Saigon.
Though she hopes people learn from the novel what the internment of Japanese-Americans was all about, she is more interested in entertaining readers and having them empathize with her characters. The book, she says, is all about liberation. "The barbed wire is a symbol of imprisonment, whether self-imposed or societal. The rescuer Indian stranger is a hero, part of that fantasy thing. I wanted to write a book women would read and enjoy and identify but by the end would have learned something. I still believe in stories."
Sales Tips:Editorial director John Scognamiglio, who devoured the novel in one sitting, is especially enthusiastic about Houston's lyrical writing and its appeal for devotees of women's fiction. "The book is about mothers and daughters. It's for fans of Amy Tan." The mainstream packaging, he notes, is targeted to the broadest audience possible, not specifically to Asian-American women. "We will try to appeal to fans of Farewell to Manzanar and broaden that base," he says, noting that in spring 2002 Missouri chose Manzanar as its statewide book.
Learning to Drive
Harmony/Shaye Areheart Books, Oct.
Raised as a Christian Scientist, Mary Hays uses that mysterious belief system as the jumping-off point for events in Learning to Drive. It also serves as the source of the tension underlying the drama of the central character, Charlotte McGuffey, who is forced to question the meaning of her life after the sudden death of her estranged husband. Set in the '50s in rural Vermont, where Hays now lives, the book charts Charlotte's emotional journey from isolation to community.
"This was a story I wanted to tell very much," says Hays, 63, "but first I had to learn about writing a novel. It was a big challenge learning how to do it and how to do it right." The process, she says, took 20 years. "I would make stabs at the book and put it away for a number of years. I had a hard time knowing how to make believable a character who holds such untenable beliefs as the fundamental tenets of Christian Scientists, in which the world is an illusion and we are like gods and have troubles because we don't understand this. I wanted the issue to be explored within the story." In the beginning, Charlotte was idealistic and metaphysical and at great remove, except for her children, who kept her in the real world. "She has a lot of courage. It's hard to do something new and different. I moved her into that place and then let her go."
Hays, a former schoolteacher and community playwright, had help in her writing endeavors from such masters as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, whose works she read, studied and reread. She also got a boost from the writer Judy Blume, a friend and stalwart supporter, who had gotten Vintage and Anchor Books editor-in-chief Marty Asher to buy the manuscript for the Vintage imprint. Over lunch Asher told publisher Shaye Areheart about the book and, after reading it, Areheart said she would like to be his hardcover partner and publish the novel. "When I sold the book I finished the school year and left the job," says Hays, who was teaching third grade at the time. "I am just writing now. It's glorious."
As a child in railroad towns in the East and Midwest, Hays wrote secretly but didn't particularly want to be a writer. "I was always interested in many things," she says, mentioning God and how people have approached their beliefs, and noting her former column (in Northern Woodlands magazine) on the folklore of logging as an indication of her diverse interests. Why, as a teenager, did she leave the church? "It was because I started to read. I became a fan of Salinger and others. The world of literature was so big compared to the rigid ways of thinking about what life is—there was so much more."
An interesting side note to Hays's success is that her daughter, Sara Pinto, also has her first book coming out in October, a children's work entitled The Alphabet Room (Bloomsbury).
Sales Tips:Areheart calls Learning to Drive "one of the most beautiful first novels I've ever read. I love the way Mary weaves the story." She likens it to Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House and says fans of Elizabeth Berg and Meg Wolitzer will adore it. "It has universal appeal to women. We have an unbelievable amount of support from booksellers." Her favorite thing? "I'm crazy about Charlotte. She's an extraordinary woman we come to root for." A 20,000 copy first printing is planned, but Areheart says, "Word of mouth rather than advertising makes novels go and, oh, this book is going to go." Publicity will focus on New England, where the author lives and the novel is set.
Keith Coplin finished his first novel at age 24. Nothing remarkable about that: many of today's hot writers—Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, David Eggers, etc.—were in that age range when they burst on the scene. In Coplin's case, however, he joins the roster of published authors several decades after that first novel's completion.
