My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Sheri Holman whose new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight, tells the story of Eddie Alley--moving from his childhood in Depression-era Appalachia where he helped his mother (one of the titular witches) gather herbs on the hillsides, to the end of his life as Captain Casket, a campy 1970s TV horror-movie host whose glory has faded. I'll have a full review later, but for now I can tell you the novel is a bubbling cauldron full of some very fine writing. Regular readers of this blog know my appreciation for Holman's work runs long and deep: witness my fanboy love for her two earlier novels, The Mammoth Cheese and The Dress Lodger. Her first novel, A Stolen Tongue, is about a 15th-century monk on a pilgrimage to gather the scattered body parts of a dead female saint. It's on deck on my Kindle and, after reading about its genesis in the following essay, I'm even more intrigued by what's in store for me.
My First Mentors
When I was 21, I moved from Virginia to New York to become a Shakespearean actress. I was very determined and very specific. There would be no dog food commercials for me. It took about a year before I learned the Hermias and Hermiones were few and far between, and when I began to consider stolen packets of crackers from the Hell's Kitchen Bojangles a meal, it seemed time to get a job. I had a decent liberal arts education and read constantly, so I signed up with a temp agency, hoping to get a job in a publishing house. Several weeks later, I found myself placed at Penguin Books. I worked as a liaison between the editorial and marketing departments, and in those pre-computer days (1988!) spent most of my time retyping copy for the catalogs and reading free books under my desk. I'd been temping at Penguin for two years, earning a small paycheck and occasionally auditioning for plays, when one day, my life was forever altered by a word I'd never encountered before: Advance.
Kathryn Harrison, a young editor a few cubicles away, had just received a big one for her new novel and everyone was talking about it. I remember stopping an editorial assistant in the hallway and asking, How do you get this magical thing called an advance? She explained it to me as she would to a sweet but slightly dull child. First you have to write a book, she said. Then, if it's good, they give you money which you have to earn back. I remember nodding sagely and saying, I guess I should get started then, because I, too, would like to get an advance.
I had written seriously in high school, but dropped it in college. I had one short story to my name, which I'd submitted to The New Yorker, figuring once they rejected me, I'd work my way down. (They did.) I'd taken one creative writing class and a handful of workshops at the St. Mark's Poetry project in Manhattan. But a few weeks after our chat in the hallway, I gave notice, emptied my bank account of all but $800 to be wired in case of emergency, bought a plane ticket to London and, because I heard it was cheap, another for the Magic Bus to Greece. And thus began my career as a writer of books and earner of advances.
One day I'll write about those four months in Greece for my kids: boring old mom who once walked goat paths on Crete and lived naked in a cave, and stayed with nuns in a convent, getting up in the middle of the night for services and scribbling during the day. I took a month-long detour through Turkey riding public buses down to the dusty border of Syria and up to the apple-rich northern border with Georgia. I was young and thrilled to talk with anyone, eager for all stories. I wrote in cafes and on the steps of museums and under bushes where I sometimes slept. I filled notebook after notebook with images from Greek mythology spliced with a story I'd heard of a rhinoceros who escaped from the circus and leapt over a cliff. Joined to that were memories of a Pentecostal girl I'd known in fifth grade, historical accounts from the life of Byron's lover Claire Clairmont and passages informed by the shame of my own one and only one-night-stand. The story I built out of these disparate pieces was vivid and heartfelt. It was also an utter mess.
I returned home tanned and skinny from swimming and eating nothing but chicken and yogurt, fired with literary excitement. It would be nothing to find a new apartment and of course money would be no problem. This advance would soon come along because I had almost finished my novel, and of course finishing something means it must sell. You can imagine my surprise when I went to the bank to withdraw my $800 only to find all my money gone and my account shut down. The friend with whom I'd left my bank card had taken all the funds I had in the world and skipped town. I had about $100 in travelers checks left to live on.
Back to Penguin I went, but my old job had, of course, long since been filled. It was October, and my summer tan had faded, when an old colleague told me that Molly Friedrich, Terry McMillan's agent was looking for an assistant. “I'm a writer,” I remember telling Molly during the job interview. “I don't really know what agents do, but I'll give this a year and we'll see how it goes.” I can still see the look of amused indulgence on Molly's face, and can only imagine she assumed she'd fire me the minute she got back from the Frankfurt Book Fair.
A few months went by and miraculously I wasn't fired. I had a good editorial sense and Molly and I held many similar opinions on people and things. She was a generous, extremely honest mentor to me, and when I put the final words of my novel on paper (199 pages triple spaced), I worked up the courage to show it to her. She took my manuscript home on a Friday. I spent a suspenseful weekend, knowing one thing about Molly Friedrich--if she liked something, she moved fast.
On Monday morning she called me into her office. I stood before her anxious and trembling, sensing the fate of my career and more importantly, my advance, was in her hands. She held out my pages to me, sucked her teeth, and slowly shook her head: Where do I even start?
It was a first draft of a first novel by an untested and inexperienced kid. At that age we have enormous ego, but little vanity, and so I asked her if she would do me one favor. I asked if she would pick one editor who might give a second opinion. Being perhaps the most honorable and charitable person I know, Molly agreed, and sent it to Marian Wood who was Sue Grafton's editor. About a week later, the manuscript came back. This time with a three-page single-spaced rejection letter. It detailed all the novel's many flaws (including the seminal fact that with so many characters and so many swirling ideas it could barely be called a novel) but it was more encouraging than perhaps I deserved.
I suppose there are too many Firsts in this little piece. First novel, first agent, first rejection, first advance. That first attempt was like a backpack crammed full of clothes and rocks and painted icons, everything I'd picked up along the way, too heavy for its thin fabric and about to burst. It's not coincidental that my first published novel was about the slow--sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tedious--journey along an unfamiliar road. And I remain eternally grateful for all the generous guides along the way.