Beth Nevis, author of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE which debuts from Razorbill in January 2011, is running a contest on her blog this week, asking readers to write about their greatest adventures. I thought of a piece I wrote it in 2005 for the Canadian zine INkwell Newswatch, when I was riding high after the publication of my first novel, FOOD OF LOVE. I try not to blabber on too much about myself in this blog, but I thought some of my readers might enjoy this. I’ll post my regular how-to article on Sunday.
When I started writing funny literary women’s novels twenty years ago, if anybody had given me a realistic idea of my chances for publication, I’d have chosen a less stressful, more rewarding hobby, like do-it-yourself brain surgery, professional frog herding, or maybe staging an all-Ayatollah drag revue in downtown Tehran
As a California
actress with years of experience of cattle-drive auditions, greenroom catfights and vitriolic reviewers, I thought I had built up enough soul-callouses to go the distance. But nothing had prepared me for the glacial waiting periods; bogus, indifferent, and/or suddenly-out-of-business agents; and the heartbreaking, close-but-no-cigar reads from big-time editors—all the rejection horrors that make the American publishing industry the impenetrable fortress it has become.
But some of us are too writing-crazed to stop ourselves. I was then, as now, sick in love with the English language.
I had four novels completed. A fifth had run as a serial in a California
entertainment weekly. One of my stories had been short-listed for an international prize, and a play had been produced to good reviews. I was bringing in a few bucks—mostly with short pieces for local magazines and free-lance editing.
But meantime, my savings had evaporated along with my abandoned acting career; my boyfriend had ridden his Harley into the Big Sur sunset; my agent was hammering me to write formula romance; and I was contemplating a move to one of the less fashionable neighborhoods of the rust belt.
Even acceptances turned into rejections: a UK
zine that had accepted one of my stories folded. But when the editor sent the bad news, he mentioned he’d taken a job with a small Northern UK
press—and did I have any novels?
I sent him one my agent had rejected as “too over the top.” Within weeks, I was offered a contract by the company’s owner/editor—a former BBC comedy writer—for FOOD OF LOVE. Included was an invitation to come over the pond to do some promotion.
So I rented out my beach house, packed my bags and bought a ticket to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where my new publishers had recently moved into a 19th century former textile mill on the banks of the river Trent—the river George Eliot fictionalized as “the Floss.”
George Eliot. I was going to be working and living only a few hundred yards from the ruins of the house where she wrote her classic novel about the 19th century folk who lived and died by the power of Lincolnshire’s great tidal river. Maybe some of that greatness would rub off on me.
At the age of…well, I’m not telling…I was about to have the adventure of my life.
I knew the company published mostly erotica, but was branching into mainstream and literary fiction. They had already published the first novel of a distinguished poet, and a famous Chicago
newspaper columnist was in residence, awaiting the launch of his new book.
But when I arrived, I found the great Chicagoan had left in a mysterious fit of pique, the “erotica” was seriously hard core, and the old building on the Trent
was more of the William Blake Dark Satanic variety than George Elliot’s bucolic mill on the Floss.
Some of my fears subsided when I was greeted by a friendly group of unwashed, fiercely intellectual young men who presented me with generous quantities of warm beer, cold meat pies and galleys to proof. After a beer or two, I found myself almost comprehending their northern accents.
I held it together until I saw my new digs: a grimy futon and an old metal desk, hidden behind stacks of book pallets in the corner of an unheated warehouse, about a half a block from the nearest loo. My only modern convenience was an ancient radio abandoned by a long-ago factory girl.
I have to admit to admit to some tears of despair.
Until, from the radio, Big Ben chimed six o’clock.
That’s six pm, GMT.
Greenwich Mean Time. The words hit me with all the sonorous power of Big Ben itself. I had arrived at the mean, the middle, the center that still holds—no matter what rough beasts might slouch through the cultural deserts of the former empire. This was where my language, my instrument, was born.
I clutched my galley proof to my heart. I might still be a rejected nobody in the land of my birth—but I’d landed on the home planet, England. And here, I was a published novelist. Just like George Eliot.
Three years later, I returned to California, older, fatter (the English may not have the best food, but their BEER is another story) and a lot wiser. That Chicagoan’s fit of pique turned out to be more than justified. The company was swamped in debt. They never managed to get me US distribution. Shortly before my second book was to launch, the managing partner withdrew his capital, sailed off into the mists and mysteriously disappeared off his yacht—his body never found. The company sputtered and died.
And I was back in the slush pile again.
But I had a great plot for my next novel.
Did I make a mistake? Oh yeah—a full set of them. But would I wish away my great English adventure?
Not a chance.
Labels: the writing life