First the Book, Then the Sell

After her first novel, Constance, was slated for a summer release, an entirely different kind of writer's work began. She chronicled her experience in a journal, excerpted here.

July 18, 2002 I spent an hour on the phone today with a newspaper reporter. He asked me if Constance, because of the numerous literary references, was my "valentine to the literary world." I said yes--"a resounding yes"--it is my valentine to the writers who have meant so much to me in my life.

It was my fourth interview. With each one I learn something new about the book and sometimes about myself. Yesterday I told my editor, Bob Loomis ['49], that I've had a lot of people who have read Constance, both friends and journalists, tell me that they now plan to reread The Great Gatsby. I said this was the best compliment I could receive.

A couple of nights ago, I met Lillian Ross at a reading at Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side. She read excerpts from many of her New Yorker pieces. She's been writing for the magazine for nearly fifty years, and she's still going strong. Afterwards, I waited in line to have her sign two of her books. When I got to the head of the line, I handed the Barnes & Noble moderator a Post-it note with my name written out. She took the note, looked at it and then said, "Catherine Cantrell--you're going to be reading here next month." I said that, yes, I was. She turned to Ms. Ross and told her I was a writer and that I had just published a book.

" Is it your first book?" Ms. Ross asked me.

I said yes.

" Is it a novel?" she wanted to know.

I said yes.

" Who is your publisher?"

I told her my publisher was Random House.

" And who is your editor?"

" Bob Loomis," I said.

" Oh, you're an important writer then," she said.

I told Bob this story, and he laughed. "That's very nice to hear," he said. "Thank you. I'm surprised." He's a modest man. As an editor, he likes to stay in the background, but everybody in the publishing industry knows how gifted he is and how much he cares about his writers. They all have the utmost respect for him.

My sister called me a couple of nights ago and told me one of her friends had been flipping through the magazine Marie Claire on the train and saw something about my book. It turns out that Constance was on their "10 Best: To Do" list. I had been hoping the book would be mentioned in one of the large-circulation women's magazines, so I was happy. My publicist, Todd Doughty, was, too. It's hard for a novel by an unknown writer to get attention.

July 25

I did my first radio interview today--at a rest stop just outside of Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania. I was on my way to my first reading in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and my car was parked next to a Chiquita banana truck. I had learned I was going to be doing the five-minute interview with a local Kalamazoo station just two-and-a-half hours earlier, when the station programmer called me on my cell phone while I was driving. He said they'd call me at ten minutes past one and do the interview on the phone. At exactly 1:10 my cell phone rang, and I was cued in. When the host of the program asked me what I planned to do on Saturday at the reading, I said, "The people who come to the reading on Saturday are going to get the DVD-special-features version of Constance." What I meant by this was that I was going to read a poem in its entirety that I had only been able to use excerpts of in the book.

July 28

John Rollins Books in Kalamazoo is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, and they couldn't have been more welcoming. They actually had my name up on the marquee in front of the store.

The Q&A at the end was the best part. One question, in particular, made me think about what writing Constance had meant to me. A woman asked: "Was it a learning or growth experience for you? Were you different in your psychology after finishing the book?" This was a big question, and the first thing I said was, "Well, I was really tired, for one thing." That got a big laugh. After I'd had a moment to think about it, though, I said, "I think the main thing I learned is what a great force the unconscious is in our lives."

I said that I could see this when people pointed things out to me that I'd done in the book that I hadn't consciously thought about. Of course, on some level I had thought about it, but not necessarily on a conscious level. That is really how writers write books: All these forces work together to create a unified whole. I pointed out to the audience, too, that everyone has had this experience of being directed by something outside of their immediate awareness--whether it's a matter of "finding the right book at the right time with just the thing that you're looking for" or making some psychological connection that allows you to see things differently.

August 1

I received a postcard from William Styron ['47, Hon. '68] last week congratulating me on the book's early positive reviews. He told me right from the start, however, not to take reviews too seriously, and I haven't been. Of course, I'm finding that it is easier to do that when a review is positive; when it's mixed, it takes a little more effort to ignore it, but I'm learning.

I've been thinking lately about something he said about mentors in an interview that appeared in the September-October 1984 issue of Duke Magazine: "What's so valuable is to have someone come along like Blackburn [his teacher and mentor at Duke] and say, 'Look, you really have it!' That's the important thing. That's the function of the mentor."

Those lines are especially moving to me now. Every time I read them I think how fortunate I was that [Styron] did that for me. Just knowing that he believed in me was enough to keep me going sometimes.