"After 40 years, I'm an overnight success," says Coplin, 60. "I've been writing since I was 20. I got all my degrees in English and always thought I'd be the greatest writer in the world and it never happened. I've got stacks and stacks of manuscripts and stacks and stacks of rejection slips."
Crofton's Fire follows a second lieutenant through an adventurous and bloody period beginning with the Battle of Little Bighorn, where he watches Custer killed by his own enraged men. Over the next three years, Crofton travels around the world, from a "whore war" in Kansas to a rebellion in Cuba to the horrors of the Zulu war in East Africa. Along the way, he encounters such legendary figures as Grant, Sherman and Hayes; gets shot, finds love and endures betrayal. It seems as though, like the author himself, this epic novel started as something small before blossoming.
"I was just writing a short story about Custer, out there in Montana," Coplin tells PW in his folksy style. "A friend of mine, who's in the same situation as me—an unaccomplished accomplished writer—said, 'You're not gonna make any money off short stories and nobody's gonna publish them so why don't you just write the book.' So I took this little story about the guy out there at Little Bighorn and it just took off from there."
So did Coplin's dreams. He sent the manuscript and inquiries to a slew of agents and only one, Bobbe Siegel, responded—she liked the book and would take it on. A few days later, she called Coplin and told him she had an offer. "It just floored me," says Coplin. "I felt like someone who had just won the lottery."
Neil Nyren, Putnam publisher and editor-in-chief, says he picked up the manuscript with no particular expectations; it was just something that landed in his inbox, and just a few pages in, he was hooked. He called Siegel to tell her he wanted the novel. "She checked around with the others who'd received it and nobody else had gotten to it," says Nyren, "and she said, 'Well, okay then.' It pays to be prompt."
Coplin, who teaches English at Colby University in Kansas, is waiting to hear about a possible deal to adapt Crofton's Fire into a movie and has just finished his second novel, for which Putnam has an option. He says he has some insight for all those writers who don't publish immediately. "I want to tell everybody out there living in garrets and eating sardines and writing books to not give up, just don't," he says. "It's there if you're committed enough to it and it's a part of your life.
"I've been in this business forever," Coplin notes, "more as observer that a participant. But now I'm a participant and, man, it's just an enormous thrill."
Sales Tips:In Nyren's words, "If Elmore Leonard had written Little Big Man or Kurt Vonnegut Lonesome Dove, they might have come out a little something like Crofton's Fire." The influences of Joseph Heller, Thomas Berger and William Boyd can all be felt in the novel, too, according to Nyren. "Anyone who likes inventive modern fiction with a historical base and rich sense of the absurd should find this appealing."
Edward P. Jones
The Known World
Edward P. Jones speaks slowly and thoughtfully, and he writes slowly and thoughtfully too. His acclaimed collection of stories, Lost in the City, was published by Morrow in 1992 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award, as well as a National Book Award nomination, and in the years since Jones has received a Lannan Foundation Grant and an NEA fellowship. Fans have waited a long time for his second book, The Known World, a novel about a black slaveholder.
But Dawn Davis, editorial director of Amistad, has witnessed an interesting reaction to the author's second work, more than a decade later. "Lost in the City made such a lasting impression that the length of time hasn't been a factor," she says. "I've heard over and over again from booksellers, 'Oh, I was wondering what was happening with Ed Jones.' "
One thing that kept Jones busy during the intervening years was a job summarizing tax news for a newsletter entitled Tax Notes—a position he held for close to 19 years. "In December of 2001 I took five weeks' vacation," he recalls. "I stayed home and started on the novel, and on January 8, 2002, I'd done my pages and I was sitting and reading my paper at 4:00, and I got a call from those people at the office and they told me my job was no more." Jones then buckled down with the novel, and by March he had a first draft.
While the phenomenon of black men owning slaves is historically accurate, the author did not base his protagonist, Henry Townsend, on any individual man from the period. "People in the book refer to George Washington and to Benjamin Franklin, but all the other human beings, whether major or minor characters, are imaginary," he stresses. "I've always been suspicious of things where people take real persons or use friends and family. I think of it as cheating. Fiction is fiction—you make it up."
