Monday, November 21, 2011

My First Time: Martha Southgate

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 Martha Southgate, author of The Taste of Salt from Algonquin Books.  Ayelet Waldman, author of Red Hook Road, had this to say about The Taste of Salt: “A haunting novel about the ways we hurt and are hurt by the people we love most in the world, and about how, despite that, we find solace in their love.”  Southgate's previous novel, Third Girl from the Left, won the Best Novel of the Year award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was shortlisted for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award.  Her novel The Fall of Rome received the 2003 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post.  She is also the author of Another Way to Dance, which won the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel.  She received a 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.  Visit her website here.

My First Editor

The editor I’m writing about here is not, strictly speaking, my first editor.  My first novel is a young adult novel, well-regarded but now out of print.  But the story I want to tell here is of my partner in literature, the editor who has stood by me since the late 1990s.

On the same glorious day in 1998, I gave birth to my daughter and learned that someone might publish my second novel.  I was still in the hospital—the baby was asleep and my labor had been quick (as labors go) and not too hair-raising.  I didn’t feel that bad, relatively speaking.  So like any modern woman, I checked my voicemail (I suppose, if smartphones had existed, I’d have checked my email and my Twitter feed as well—just as well they didn’t).  My book was being shopped and I hoped against hope that there might be some word.  There was—a call from an editor named Jane Rosenman at Scribner Books.

I liked her voice immediately—even on the voicemail there was something frank and inviting about her tone.  I don’t remember her exact words except for the golden phrase, “interested in your book.”  She was the first one to utter that phrase after a long, discouraging time.  The novel was my first for adults, The Fall of Rome.

I called her when I got home, again during naptime, and told her I had a new baby.  We talked and I still remember the warmth and interest she expressed in both my work and my life—something that has remained through our entire relationship.  I remember her energy and her love, love, love of books.  Not of marketing.  Of books.  Not something you always find in an editor these days.  Things progressed—after 13 years, the details are foggy.  But I know she took the book to her editors and fought for it and was the first person to really fight for my work at a major publishing house.  And so The Fall of Rome was published by Scribner.

She helped me shape that book just the way an editor should.  When I got stuck, she’d take my long phone calls.  When I was running into a wall, she’d say something like, “You know, this isn’t quite working.  Maybe Jerome (the protagonist) should have a hobby or something—he’s too static.”  Her thoughtful notes covered the manuscript, just the way you hope an editor’s notes would and every one of them only improved the work.

Even with all her hard and careful work, the thing about being published by a major house in this era is that maybe your editor will see the book through to the end, and maybe they won’t—the days of Maxwell Perkins digging through a shoebox of manuscripts to extract Look Homeward, Angel are long gone.  The vagaries of office politics, mergers and layoffs make every editor’s job an uncertain one.  So it was with Jane.  Not long before The Fall of Rome was published, Jane left Scribner.  I was deeply saddened, though I knew she’d done what was best for her and I knew she was respected by everyone in the business (you will never hear a bad word about her at a literary cocktail party).  After she left I had one, no, two more editors, both of whom left before the publication process was complete.  Thus I came to understand that at that time, something unhealthy was afoot at the house of Scribner, though I never quite knew what it was.  More than that, it left me without a publisher, a champion or a clear path for my next novel (which, I should say, didn’t yet exist).

Flash forward five years.  New book, Third Girl from the Left was finally substantially begun—enough to begin shopping it.  What to do?  Scribner was completely uniniterested—I had no fans there anymore.  But while I had been working on the book, Jane was recruited to Houghton Mifflin.  She was there for me again, fighting for the manuscript, believing in my work, convincing another house to take me on.  Third Girl was published to good reviews and sales that were…well, not quite what we had hoped.  But Jane always reassured me, “It’s a great book.  It’s just hard to figure out how to get it out there.”

More time passed and I went to work on a new book.  Houghton Mifflin was bought by Harcourt Brace and Harcourt cleaned house, sweeping out a host of esteemed longtime editors and even the publisher, who had been there for 25 years.  Jane, who would happily have stayed at Houghton for the rest of her career, was one of the swept.  Shock—a much harder one for her than for me, of course.

Again after a period of retrenchment, Jane was hired, this time by Algonquin Books.  I finished my newest novel, The Taste of Salt, which was published this September.  And again, she was the editor who loved my work, who fought for it, who shepherded it every inch of the way through to publication.  Until the day I got the call from her—again.

She was leaving Algonquin, this time of her own accord, to strike out on her own as a freelance editor.  Unbelievably, the changes in the publishing industry over the last 13 years are such that a respected, skilled, beloved editor like her can do just as well financially (if not better) freelancing than she can in-house.  “Oh man, Jane, this is the third time this has happened!”  I wailed.  But again, I knew it was right for her.  And I knew that she had taken me such a long way, never ceasing her belief in my work, carrying it from one publishing house to another, always my fan, always willing to share publishing gossip and opinions of other books with me, always funny.  Always Jane.  To whom I will always be grateful.  I’ve said it to her privately but now I’m glad to say it to the world.  Thanks Jane.  For everything.

Photo by Tom Rawe

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