August 5

I told Bob [Loomis] on the phone today that Borders selected Constance as one of its "Original Voices" selections. "There you go," he said, after a brief pause. I'd been complaining to him about an interview I didn't like, and then I turned around and dumped this fabulous news on him.

August 8

I met two Random House sales reps yesterday. They were at a signing at the Lenox Hill Bookstore for Alain de Botton, the author of The Art of Travel. I received an education on a side of the business I don't know as much about--sales. I know now that the publishing world does not spend a lot of money on market research; advertising budgets are mostly determined by gut feeling.

August 11

I noticed my picture in the window of Barnes & Noble yesterday. Actually, I couldn't miss it. There is a big blown-up photograph of the cover of the book and of me. It's a little disconcerting.

August 12

I was just talking to one of my brothers on the phone. He lives in New Jersey. He told me he went into the Barnes & Noble in Little Falls on Route 46--"the most heavily trafficked highway in America"--and saw my book on the new-releases table. He said it was well positioned, but he made a point of propping up the copy on the top of the pile to make it more visible.

A friend of mine in Yorktown Heights is also looking out for me. She was in Borders with her seven-year-old daughter looking for the book. When she found it, she said to her daughter, "Let's drum up some business."

" What does that mean?" her daughter asked.

" I'll show you," she said. Then she proceeded to walk over to a man who was browsing nearby. "That book is really good," she said, pointing to Constance.

He looked at her. She smiled. "We know the author."

He laughed, but he picked up the book.

" And when we walked away," my friend's daughter told me, obviously impressed with her mother's sales ability, "he was still reading it."

August 15

I went into the Barnes & Noble at 54th and Lexington yesterday with a friend--an author of a best-selling book on business leadership. Being more experienced than I am in this business of selling books, she approached a young man working behind the front desk and said, "This is Catherine Cantrell. She just published her first novel. May she sign copies for you?"

" Absolutely," he said. A few minutes later, another young man came over with a strip of green stickers with "Autographed Copy" printed across them. He pulled out the stack of books, and I began opening them up and writing my name on the title page. While I was signing, he held up a copy of the book and looked at the photo. "Yes," I said. "It's really me."

August 16

I pulled out something from my files today that took me back about eighteen years. It was a journal I wrote for an independent-study project when I was a senior in college on the "Duke in New York" arts program--an arts and internship program founded by the late Vernon Pratt. Two pages of this twenty-three-page journal were devoted to my first meeting with William Styron and his wife, Rose.

One evening after being interviewed following a screening of Sophie's Choice, Mr. Stryon and Rose had taken four Duke students--the four aspiring writers on the program--out to Elaine's to have drinks and talk about art and literature. Elaine's is a popular restaurant and gathering spot for writers and artists on the Upper East Side. I'd mainly been concerned then with getting down some of the things we talked about that evening. I had the privilege of sitting next to Mr. Styron. I still remember how happy Elaine had been to see him when we walked in.

I wrote then about Mr. Styron: "It was very interesting to talk to an artist, especially a writer, about his work." He said many memorable things that evening: that good literature is virtually imperishable, that the quality of art that makes it imperishable is really a mystery that you can never completely understand or explain. He also talked about the importance to a writer of finding his or her own voice. That was extremely important, he said, to a writer's success. He told us, too, that everything he's ever written has filled him with despair, but that he chooses to write about the darker side of life because that is what challenges him.

When I showed these two pages to Mr. Styron last fall, he read them and then looked at me and said, "I said all that?" "Yes," I said, "you did."

I also took note of an interesting conversation that involved everyone at the table except Mr. Styron. We all began at one point discussing why Sophie gave up her little girl, instead of her little boy, at the end of Sophie's Choice. "I thought it was fascinating," I wrote, "that everyone was debating the reasons behind her choice for at least five minutes before they turned to Mr. Styron and asked him. I guess works of art really do take on a life of their own--separate from their creator."

August 20

I gave my first New York reading tonight at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side. It was a perfect evening. My parents, my sister, and many of my friends were there, but so were a lot of people I had never seen before. Bob had warned me that it is difficult to predict what kind of a turnout you're going to have at these events, so I was prepared for anything. Fortunately, we had a full house. The reading had been listed in a lot of places--New York magazine, The Village Voice, and New York Press--so that helped.

