Monday, October 15, 2018

My First Time: Lee Zacharias

My First Lesson Learned

If book tours were a thing when Houghton Mifflin published my first novel in 1981, I’m sure I would have had one. My publisher had big expectations: ads in the Washington Post and New York Times, an auction for paperback rights with a minimum bid of six figures, a first press run of 30,000 copies. That the novel didn't sell anywhere near 30,000 copies, that the one company offering the minimum six figures was immediately sold to another that was iffy about my novel—let’s just say those things happened later. The excitement of my editor, the offshoot sales—Book of the Month Club, Redbook, foreign rights—actually seemed normal. Never mind that my first book, a collection of short stories, had been published with a press run of 1,000 by a university press. I was teaching at Princeton and often had lunch with Joyce Carol Oates. At parties I met Nobel laureates at the kitchen sink and overheard authors like Peter Benchley (remember Jaws?) saying that they didn’t feel they’d been published if the first press run wasn’t 100,000. At readings I sat next to Carlos Fuentes. Richard Ford was a good friend. Yet once, as Joyce and I were walking back from lunch through the Princeton Gardens, she stopped to exclaim, “This is Princeton, Lee!” I recognized the awe in her voice, because I too was from a lower middle class family who could never have dreamed of sending a child to Princeton, let alone having one who taught there.

So many copies of my first novel were remaindered that a company that makes safes out of leftover books bought up mine. Lessons was at the top of the stack in one of their ads in Parade, cover open to reveal the hollowed out pages and velvet lining, pearls spilling from inside. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” was the ad’s slogan, and though the small print warned that you couldn’t specify a title, the clerk I spoke with on the phone was so impressed that I was the author she gave me the company president’s number. The president promised to send as many copies as I wanted as soon as she received my check. I had given up on receiving them by the time her apology arrived, my uncashed check enclosed. When she had gone to the warehouse, my title was out of stock, she explained, ending with a cheery “It truly was a best seller.”

Fast-forward to 2014. I’ve just published a collection of personal essays, which I’ve been writing with some success over the past decade. My publisher is an excellent small press, and by now even a book of essays requires a tour. Asheville’s Malaprops is a prize—nearly all of my friends have read there, but the store turned me down the year before, when a much smaller press issued my second novel. I explore the newly hip downtown and take a picture of The Only Sounds We Make, prominently displayed in the window next to all the best-selling authors with new books. Unexpected friends show up—friends from Chattanooga who happened to be in town. Another friend, strangers. It’s not a huge audience, but as I read I can see on their faces I have their full attention. There’s not a moment of awkward silence when I ask for questions, and we’re in the middle of a lively conversation when a siren goes off. Everyone looks at one another. No one seems quite sure what to do, but then the fire trucks arrive, and in come the firemen in full gear, bearing axes. The store is evacuated. For a while my audience stands on the street with me, though as time drags on all but my friends drift away. It’s a false alarm—sort of. Malaprops sits on a hill, and beneath the back of the store, facing a side street, there is a popular restaurant with a kitchen that occasionally has a pan overheat. But by the time the firemen depart, hoses unused, the bookstore has closed. Still, if you can leave Princeton and not publish another novel for years, you can leave Malaprops without a single sale knowing that at least a lot of people own book safes with your name on them, and maybe, just maybe, the people who heard you tonight will remember it when you come back to read from your next book.

Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We MakeAt Random was a finalist in literary fiction for the 2013 International Book Awards, the National Indie Lit Awards, and the USA Best Book Awards. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, including, among others, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Five Points, Gettysburg Review, and Crab Orchard Review.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.