Chutzpah or stupidity, I’m still not sure, but once I made the statement, there was no going back.
Chutzpah? Undoubtedly. Stupid? Far from it.
This is how Laura Lee Smith, one of Grove's hot new authors, landed a spot on their 2013 fiction list.
On my most recent trip to Florida, I had the opportunity to meet with Laura in her home town of St. Augustine. We had dinner at this charming restaurant, the Floridian, right across the street from a church, which meant if you wanted a drink, to be legal, you needed to order it in their bar (instead of from your table), which was the prescribed 100 feet away from church property.
We sat down, relaxed and started to get to know each other better, as I've mentioned before, the more I know about an author, the more use I am to them and the publisher in selling their book.
One of the questions I asked Laura was how it came about that she was being published by Grove/Atlantic? Her answer was so interesting (and funny) that I begged her to write it down so I could let you all hear the story:
Over the past five years, when I told people I was writing a book, one of the first things they usually asked is “what is it about?” It’s about a family, I told them. A family in trouble. The family lives in Northeast Florida, and they haven’t always had it so great, these folks. They’ve struggled with loss, resentment, abandonment, jealousy, loneliness, fear, regret. But now they have an opportunity to make a change, to cash in on some valuable real estate and to start over. Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes our greatest troubles come in the guise of great opportunities. The test, for the Bravo family, is to see if they can come through this “opportunity” in one piece.
But people have also frequently asked me another question about the book: “How did you get published? And with Grove Press?”
Now, for anybody who may not realize: Grove Press is legend. Founded in 1951 by publishing provocateur Barney Rosset, the house was well known, and sometimes reviled, for its commitment to free speech and for publishing such scintillating books as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. Grove published Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Grove published French avant-garde literature, American beat poetry, and some of the most controversial and watershed books of the twentieth century. More recently, Grove is known for publishing literary giants, including some of my personal writer heroes: Barry Hannah, Kay Ryan, Sherman Alexie. Big time, okay?
So how does an unknown writer with a story about a hard-luck family in Northeast Florida land a spot in the annals of Grove Press history?
I’m still not sure. But I’ll try to recount.
In 2005 I’d had my first story accepted for publication in The Florida Review, the literary magazine of University of Central Florida. Months later, in June 2006, I was standing in an empty kitchen, checking email on a laptop. We were moving that day—from a tidy, nearly-new suburban house in St. Augustine Shores up to our current home, a hundred-year-old work in progress in Lincolnville, a U.S. Historic District in downtown St. Augustine founded in the late 1800’s by freed slaves. The uHaul was in the driveway and we were all packed up, when I saw I had an email from the late Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Florida Review. An agent had seen my story, she said, and he wanted my contact information, so she gave it to him. His name was Nat Sobel. Be ready, she said. He’ll be writing to you.
I waited on pins and needles, but no such email ever came. I swallowed my disappointment, got settled in the new house, and kept writing. From time to time I Googled Nat Sobel’s name and read about his renown in the publishing industry. I scanned the list of authors he and his wife Judith Weber agented. I thought a bit about what might have been. But I kept writing. And I started exploring a fictional family named the Bravos.
Three years later, in December 2009, I got an email from Nat. He’d seen another story I had published, again in a small literary magazine, and he was writing to see if I had a novel. At this point, all my insecurities and fears went into high gear. I nearly buckled. After all, I had the beginning of a novel…I had a novel underway…but no way was it good enough for submission to one of the most respected agents in New York City. But here’s where, I sometimes think, my native New Jersey chutzpah might have kicked in.
Yes, I told him. Of course I have a novel. (Chutzpah or stupidity, I’m still not sure, but once I made the statement, there was no going back.)
He invited me to send 50 pages. I think I had 48 at the time. I beefed up the 50-page manuscript and sent it on. That was January 2010. A few weeks later he wrote back. We like the beginning, he said. Could you send the rest?
The problem was I didn’t have the rest. The manuscript was in disarray, a sprawling mess of notes, half-developed scenes, wrong-turn plot-lines and extraneous characters. At this point, I recognized that I had two choices. Throw myself on the floor and flail in despair, or write the novel.
I did both.
That January, I wrote to Nat and told him he would have the full manuscript by April. Then I commenced the 5:00 a.m. writing routine I still practice today. Like many people, I have a job, a family, and a house. I have friends, neighbors, a dog. I have a crap-ton of commitments and responsibilities outside my writing life. The dawn patrol, as I’ve come to think of it, is the only consistent approach that I have found that keeps me producing pages. It’s hard to get up early. I don’t really like it. But what I like even less is the depressed feeling I get when I’m not producing. So I get up at 5:00, sometimes 4:00 when I’m on a roll. It’s worth it.
But I digress. I finished a solid-enough manuscript by April 2010, and I sent it to Nat, at which point his wife Judith entered the picture and has since become my agent, my mentor and my champion. Judith and her team—God bless them—worked with me on that rough early manuscript for nearly a year. They asked important questions and pushed me through a rigorous editing process that opened my eyes to the critical importance of revision. They raised my standards. They told me to work harder. They told me I could do it.
