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Literary Sharecropper 

The perilous life of a novelist

Thursday, Dec 2 2004
Illustration by Ryan Ward

For some optimistic types, race is a tedious notion that doesn’t speak to this new meritocracy we have here in our colorblind country. It would be pleasant to think that those of us who swim on the left side of the stream wouldn’t be guilty of highhandedness or racial insensitivity or plain old racism until you run smack into a wall of race.

I remember the daughter of a former poet laureate suggesting that the enthusiasm folks had for my first novel was probably because I was black. Damn. If only I’d known that from the get-go, that there was this free-floating love for me out there in the world because I am a black man. You’d think by now I’d be on a tenure track at some open-minded but guilt-ridden liberal arts college. Race matters, but in subtle ways that don’t spit in your face like Russian skinheads sharing love with their darker-skinned countrymen on the subways.

See, I’ve come to expect the affirmative action of driving while black or brown. I remember trying to give away my stories to literary magazines back in the day, and couldn’t. It bothered me, though it didn’t matter: Who the hell reads literary magazines except for the people who want to be in them? Still, I wanted to be published in those backed-by-trust-fund rags. All I got was frustrated. Then it occurred to me: These folks don’t want to publish stories about kids growing up in the hood, they wanted to publish stories about dysfunctional kids in the suburbs.

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But when Terry McMillan rolled onto the scene and sold a shitload of books, even high-culture mavens and mongers at those unbearably white publishing houses had to bust out and find them some black folks who liked to scribble between the lines. That was me. Sold my first novel in the huge shadow of Terry McMillan’s sales, and for that I’m forever grateful, because nothing focuses the attention of the corporate mind like naked profit.

There are many pitfalls in a literary career, including convincing folks you have one. Writers, like Pavlov’s dogs, actually do learn, and after jettisoning all that romantic baggage that books are about what’s between the pages, they see with clear eyes the genius of the marketplace. The book business has never been more about moving units, though hawking novels, even the big ones, can be much harder than selling wet dog turds. A friend of mine recently complained that his latest book sold a little more than 3,000 copies after getting good exposure, including a priceless CNN piece, and great reviews. I feel for him, though he received a respectable advance for the book and I’m sure it’ll do better in paperback. If I were him, I’d chalk it up to bad luck, and get to steppin’, though I’m sure he was hoping to leverage his book’s sales success into another deal. Hope springs eternal.

But for some of us hope is the thing that gets stuck to the bottom of your shoe like a bad book deal. I’m a living example of how the writing life goes wrong as evidenced by my own recent publishing misadventure.

See, the life of a novelist is a perilous one, the chance of being published is slight and receiving an advance is even more remote. You’d think that maybe after you’d sold a few books things might get easier, but let me tell you, writing, like pimping, ain’t easy. My advice to those who want to write the Great American Novel? Keep the overhead low. Forget about that iMac with the 22-inch monitor; soon enough you’ll regret it, no matter how much you imagine it will improve your productivity. My mistake is that I wanted continuity, consistent money coming in, because I have two little dividends and I can’t let my wife do all the supporting. I wanted a multiple book deal, and damn, my agent went and got me one. I cashed the checks, spent the money, paid the taxes and got to writing, because if you want to get paid for writing, you actually have to write.

When you do the writing and develop some skills and ambitions, that’s when it gets interesting. You learn that the rigors of the market are all important — another immutable law of the universe, more real than a noble gas law or the laws of thermodynamics. So when my first editor, an African-American woman, told me it would be impossible to get my book through the publisher’s acquistions committee unless I changed the white, upper-class love interest of my black protagonist to something, anything else, I complied. "How about a Sade-like biracial adoptee from Nigeria," I asked. "Fine," she said.

I got a little nervous, though, when the publicist at my publisher, Atria, had to quit over an outbreak of boils or something that sounded equally biblical. He hadn’t been doing much to promote my previous book anyway, but it was a bad sign. Almost as bad as meeting Atria’s publisher, Judith Curr, an Australian woman who didn’t seem to know that Latinos in California speak English as well as Australians or maybe even better. I sensed I wouldn’t be receiving the royal treatment from Atria — no book tour, no post cards, not much of anything. After finishing the first of the two books, Lita, I assumed they’d send it around, you know, for reviews. But they couldn’t bring themselves to do even that. When I asked my new editor, Malaika Adero (my old editor, Tracy Sherrod, left to become an agent), if I should hire an outside publicist, she said yes. I truly had become an orphaned writer.

I’m a big boy, I could handle what was coming: They didn’t want to publish another word of mine. I was cool with that, I’d expected nothing but cold-blooded business. Still, I was under contract to produce another book. I explained to my editor what I wanted to write in advance — a novel about a personal chef for a weirdo super celebrity, in lieu of the novel I’d proposed long ago in a single paragraph. She agreed. I wrote that book. But when I sent the manuscript, Serving Monster, to my editor, she informed me that, unbeknownst to me, I had violated my contract — that it was late and it wasn’t the book they’d wanted anyway. I knew then that I was going to get gotted. That this big-ass publishing house was going to come down on me.

Sure enough, Atria, subsidiary of that monster conglomerate Viacom, asked me to pay back the $41,000 they advanced me. I had to sit back, catch my breath and get my mind around the demand. The book was late, but not unreasonably late, especially given that Atria took longer than expected to get my first book out and, in changing editors, put me though a period when I had no editor to work with. I’d gotten approval to write the book I wanted. I even tried to write the novel they wanted — 60 hasty pages to a sequel of one of my earlier books. But in the age of low-rent porn for churchgoing ladies, I couldn’t keep up with sex-wild Zane (also published by Atria) or any of her dick-riding sorority sisters. Both novels were rejected.

Then some woman who sounded about as threatening as a Vassar coed called me on my cell and tried to put the fear of God into me. I was being threatened and dunned as though I had run up a huge credit card debt that I’d refused to make good on.

I informed this woman that I was receiving unemployment and wasn’t in a position to repay the advance. I argued that her demand was ridiculous and that I had permission from my editor to write "what I felt." It didn’t matter. If I didn’t pay, she said, they’d sue me. Finally, I was offered a compromise: Pay Atria a thousand dollars every six months for the next 10 years, and they’d go away.

I don’t want to be sued by a conglomerate, and I can’t say I’m not tempted to pay my biannual tribute to stay out of court. But then again, it’s hard not to look at myself as some bedraggled peasant who was given some seeds and bad land to hoe in perpetuity. Yes, one day when I’m deep into senior citizenness, I’ll be through with my book deal, and if good ol’ master is kind to me, I’ll be emancipated and free to work for myself. I’ll no longer be literary sharecropping, singing spirituals in the cotton-picking fields.

Tervalon is the author of several novels, including Lita, Understand This and All the Trouble You Need. His novel Serving Monster has yet to find a publisher.

  • The perilous life of a novelist

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