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Pondering the perils of publishing

Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."

-- Gene Fowler (1890-1960)

Friends, I've got a million of these quotes. I collect them. I adore them. But in fact, as British poet and playwright Harold Pinter remarked earlier this month, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, "We don't have to weep" about the fate of writers: "The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it." So there.

On the other hand, in his address at Stockholm, Pinter also said, in reference to his work, "There are no hard distinctions between what is . . . true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false." So weep if you want. It would make a lot of writers feel better. For about 10 minutes. After that, they'd probably tell you to get lost, because they're busy. Writing. Frequently on deadline.

I know -- a lot of writers aren't lucky enough to have deadlines. I am, or at least I have been. But it took a long time to get there. And the "truth" is -- with apologies to Pinter -- I was about to give it up before I got a publishing contract for my first book, back in the Dark Ages, 25 years ago this month.

I'm not kidding. I really was about to give it up. I had no idea what else I might do with my life, but I was tired. Tired of trying. Tired of rejections. The manuscript I'd been working on and peddling by that time for nine years -- yes, nine years -- seemed unsellable. This was the book that became Anastasia, the story of the woman who claimed to be the daughter of the last Russian tsar, for which I'm still best known. By 1980, I'd had a dozen rejections already from "major publishing houses." Probably more -- I believe a lot of people were anxious to spare my feelings and actually hid the mail. My friends and family all regarded me with a mixture of pity and terror. My wife (at the time) was sick of working dumb jobs so we could eat -- and drink, I'm afraid, because I was doing a lot of that, too. My father, bless him, actually said to me, "Son, if you do nothing else but write it, and if it only sits there on the shelf, you'll have accomplished something. We're proud of you!"

Maybe that's what gave me the stubbornness to continue -- stubbornness or spite; I've never been sure. That spring, I took Anastasia out of the drawer for what I thought would be the last time. (There were no computers then -- a "drawer" was the only place you could hide a manuscript in your humiliation and despair.) I said to myself, "I'm gonna whack this thing into shape if it kills me, and if I don't have a publisher by the end of the year, I'm never going to look at it again."

I meant it. I felt it. And lo! At the 11th hour, I got a call. An editor at Little, Brown wanted to see me in Boston. I'd already snagged an agent -- more about that in a minute -- who said, "Get your ass down there and do it now." And I did. And, somehow, it worked. Why they took a chance on me, I don't know. But on December 19, 1980, 12 days before my self-imposed deadline, I was told that the deal was done. Little, Brown wanted the book.

How's that for karma? I was either so excited or so stunned by this news that I forgot to ask how much they were going to pay -- that is, how high the "advance" would be.

"Don't you want to know?" my agent asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Um . . . I guess it would be good to know." But it really wasn't the main thing on my mind.

Oh, believe me, the advance was a pittance. Money went farther in those days, but no publisher is going to dump a lot of cash on an "untested" author. Remember that. They won't even do it for a "proven" author. It's never given to you in a lump. So much on "signing," so much on "delivery," so much on publication, etc. -- that's how they do it. Publishers are very cautious. And why wouldn't they be? They're in business to do business, as the saying goes. And they know what writers are like -- spendthrifts, maniacs, procrastinators; with any luck, artists.

But to go back a bit -- the agent. I'm asked constantly -- constantly -- by would-be writers, "How do I get published?"

"Well," I say, "you should probably have an agent."

"How do I get an agent?"

"Beats me. The same way you get a publisher, I suppose. The hard way."

In my case, it was luck -- luck and what they call "connections." That is, I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, and on a blazingly hot day in New York -- one of those scorching summer days in the city when you feel like cutting your own throat and everyone else's -- I met my first agent in a small park near the Museum of Modern Art. He was a eating a hot dog and a pretzel while I explained to him the merits of the book I was doing. Between noshes, he suddenly said, "Why should I care?"

This had the effect of making me angry, and anger, evidently, made me persuasive. In both senses of the word, you have to be "mad" to be a writer. You have to be driven, at least. You have to be obsessed. There's an old theater saw -- perhaps credited to John Gielgud -- who, faced with a row of eager young acting students, said to them, "Look, if we can talk you out of this, you shouldn't be here."

It's the best advice there is. Really, it's the only advice. Picking his teeth, this agent finally said, "Well, all right. Let's give it a whirl." But that was just the beginning.

The greatest shock of my first publishing experience came immediately after the contract was signed, when my editor told me that the entire manuscript of Anastasia had to be written again, from start to finish. It had already been written four times.

"It's good," she said, "but it's not good enough. You've fussed over it too much. You've worked on it too hard. It's lost its immediacy, and that's what we need to get back. So start over, please -- page 1. Now."

I thought I'd drop dead. I really didn't know if I could do it. But she was right, I had worked on it too hard. I'd spent so much time trying to get it "perfect" that I'd turned it into stone. And because it was a biography -- that is, "nonfiction" -- my editor was able to say, "Use the drafts you've already got for factual reference. Use them only for that. And remember, we need it by June."

Well, as they say in Russia, "Boja moi!" Loosely, this means, "Oh, my goodness!" But you can put it in more graphic terms than that. I certainly did. I said, "What!?" -- just like Tsar Nicholas when the Bolsheviks told him he was about to be shot. But I did what my editor said, and because of that I discovered something wonderful, something magical and astonishing. All writing, fiction or "non," must be immediate, on-the-spot, "right there," making no excuses and offering no explanations for itself. At least, it has to seem that way. It has to read like that.

This isn't always possible to achieve -- in fact it's very hard to achieve -- but the rule remains: It has to be fresh. Quoting the "humorist" Dorothy Parker, from an interview in Paris Review in 1957: "There must be courage, there must be no awe . . . There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." (In the same interview, when asked what she "did for fun," Mrs. Parker answered, "Anything that isn't writing is fun." Why is humor regarded as a minor achievement in the arts?)

Five books later, and God knows how many cubic feet of water under the bridge -- much more water than money, I'll tell ya -- I still return to Mrs. Parker's words. I've broken with Little, Brown since it all began, and broken with the agent, too. I've moved around. I've even had to toss that splendid editor over the edge. (Don't worry, she'll be fine -- she's on salary.) I have as many "publishing stories" as I do "writers' quotes." But what do these matter, really, if good writing is the goal? I can ask this question because, through some miracle, I managed to beat the odds. And if I do nothing else, as my father said, I'll have accomplished something.

Wait! I can't leave it there -- it's too sentimental. Besides, no writer ever shuts up. I'll end this the way it began, with a quote from Gene Fowler. I'm not going to tell you who Gene Fowler was -- you can "Google" him if he interests you. Suffice it to say that one of Fowler's sons went on to produce the 1950s horror flick I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and that Fowler himself remarked, at the height of his considerable success, "Sometimes I think my writing sounds like I walked out of the room and left the typewriter running."

Well, Gene, yeah . . . I know.

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Peter Kurth

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