In February 2011, the manuscript—stronger by far than the initial draft I’d sent to Nat a year earlier—was ready, Judith said, to be brought to market. She submitted it to a handful of editors (I think eight was the number) and told me to temper my expectations, told me that sometimes it might take more than one round of submissions, that sometimes a book does not sell in its first round, or even its second. And underneath her comments, I intuited the unspoken warning: and sometimes a book does not sell at all.
We waited. As the rejections came in, Judith forwarded them to me. My in-box was collecting emails from some of the biggest editing and publishing names in the business—all apologizing to Judith for deciding to pass on the manuscript. At this point I saw a wall of despair looming before me. This might not happen, I realized. This might not happen, after all.
Then: Judith called with news. An editor wanted to speak with me by phone, she said. This was fairly common, she explained. Sometimes an editor wanted to get to know an author a bit before making a decision on a book. OK, I said, terrified. I’d love to speak with the editor.
A few days later Amy Hundley from Grove Press called. Smart, wry, direct, Amy asked me some pointed questions about the manuscript and about myself. She was gauging, I realize now, our ability to work together, our like-mindedness, our personal connection. What were the odds, she must have been asking herself, that this unknown writer and I can make this manuscript sing?
The odds must have been pretty good, in her mind, because a few days later she made an offer on the book. I remember it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and I praised the luck of the Irish, among other things, when Judith called to tell me Grove Press wanted my book. Grove Press! Champagne all around!
And then we were off: plunging into a two-year process of editing, proofing, production, and marketing that has schooled me in the astonishing standards of Grove, the brilliance of Amy’s editing skills, and a level of perseverance I never knew I had. When Heart of Palm made its debut on April 2 of this year, I celebrated not just the publication of my first novel, but the gift of partnership and friendship I’d received from some of the most respected names in publishing. I’m still awed.
How did you get published with Grove Press? I’m still hearing that question. And I’m beginning to understand the answer: I worked my freaking ass off. I had the best agent in the world. And I got very, very lucky.
Here we are at The Floridian, just before we left so I could have a personal tour of Flagler College, where Laura teaches creative writing.
Flagler College is amazingly beautiful, here are a few interiors shots from my tour.
I gave Laura an advance reading copy of Kara Was Here,
Laura also published this hilarious piece in Bridal Path Press about the "joys" of submitting your work to publishers, it made me laugh out loud, read and enjoy.....
But really. I’m pretty proud of my Excel file, the little cells lining up like soldiers on a march. I fill in the “response” column with either a red “R” for “rejected” or a fat green “A” for “accepted.” The R’s outnumber the A’s in a landslide. A tsunami. To review one eighteen-month stretch I have to scroll my mouse wheel until my finger hurts, searching for a lonely A.
The first one came from the late Jeanne Leiby, a beautiful woman who edited UCF’s The Florida Review before moving to Louisiana to take on the editorship of the venerable Southern Review. She called from Orlando to tell me she liked my story and wanted to publish it, but that she thought the title was a little lame. Would I consider changing it? Yes, I would. I hung up the phone, hyperventilated a bit, poured a drink and opened my Excel file to record my first “A”. And then I wrote more stories, spent a ton of money on postage, rewrote everything, bought more stamps, revised again, and waited fifteen months for another acceptance.
The point here, of course, is one every published writer makes—persistence pays. But the persistence must apply not just to the act of submitting stories, but also to the act of persistently making your writing better. Bullish resubmission of the same flawed story to editor after editor is not persistence—it’s arrogance. Better is the persistent willingness to open the rejected story up, look at it with a new perspective and consider ways to improve it. Rejection is a gift—it provides an opportunity to make your writing better and an emotional challenge to prove your mettle. It is a good story, you tell yourself. But maybe it needs to be a bit better. So you sit down. And you make it better.
Each publication credit is hard won but each comes with reach and power you may underestimate. Nearly a year after a story of mine appeared in a small literary magazine, an agent wrote to tell me he’d read the story, liked it, and was putting out feelers for a novel. It was the beginning, as Bogie would have said, of a beautiful friendship. My first novel will be published sometime in the next year.
Meanwhile, more writing, more revising, more money on stamps. Email submissions and rejections are more common now, of course, but I still make a habit of sending out snail mail submissions whenever I can. Here’s why: I live in a small town and our neighborhood is the type of old city-ish place where mailboxes are affixed to the houses next to their front doors. When I round the corner of my street and approach my house from two blocks away, I can see my mailbox—a solid black rectangle against the faded green of my home. Most days I see protruding from the box only the long white envelopes of bills or the ruffled cheap newsprint of advertising circulars. But some days I see—from two hundred yards away—the bright brown of a 9 x 12 envelope, and I know it’s a manuscript I submitted some months before, coming back to me now with a small slip of a rejection tucked inside. And I smile. Because seeing the rejection in my mailbox reminds me of something that’s become very important to me over the years. I’m in the game. I’m playing the odds. Sometimes, I win.
There’s an old runner’s adage I think of almost daily: “no matter how slow you’re going, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch.” 181 rejections. By the time you read this, that number will surely have increased. And that’s a good thing.
Thank you Laura, for your hospitality and kindness, and here's to your continued success!