And Jones reports that the novel is full of random facts from his prodigious memory rather than expository bits of research. "I came to use everything I had learned, and so much of it had nothing at all to do with slavery. I remember as a child my mother talking about people, women especially, eating dirt, so I used that, and three or four years ago I came across this thing about how once people thought tomatoes were poison, and that went in. As I was writing I could find space for things that I had discovered in my life over the years. That was all the research—having been around," says the 52-year-old author.
Amistad is bringing Jones's collection, Lost in the City, back into print this month, and The Known World was the first title in a two-book deal, the second of which is another story collection. One of those stories is slated to appear in the New Yorker this month.
"When I sold The Known World, I had written four or five stories, and I was afraid they would be orphaned, because I know in New York in publishing, they want the N-word—novel—so I got them to take both books," says Jones. He is scheduled to deliver that second collection this fall; faithful readers will be relieved not to wait yet another decade.
Sales Tips:According to Davis, Jones's novel "has been compared to Cold Mountain, but the obvious comparison for me is Beloved, because that also made me think about slavery in a whole new way." Selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club and great enthusiasm from booksellers will handily support the 75,000-copy first printing. A 16-city tour will give Jones a chance to charm readers in person.
Winner of the National Book Award
St. Martin's/ Thomas Dunne Books (Oct.)
Publishers are often reluctant to bring out an author's second book if the first one didn't sell, which makes 56-year-old Jincy Willett's Cinderella story all the more poignant.
Sixteen years ago, when Willett published her short story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, she had no trouble finding a publisher; her college friend Thomas Dunne was eager to sign it. But the book didn't go into paperback, and it soon went out-of print. Willett started working on a novel, only to put it aside. In rapid succession her son was born, her husband died and she moved across the country from her native Rhode Island to California to be near her parents. Willett continued writing—mostly entries for Who's Who. "Every now and then," she says, "I'd pick up the novel and write a chapter. I figured the world wasn't waiting for me, until David Sedaris came along."
Sedaris, as it turned out, was the prince with the perfect-fitting glass slipper. In a Time Out New York article last year, Sedaris named Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life the hard-to-find book most deserving of a second chance. "When David said what he did," says Willett, "all the dominoes started to fall. First St. Martin's told me they were going to put my book out in paperback, then they asked me, 'Do you have anything else?' " As it turns out, she did, but the novel, then called Fame and Honor, was only half finished. "When Jenny came out the first time, I thought I ought to keep writing and wrote about half very quickly," Willett explains.
The original title, which comes from Schopenhauer—"Fame and honor are twins; and twins, too, like Castor and Pollux, of whom one was mortal and the other was not"—seemed apt to Willett, because this comic novel, which is set in Rhode Island, is about two very different twins, Abigail and her sister Dorcas. St. Martin's wanted something catchier, though, and since the novel is structured around Abigail's memoir, which Dorcas, a librarian, reads and comments on throughout, Willett decided to play on every writer's wish. "I knew this guy who made a movie called Winner of Six Academy Awards," says Willett. "So I said Winner of the National Book Award. I forgot about it, and then they called and said the legal department said it's okay. It's probably going to tick people off, but it makes sense in context."
Even with the Sedaris imprimatur—he felt so strongly about her story collection that he promoted it on his book tour last year—Willett worries that St. Martin's will lose money on Winner of the National Book Award. Perhaps she'll be cheered, and inspired, to know that it was recently selected by Anna Quindlen as a judge's pick for Book-of-the-Month Club. Meanwhile, Willett is planning to write her next novel a little faster. "I've been informed," she says. "I can't wait another 15 years." Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, perhaps?
Sales Tips:It was natural for Thomas Dunne to sign Jincy Willett; he's admired her since they first met back in the '60s, when he was at Brown. "To my mind," he tells PW, "she's one of two or three intellectuals I've ever met. She's really the real thing." Asked to elaborate on her place among contemporary writers, Dunne responds without skipping a beat: "The greatest New England novelist since Nathaniel Hawthorne lives 10 miles from the Mexican border. There's your quote."