Monday, October 31, 2016

My First Time: Lamar Herrin

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 Lamar Herrin, author of seven novels, including Father Figure, The Lies Boys Tell, House of the Deaf, and Fractures; a memoir, Romancing Spain; and numerous short stories, which have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris ReviewEpoch, and elsewhere. He has won a NEA fellowship, an AWP Award for the Novel, and The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn award for fiction. He is a professor emeritus from Cornell University and with his wife, Amparo Ferri, divides his time between Ithaca, New York and Valencia, Spain.

My First Novel

My first novel, The Rio Loja Ringmaster, was published by Viking Press in 1977. Prior to its publication, the first and fourth chapters were published separately in The Paris Review as stories. (The first of those two won the Aga Kahn fiction prize in The Paris Review for 1975). In fact, George Plimpton took it on himself to recommend to Viking that it give me a contract on the book yet to be written, which Viking did. I mention this not to brag but to convey how auspicious a birth the novel had had and how easy the sailing (to confuse the metaphors) had come to seem. In fact, the very idea of the book had been a happy occurrence.

A friend of mine, Dallas Wiebe (now that I think of it another Paris Review author) and I were attending a baseball game in the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Ohio. We sat beside one of the bullpens and watched the nervous antics of the relief pitchers more than we did the game. Relief pitchers seemed a special breed, skating out on a fine line of sanity while awaiting their eleventh hour appearance in the game. My friend and I challenged each other to write a story about a relief pitcher.

To my knowledge, his never came to light, but, three years later, mine became The Rio Loja Ringmaster, and since in the interim I'd been in Mexico and filled my head with sights and sounds there (and played a bit of ball in a regional league), that was where I set it. Viking assigned me a good editor to work with, who chapter by chapter steered me through things (alerting me to one potential disaster, but, it also must be said, forcing me to fight for the ending I wanted). I’d been paid a modest advance when I’d signed the contract and promised an equal sum when the book as a whole was accepted. I wrote during the day and sold Britannica encyclopedias in the evening (and played a little poker). When the time came to submit the final manuscript I had to pay a typist (back in those pre-press-the-printer-button days) to give me a clean copy. If I remember correctly, the going rate back then was a dollar a page, which in my case came to over three hundred dollars, and you had to sell more than a few encyclopedias to earn that back. But I paid up and got a clean copy, and no sooner had I looked at it than I realized there was, on every page, a change I wanted to make. But couldn’t, of course, because I didn’t have another three hundred dollars to spend. I submitted the final manuscript and waited anxiously for the verdict from Viking. When the book was accepted and I received the second half of my advance, I think my wife, small son and I went out—still in Cincinnati—for the pizza of our lives. The old firehouse up there in Clifton. A massive sense of relief.

I include all the above only so that I can relate what follows. Sometime in mid-1976 (the novel was published in January 1977), I received a call from my editor to tell me that she had the Viking lawyer on an extension and, in what for them amounted to little more than a bureaucratic formality, wanted to go over a few details in the book. It seemed that Viking had been hit by a couple of niggling lawsuits the year before and they were taking their precautions. The lawyer ran through the characters in my book. Any prototypes?

Well, that depended what was meant by “prototypes.”

How about what’s her name, the one with red hair? What about her? Make the hair blonde. And that couple from Colorado on page 236—any resemblance to anybody there?

Well, “resemblance” depended to what degree we were talking about.

Put them in Wyoming.

There was a team of Mexican ballplayers, whose names I had indeed used because I knew they would get a kick out of it although at least half of them couldn’t read. Rename them all. And on and on.

What this lawyer didn’t seem to understand—and my editor didn’t take much to heart either—was that what you had to rename or re-describe, say, on page 236, you also had to do the same for on ten other pages, that with one seemingly insignificant detail a certain unraveling began. Any writer out there will know what a funk that will throw you into, and if my memory serves it took a number of days for me to get down to it, at which time it felt as if I was betraying my mission and the whole novel was coming apart. Which was nonsense, of course. But this was a first book, I had committed myself to every word, had, I thought, lived and died by them, and here I was, because some lawyers were fighting shy, having to settle for second best! A deep abiding funk did indeed set in, from which I emerged only when the author’s copy of the novel itself arrived in the mail and I opened it and failed to trip on anything, so thrilled was I by the book in my hands and by the sight and sound of my own words, even if some were those which a Viking lawyer had so routinely tossed off. Make her blonde. Put them in Wyoming. Pablo, Pedro, what difference does it make? Make believe is make believe, and now everybody’s money, including my advance, would stay where it belonged.

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