I’ve had a ready answer: a full-time university teaching job, three children, plus the usual ‘passages’ of serious illness, parental deaths, the wild hijinks of my children. But the truth is, the publication of my first novel, A Year of Favor, by William Morrow & Co. in 1994, was a nightmare from which it took me at least a decade to recover.
Of course, when that editor from Morrow had called to offer a two-book contract, I was elated: I believed that I’d made it, and that I ‘had it made.’ My agent was a newbie from the D.C. area and he, like me, was awed by this offer (in the low five figures) and the acquiring editor’s promise that she had big plans for A Year of Favor; among them, that AYOF would be taken to Frankfurt, where lucrative foreign sub rights were certain to be sold.
For the next few weeks, I floated: I was about to become a published novelist! No matter that I had to cut more than 100 pages from the manuscript. Cutting would be cake compared to writing. Then my agent called to tell me that my editor had been fired. Slam, bam! Just like that! She, who loved my novel and had big plans for it, was gone from Morrow. My novel became an orphaned manuscript. What was that, an orphaned manuscript? I didn’t like the sound of it, but didn’t have even a basic comprehension of what acquiring editors do for their books. Over the next 18 months, I’d find out.
Backing up a couple of years. I began my writing life as a newspaper reporter, but, like all reporters everywhere, I longed to write the Great American Novel. After the births of my first two children, I entered a CW program at Temple University in Philadelphia, in order to focus on the book I had in mind. By the time I finished, my work had received a substantial grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and had placed second in a national competition, the Washington Prize for Fiction. At the urging of my Temple professors, I sought an agent, using every possible contact, however tenuous. Back then, the process demanded hard copies, at a cost of about $40 a piece. Out they went to many agents with outstanding reputations, most of whom turned it down, though a couple held onto it for most of an eternity. Meantime, a new agent who’d noticed the novel’s accolades, asked to read the manuscript, and soon thereafter offered to represent me. My Temple mentors advised me to hold out for one of the bigger, more established agents. I did, for as long I could stand it, all the while nudging the other agents for an answer. Being meek (the meek shall inherit the earth!), I wasn’t good at this. Weeks or maybe months passed. At last, unable to tolerate the indecision, or step up my harassment campaign, I signed with the new agent. A week later, one of the biggies, the one I’d wanted all along, called to offer me representation.
“No time to be a good girl,” my mentors counseled. “Tell the guy you’re sorry and move on.”
Did I listen to them? No. I was, at heart, A Good Girl. I couldn’t break a contract. Besides, those offering advice were authors with many published books and prestigious prizes. I wasn’t in the same position. To do so would have violated everything I understood about right and wrong. This guy had come to me, after all, and I’d given him my word. That I had a two-book offer from Morrow within the month vindicated my choice: My No-Name Agent had done his job. Notwithstanding the fact that, almost immediately after the contract was signed, my agent called to say my editor had been fired.
Production, nevertheless, went forward. My novel was assigned to a talented, hard-working newbie who had no discernible interest in my novel – which was inspired by the murders of the four Maryknoll missionary women in El Salvador in 1980. The Newbie, who has gone on to a stellar career in publishing, did not love A Year of Favor. I could tell that from the get-go. But he was being given a great opportunity to edit his first novel; he’d do his very best. He was willing to care for it, if not nurture it, but it was not his baby and he couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried, love it in the same way he would have if it had been.
The Editor and I cut some 100 pages and got the novel down to a tight, fast-paced 320 pages. Only as the bound galleys were distributed, did things begin to seem slightly amiss. The Editor had neglected to gather blurbs even as I offered him a couple of names. No blurbs! He’d also neglected to ask for acknowledgments so that, by the time I asked him, it was too late. I didn’t get to thank in print those who’d earned my gratitude.
I got promisingly positive pre-pub reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and later strong reviews in the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution; a stingingly bad one in the Boston Globe; and a pro forma one in the Fiction Chronicle of the Times’ Sunday Book Review. My hometown newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, was noticeably absent from the list. Later, the Inquie book editor told me he’d never gotten galleys or been approached by Morrow about a review. I had, in fact, been assigned a publicist but we never spoke or corresponded. She never took my calls. The Agent couldn’t or didn’t help. As my pub date approached, I realized I was on my own. I set up my own tour of the Northeast, reading at a bookstores and universities, but in many locations, the books didn’t arrive on time or there weren’t enough of them. Neither my agent nor anybody at Morrow could ever explain why my novel was so difficult to get hold of.
A Year of Favor never got to Frankfurt. The folks at Morrow ignored an inquiry my Agent got from a Latin American publisher. The novel never came out in paperback. No sub rights were ever sold, a succession of disappointments that morphed into a slow-percolating torment.
In retrospect I learned that 1992-1994 were among the most difficult in Morrow’s long illustrious history. The whole time my novel was in production, the Hearst Corp. had Morrow up on the auction block, with daily bulletins about who’d bought it and which deal had just fallen through. A reign of anxiety and constriction began just as AYOF was purchased, and my first editor, who’s also continued her fine publishing career, was likely one of its first victims. Later, a contact inside Morrow told me that, during that period, anyone who could leave did; those who stayed couldn’t or didn’t get much done. The sales people were not selling; the marketing people weren’t marketing. The sub-rights people had closed up shop. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Hearst sold Morrow to News Corp. where it’s now an imprint of Harper Collins.
Nobody at Morrow ever came looking for the second book, which was fine by me. Instead, I put my head down, kept writing, as I always had and always will, albeit slowed by full-time teaching and parenting. I adjusted my dreams and my thoughts on publication. I’d never written for fame or money, anyway. I’d always written because I had stories I wanted to tell and I wanted, however stubbornly or egotistically, to tell them my way. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Imagine, then, my happiness when my new agent Janet Rosen stuck with me until she got an offer from Elizabeth Bruce at Picador. Imagine my delight when it turned out that Elizabeth’s vision for the novel matched my own, and we had one of those editor/writer relationships that hardly ever happen anymore. Imagine the thrill of going to Picador, in the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, and meeting a whole team of publishers, publicists, marketers and sales staff eager to make my book a success. Imagine, above all, the thrill of seeing Mimi Malloy, At Last! in print, first in a beautiful hardback and now the paperback. The thrill ain’t gone, baby. It’s with me every day. But I wonder, can’t help it, if things would have turned out differently if I’d gone with the more powerful agent.
The eternal question: What’s a writer to do?
A tenured professor of creative writing at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., she teaches graduate workshops in fiction and creative nonfiction in the university’s Master of Arts in Writing program. She holds master’s degrees from both Columbia and Temple Universities.
A former newspaper reporter and editor, MacDonnell is the recipient of two fiction fellowships from the N. J. State Council on the Arts, two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation fellowships for residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Pulitzer Traveling fellowship, and numerous other awards for her journalism and fiction. A passionate reader with an abiding love of story, she lives in southern New Jersey.