[A continuation of Part I, in which The Blue Place, originally titled Penny in My Mouth, is published by Avon.]
What I forgot to mention yesterday was that although the sales of TBP were many times the level of my second novel, they were not as high as everyone had hoped, partly because that’s just the breaks, and partly, I suspect, because the book was orphaned just before publication.
Three or four months before a book is published used to be the most crucial time for marketing and publicity. This is when the publicists were cajoling media producers and editors to schedule programming, articles, and reviews. This is when the tour is laid out. This is when the major trade journals, like Publishers Weekly, are printing their industry-leading verdicts. This is when independent bookstores are ordering titles, when editors are talking up the novel at cocktail parties, and scouts are sniffing out possible translation deals. So when I tell you both my editor and my publicist quit Avon in this period, you’ll understand why I got bent out of shape.
A book going out into a cold hard world with no support is as pitiful as The Little Match Girl. There’s not much an author can do about it except hope that her agent can bully the editorial team to assign other champions. That didn’t happen for me (Avon was going through organizational upheaval). But the book sold a very reasonable number of hardcovers in the US, scored some juicy translation deals, and won and was shortlisted for a variety of awards. It’s still in print, in both paper and digital.
I tried not to think about the fact that no one in the UK, my native heath, had bought it. Tried not to dwell on commerce and focused on Aud. I started book two, working title, Red Raw.
Red Raw was to be all about Aud’s grief. Which meant I had to dig deep into my own experience of grief–the death of my little sister, Helena. It was difficult work and took longer than I thought. But I wrote the book and thought it was good. I gave it to my agent. She took it to HarperCollins (who had acquired Avon in 1999 and, along with it, the contractual option of first refusal). They didn’t really understand what I was trying to do with the book.
Meanwhile, through Colleen Lindsay, the new publicist at Ballantine/Del Rey (who were reissuing my two previous novels in new editions), I’d heard about this editor whose sensibilities might match my own. His name was Sean McDonald; he was at Nan A. Talese, a small but super literary imprint (Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, etc.) of Doubleday. I nagged and nagged and nagged my agent until she agreed to approach him and talk to him about Red Raw.
Long story short(er): in 2000 I found myself face-to-face with Sean in New York telling him he should buy my book. (Yeah, I know, what can I say. I thought he should, so I said so.) Three weeks later, he did. I felt about ten feet tall: Nan A. Talese wanted to publish my novel! Nothing bad could ever happen to me again!
Sean is a real editor. He looked at my book and said, Well, there are going to have to be some changes. We went at it, hammer and tongs. He was wrong on some things, and right on many. I rewrote the book. He asked for more changes. Hammer and tongs. I began another rewrite. A UK publisher (The Women’s Press) made an offer for both TBP and Stay, and planned to make them their lead titles. Foreign publishers–Italian, French, German–made offers. Everything was going brilliantly.
Then my older sister, Carolyn, died.
It’s not easy to write about someone else’s grief while going through your own. It’s like pulling the scab off, over and over. I nearly gave up; it felt damaging. But I didn’t give up. I rewrote Red Raw thirteen times. Somewhere along the line, I changed the title to Stay.
It was gorgeously published by Nan A. Talese in spring 2002: a really handsome object. I did a lovely little West Coast tour with very gratifying attendance at readings, etc. Reviews were sparse, though–book reporting was going through a huge contraction–and although they were complimentary, they were also clearly puzzled. The book was packaged as noir, but it isn’t; it’s essentially a hopeful novel. Readers and reviewers felt the dissonance.
Sales were okay in hardcover but very poor in trade paperback. Vintage/Black Lizard more commonly published noir and hard boiled fiction: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Raymond Chandler etc. Stay just didn’t fit.
Then the UK publisher went bankrupt. No one else there wanted the books. (One comment, “Oh, we’ve already bought our lesbian book for this year.”) This was before Stieg Larsson. (Sidenote, a friend of his told me last year he gave Stieg a copy of The Blue Place. I have no idea if he ever read it.)
Part of a writer’s job is blithe unconcern with the market, i.e. psychotic self-belief. I had a vision for Aud. I knew it I could write it. I wanted to write it. I set to work on Aud III.
[to be continued…]