There were a lot of people there who were curious about the writing process. People wanted to know how close my final manuscript was to earlier drafts (very close), how hard it is to get published (very), when I started writing (after college), how long it took me to write Constance (three years), how I named "A Dialogue in Silence." ("That was a line that came out of my unconscious and just seemed to work as the title for that poem," I said.)

Someone also asked me if writing is "strictly sitting there" or if paragraphs and ideas came to me when I was walking around or in the middle of the night. He also wanted to know if I used a pen and pad or a tape recorder to keep track of my ideas. I told him that I always have to have a pen and paper with me when I go out or "I begin to hyperventilate."

" To actually create a paragraph," I said,

" I have to be sitting down [at my computer]. I don't write them in my head." But I said that the big ideas tended to come when I wasn't expecting it--when I was taking a walk or doing something else. The unconscious solves problems on its own time.

In terms of getting published, I said something I've said before. "Try to find somebody who you really respect in the publishing industry who will look at your work," and then abide by their opinion. I said that if this person doesn't think you're ready, "then sit down and try again." I said that was what I had done. "I tried to bring my writing up to the next level" every time I was rejected.

It's also a matter of sensibilities. "You do have to find the right editor. You could write a wonderful book, but that editor [you've chosen to send your manuscript to] might have different taste." Finally, I said to all the aspiring writers in the audience, "You have to have a lot of faith in yourself, and you just have to persevere."

A friend of mine who lives in my apartment building asked me at the end to explain what I meant by "bringing it up to the next level." I said it was a matter of going through successive drafts and fixing all those places where I felt myself stumbling over a word or a sentence or a paragraph. "It's working and working on your prose until it flows," I explained.

August 23

I talked to William Styron today on the phone. I told him about the reading at Barnes & Noble and how well it went. "Oh, that's wonderful. That's really great," he said. I told him that most of the reviews have been good, but there were a few I didn't like.

" You can't win them all," he told me.... He said you have to learn to steel yourself against both the positive and the negative reactions to your work. I told him that I felt, all things considered, that I had gotten my fair share of attention, and we talked about how some books don't get anything and are greeted with, as he said, "total silence."

August 29

I went into the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side a couple of nights ago and got to talking to a woman who works there about Constance. Besides being a Duke graduate, she used to be an assistant publicist at Random House. She was there when Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner came out.

She said she remembered seeing Styron once walking into the old Villard mansion, where Random House used to be located, while the actor Dustin Hoffman was walking out. She said that when Dustin Hoffman realized who was in front of him, he stopped and said, "You're William Styron!" And then she said that Mr. Styron looked at him in a something-is-wrong-with-this-picture kind of way and said, "But you're Dustin Hoffman!" And then she told me that Dustin Hoffman put his arms out, placed his hands on Styron's shoulders, and said, "No, you are William Styron."

September 10

I had another newspaper interview today in anticipation of a reading I'll be giving at the end of the month. This interviewer asked me what prompted me to write Constance. I told him about discovering the Christina Rossetti poem "In an Artist's Studio" about ten years ago in an art book on the Pre-Raphaelites, a poem about the relationship between Christina Rossetti's brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his wife, Elizabeth Siddall, who had been a popular model for the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

" It was really her take on their relationship," I said. "It begins, 'One face looks out from all his canvases,/One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;/We found her hidden just behind those screens.' He's painting a picture of her," I said, but Christina Rossetti is asking us to think about what is going on in the model's head.

" I've read a lot of poems written to beautiful women. It's a common theme," I told him, but women in these poems are "usually idealized and seen at a distance. This was the first time I'd read a poem where the poet was asking herself what was going on in the woman's mind, and I knew that was something I wanted to write about. It just resonated within me." I told him that in Constance I tried to get into the mind of a woman who tends to absorb other people's projections and elicits strong emotional reactions in the people around her.

" It took a lot of thinking," I said. "It wasn't easy to do. But eventually it led to this book."

September 16

I spoke on the phone today with Bob [Loomis]. We were talking about the cover for the paperback, when he said he had some good news for me. He told me that Mark Rozzo at the Los Angeles Times gave Constance a wonderful review. He read some of it to me: "With its serene surface concealing an ocean of ambivalence, Constance is a small masterpiece. Like Morgan's definition of the poet, it's a quiet 'volcano that ...erupts in a lava flow of language.'"

Despite my efforts to separate myself from reviews, I was beside myself. I even started laughing. I just felt relieved. "I was hoping there would be somebody out there who would see what we were up to," I told him.

" I pray for that every day," he said.

--Cantrell '85 is a New York writer.

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