Feeling My Way to the Write Side of the Desk

July 18, 2007 @ 9:53 pm | Filed under:

Or: In Which I Tantalize the Other Kidlit Bloggers by Not Naming Names

During graduate school, I wrangled myself a part-time job at a local children’s bookstore. This was not exactly a responsible thing to do at the time. After all, I’d taken out student loans in order to finance my two years in the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro, so that I could have the privilege of studying under the great Fred Chappell and also so I could apply myself seriously to writing and see if, given the time to devote to craft, I was really cut out to earn my living by the pen. Or keyboard.

Scott was off to New York to begin his internship at DC Comics, pursuing his own dream, and my plan was to spend my two years of grad school doing nothing but writing. I had to work, of course, and I landed a paying position on the editorial staff of The Greensboro Review, the MFA program’s national literary magazine.  The demands of my job as assistant poetry editor, and, in my second year, poetry editor proper, were more than enough to fill the hours not already consumed by my classes, homework, and the composition of original poems and stories for the demanding creative writing workshops.

So naturally, the first thing I did was trot off to the children’s bookstore and pester sweet-talk the owners into hiring me. I just loved that store so much. I wanted to spend time there, among those lovely books, so many of them my old friends. I didn’t know, yet, that children’s literature was my genre—it may sound obtusely un-self-aware, but honestly, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the kind of books I wanted to write for a living were going to be children’s books. No one in the program was a children’s writer, or talked much about children’s literature. We were Serious Poets who read Kumin and Larkin and Heaney; we were Serious Short-Fiction Writers who spoke of The Atlantic Monthly in tones normally reserved for sacred texts. We were all going to write Serious Novels or go broke publishing chapbooks of earnest, intensely serious poetry.

Yet there I was perched on a stool behind the counter at the Dolphin, between the spin rack of beginning readers and the endcap display of Newberys, contentedly reading my way through our inventory. I couldn’t even pretend I needed the job to supplement my poet-in-a-garret paychecks from the Review; I spent every dime of my bookstore earnings on books. I could not, after all, let that tasty employee discount go to waste.

Eventually a classmate pointed out to me that all of my narrators—even in my poems, for I (alone among my peers) favored narrative verse over lyric poetry—were children or elderly people. Sometimes both, in the same poem. Gradually it dawned on me that my comrades-in-ink were approaching writing from a different landscape than I was. The vistas that informed my work were golden-brown Kansas prairies and blossom-clad Prince Edward Island lanes—not the gritty urban streets of the late 20th century. The characters who peopled my imagination were leprechauns, maiden aunts, and barefoot lasses. The stories I was interested in telling had to do with getting into scrapes and getting out of them again, or discovering lost things, or coping with eccentric and boisterous relatives who had a way of putting you in awkward yet ultimately hilarious situations.

By the time I graduated in 1993, I had learned how to articulate my interests, and when I went looking for a job in publishing, hoping to get my foot in the door (and also ready to settle down in New York, where that comic-book-editing boyfriend of mine was shopping for engagement rings), the doors I knocked on were all marked "Children’s." FSG passed on me because my sample reader’s report made no beans about the fact that I thought the manuscript I’d been given to peruse was sloppier than the junk drawer in my kitchen. I didn’t mind, because they were only offering a salary of $15,000—hardly enough to pay for half a month’s expenses in the New York City of the mid-90s. "To be honest," admitted the senior editor who interviewed me, "most of our entry-level staff relies on help from their parents."

Random House offered a more reasonable starting salary—still small potatoes, but at least you could afford your own potatoes instead of having to mooch off Mom and Dad’s. And the executive editor I interviewed with there thought my reader’s report showed sufficient common sense to warrant an offer. I had been given the manuscript blind, unaware that the author was actually a person rather highly regarded in the field. I thought his concept was appealing, and there was a fun, quirky quality to the writing that I quite enjoyed, but the plot, in my opinion, was riddled with holes. The manuscript, I summed up, had potential but would need a tremendous amount of work.

The editor, it turned out, agreed with me one hundred percent. One of my first tasks upon taking up residence in my cubicle was to draft a letter, to be tweaked and signed by my new boss, laying out the points of revision necessary to turn the manuscript into a publishable novel. I found out who the author was, and I gulped at my audacity in issuing so blunt and stern a critique.

(It was right about then I knew for certain I did not want to pursue a career on that side of the desk; the editor’s life was not for me. The job, I hoped, would be a stepping-stone to a writing career—and so it was.)

The Esteemed Author politely and calmly disagreed with the editorial feedback, averring that he viewed writing as an art akin to the Chinese craft of painting on rice-paper, a fiber so fragile that revisions are impossible. He cordially withdrew the manuscript from our consideration, offering to write a new book for our house and amiably confident that another publisher would be happy to accept the manuscript we had problems with.

He knew his business. A year later the book was published by that same FSG editor who had passed me over for his assistant position.

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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Alice Gunther says:

    Awesome story, Lissa!

  2. Anne Marie says:

    I love this story, and I love knowing who Esteemed Author is.

    I have a story about him–don’t know if I’ve told you.

  3. Karen E. says:

    What a great story! And, the other kidlit bloggers are not the only ones you are tantalizing with the unnaming of names. 🙂

  4. Mama Squirrel says:

    Funny how similar stories can be! I majored in creative writing too–and it was much the same, we were all very Serious to the point of Depressing.

    I also had an interview at a children’s bookstore–too bad I couldn’t afford to work there and still eat (the big city was a very expensive place). I did work at a chain bookstore for awhile, but I had another day job as well then.

    And I also tried to get a job at a publisher’s (textbook publishers, in this case), but I don’t know whether I would have gotten hired or not (there were an awful lot of young grads there, almost every one of us wearing navy blue suits with shoulder pads). I ended up moving out of the city before they made up their minds. And that was the end of that.

  5. Laurie says:

    I’m left hanging with a question….
    But did the author sell a lot of books?
    Thanks for sharing the great story.

  6. Mary Beth P says:

    You definately found your niche- lots of beautiful children & lots of beautiful children’s stories to go with them!

  7. Keri says:

    My eight year old daughter has just read the Martha years again and is presently reading the Charlotte years for the second time. Beautiful books!

  8. JoVE says:

    Just today I heard a story on the radio about someone who minimally doctored some Jane Austen (but left in the first line of Pride and prejudice) and sent it around under a different name to some UK publishers. It was flat our rejected (not even suggested revisions).

  9. cloudscome says:

    Great story! I admire how hard you worked to get to the write side and how well you knew where you were going.

  10. Sherry Early says:

    Just call me Tantalus. I, too, want to know if the book that was published in spite of plot holes was a success. Can a book become sucessful just because the author has already built a reputation? I would think the answer is yes. As Barnum said, “There’ a sucker born every minute.”