Monday, July 22, 2013

My First Time: David Samuel Levinson

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 David Samuel Levinson, author of the novel Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, which has just been published by Algonquin Books.  His story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, was published by Viking Penguin in 2004.  His stories have appeared/are appearing in The Brooklyn Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and Post Road.  Currently, he's the fiction fellow at Emory University.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Editors

Don’t tell anyone but Jenny Schecter was a big hero of mine.  Played by Mia Kirchner, Jenny was the neurotic, sanctimonious young novelist on the defunct hit show, The L Word.  Beautiful, tetchy, and unpredictable, she was the girl we all loved to hate.  She entered the show a suicidal, repressed bisexual, then transformed herself into a lover of all things labial, going so far as to write an autobiographical novel, Les Girls, based on her friends and lovers.  Yet I didn’t adore Jenny for any of this.  I adored her for what and who she represented—a writer with an unyielding, unbreakable spirit.

Sure, she was a conniving monster and, sure, she brought out more insincere, cheesy grins than Britney Spears, but she was also a girl with chutzpah and integrity, someone for whom to root, an inspiration to writers everywhere.

Having been beaten down by various writing instructors, who told her she’d never be a professional writer, Jenny did write and ended up selling Les Girls to a big NYC publishing house.  Yet after a visit to meet her new editor, who had a completely different take on the novel—this editor saw the book as too dark and wanted Jenny to go in a completely different direction—Jenny fired her, saying, to her publisher, “She’s just not the right editor for my novel.”

I cringed while watching this episode, though secretly I cheered Jenny on.  What kind of person—what kind of writer—dissed her editor like that?  As far as I could tell, she had committed literary suicide.  She was finished, done in by the very integrity that had kept her writing.  I felt for her, yet hated her all the same.  “Idiot,” I roared at her.

This was TV, I reminded myself, not real life, yet somehow I felt tethered to Jenny and her struggle, which for me was a story of perseverance and determination.  It is for this reason and none other that I remain a devoted fan, as fascinated by Jenny today as I was all those years ago.

Like Jenny, I too had been told I’d never be a professional writer and like her, I too had persevered.  After three different agents, a hundred rewrites and a bidding war, I finally sold my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, in August 2007 to a big NYC publisher.  And like Jenny, I thought I’d finally made it.  Even after I’d met with my new editor and she subsequently dismissed the second half of the novel, saying it needed a total overhaul, I’d gone away happy and excited.  Our editorial collaboration was under way, and I basked in the certainty of our budding relationship—I had an editor!  I had a publisher!

After that first meeting, I feverishly revised and had a new batch of pages to hand over a month later.  On the phone, however, my editor told me that I’d rushed, that she wanted me to slow down and not worry about the deadline.

So I didn’t worry about the deadline and I slowed down.  I sent her new pages again in January of 2008, yet I was met with the same refrain.  “I just don’t think we’re seeing eye to eye on this,” she said.  “Tell me what your novel’s about.”

Back in May 2007, I’d spoken to many editors—including her—all of whom were keen on the sale.  All of them, except my future editor, gushed over the novel, telling me how amazing the story and writing were.  One of these editors, a gentleman who worked for a small publisher in North Carolina, talked about it so beautifully that he brought tears to my eyes.  In complete contrast, my conversation with my future editor was hurried and brusque, as if she were squeezing me in.  When her bid came in, however, it outmatched everyone else’s, including the gentleman’s in NC.  I went with the money.  Who could blame me?

Well, Jenny for one, especially in light of what happened.

Having spoken to my editor for the last time in February, I’d outlined what I planned to do during this round of revisions: I’d take every single one of her suggestions.  She was giddy when I told her and said, “I just want to see the first one hundred pages.  And, David, don’t rush.”  Again that warning—Don’t rush—but I was in a better place, reinvigorated and ready to dive into the novel again.

Five months later, I sent the first one hundred pages to my agent, who loved them.

“The novel feels like it has a heart—a heartbeat.  You seem to have a real handle on the story at this point,” she wrote in an email.

I sent the pages to my editor and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  A week later, I called my agent, who told me she’d talked to my editor that morning.

“She’s read the first fifty pages and thinks it’s 300% better!”

I felt the possibility of everything again, but mostly I felt my editor and I were back on track and that we’d go far with this novel, if not many more.  Yet less than a week later, on a Monday morning, my agent called to tell me my editor had ended up disliking the pages.  “I just don’t think she’s the right editor for your novel,” she said.

As she said this, I thought about Jenny again and her meeting with her editor, the confusion and pain in her face when she’d stood up for what she believed, and took the book back.  After I hung up with my agent, I watched that episode of The L Word again, trying to see where I might’ve gone wrong and how I might have done things differently.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in or trust my editor’s opinions, it’s simply that it turned out I’d written a novel that she herself didn’t believe in or trust.  When we finally parted ways—an amicable parting, I might add—I wanted to call Jenny and tell her.  I wanted to sit across from her over coffee and discuss our respective experiences.  I wondered what she might have told me, although I’m pretty sure it’s exactly what I had been thinking all along: when the time is right, you’ll find another editor.

And I did.

And that experience—working alongside Chuck Adams at Algonquin Books—completely restored my faith, not only in myself as a writer but also in the world of books in general.  There has been nothing greater than seeing my novel—my creative vision, which I worked on for a decade—come into being.  Working with Chuck—always a gentleman, one of the last old-school editors—was a blessing.  Not that it wasn’t challenging, because it was, but it was also full of magic.  From my first editor, I learned a lot about myself as a writer and am still thankful that I got the chance to work with her.  Without Chuck, however, I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today.  He helped me to see deeper into my characters, who are reflections of me, of course.  He helped me to bring out parts of them and the story that I might not have otherwise.  Mostly, though, he helped me understand that I was writing to be read and that I needed to be aware of my readers, whoever they might be.

If Jenny had worked with him, I’m pretty sure she would have had a similar experience.  Sometimes, I still think about her and how proud she would have been of me.  I see her sitting across from me, applauding my tenacity and determination.  My courage.

“Congratulations.  You did it,” she’d say.

“If it hadn’t been for you,” I’d say.

“No, David,” she’d say, grinning her Jenny grin.  “If it hadn’t been for you.”

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