On Publishing with A Small Press

April 30th, 2008 · 5 Comments
by Lucia Nevai

Salvation by Lucia Nevai[BS: Yes, kids, another guest post. Must be the Internets way of celebrating Spring. This week, we are delighted to bring you Lucia Nevai, an award-winning author whose novel Salvation is due out from Tin House Books within weeks. Lucia, who delighted us with her line “when we all agreed that Salvation was the book it wanted to be…”, shares her experience with her editor, her agent, and her choice of point-of-view>]

From three-page short story to 550-page novel

My new novel, Salvation, began as a three-page short story, “Cannibals,” published in a literary quarterly a few years back. My agent and I were putting together a collection of stories, and this one didn’t fit. But she was smitten with the voice of this story and wondered if it could be longer. I had no idea if it could or couldn’t. I gave it a shot. And a three-page-long episode became a five-hundred-and-fifty-page life story.

My Agent

My agent, Denise Shannon, has her own agency, representing a variety of fine authors including Francine Prose, Gary Shteyngart, Karen Russell, Aryn Kyle, Samuel H. Huntingon, Ehud Havazelet, Kevin Canty, Mark Slouka, and many others. She has a lot of experience and a great sense of the marketplace. Her hunches regarding my work in the past have been proven 100 percent correct. And she loved this book.

What is Salvation about?

Salvation is set in rural Iowa in the 1950s. In a nutshell, the story is a funny/sad survival fable in the Ugly Duckling mode. The book traces the journey of Crane Cavanaugh, beginning with disfiguration in the womb as the result of an attempted abortion and ending with celebration in the world as an award-winning science genius.

Crane and her two half-siblings grow up illiterate, ignored, and unfed by the three adults of the household, all depraved, former gospel circuit practitioners who are now squatters living under the civic radar in a dilapidated shack.

When Crane’s prostitute-mother runs away from home to join the Iowa Sate Fair as a stripper, the authorities intervene. The cabin is condemned and the kids are sent to separate institutions to live. Crane is assigned to convent life. Here, her long-sought education begins, but it goes too fast and well—she’s too smart. Science is taught from the book of Genesis in the Bible. Crane rebels. The nuns give up and put her up for adoption.

Crane is reborn as Princess Hopkins by an adoring middle-class adoptive mother who takes Crane home to live in a ranch house a stone’s throw from the condemned shack where she was born. Loved to pieces at home, mentored happily at school, yet haunted daily by her grim past, Princess/Crane inhabits parallel worlds. She learns to use her scientific precocity and formidable intellect to make her mark—and if more than the usual number of social blunders and sexual humiliations follow in her wake, she somehow retains an inner continuity that keeps her unfazed, cheerful, and forgiving.

Note to Self: Never Use the Omniscient First Person in a Long Work

The point of view of the story was what I’ll call omniscient first person: a candid, sincere, trustworthy narrator describes the world around her—and her precarious place in it—in a way that includes details she couldn’t possibly observe firsthand. Never do that in a novel. It is too hard to consistently maintain the same, precise cognitive scope of omniscience over hundreds of pages and scores of episodes with dozens of sub-characters floating in and out.

Why I Didn’t Change the Voice

The voice was what made Salvation different. Salvation possessed a coming-of-age plot. The Midwestern setting was sturdy and unexotic. There were many original details in this character’s journey—such as an intuitive precocity in tracking the feeding and mating habits of competing ant clans—but the overall theme of a character surviving a deprived childhood and finding her rightful place in the world—that was anything but new. It was the voice that made the whole book feel fresh. The candid, forgiving, cheerful way this character tells you the particulars of her story are what make her memorable.

The Submission Process

My agent was determined to find an editor who would fall in love with the book as she had. There were several rounds of submissions as she tweaked her list of candidates at publishing houses of all sizes, looking for someone with the means and the interest to take a risk on Crane Cavanaugh. It was from the great, young editors at the small literary presses that we got the response we were looking for. We went with Tin House Books. Editorial Director Lee Montgomery bought the manuscript—with the proviso that it would need substantial revision.

Small Presses: People Not Just Policies

Tin House is based in Portland, Oregon, in—yes—a tin house. They have enjoyed an outstanding reputation as a literary quarterly since their first issue came out in 1999. A few years back, they expanded into publishing books. Lee Montgomery is a wonderful writer, whose memoir, The Things Between Us, was published by Free Press and won the Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Lee’s short fiction collection, Whose World Is this? won the John Simmons Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. To work with me on the revision, Lee assigned Senior Editor Michelle Wildgen, herself an extraordinary fiction writer who won Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award with a story that became her novel, You’re Not You, published by St. Martin’s.

More Focus on Fewer Titles

At every stage of the publishing process, my agent and I were dealing with people, not just policies. My agent has this to say about the advantages of publishing with a small press: “Small presses provide more focus on fewer titles… and everyone throughout the process really knows (and has read!) your book.” We were asked for input on the cover and our input was taken seriously. We were asked for input on the publicity and our suggestions were incorporated. But before the publicity or the cover, there was that little matter of the revision.

Really Revising

My editor had made extensive notes on the novel. My agent had her own list of questions. And I had some thoughts of my own as to what wasn’t working for me. The more soberly I addressed all of the feedback, the more certain I became that the omniscient first person was an unsuitable point of view through which to tell the account of an entire life. (Anyone who knows of a successful example out there, please tell me!)

As hard as we had all worked on every page of the manuscript, I put three hundred and fifty pages of my character’s life story in the wastebasket. I ended the book with the character on the verge of the first major success that will propel her (with plenty of ups and downs) through the decades to come. During this process, my editor combed through the book six or seven times. She was available via e-mail days, nights, and weekends.

Flexibility in Scheduling Publication

When we all agreed that Salvation was the book it wanted to be, Tin House was able to schedule publication within a matter of months. Cover designers, type designers, copy editors, proofreaders, and publicists all worked on compressed turnaround schedules to meet the deadline.

My Editor’s Experience

My editor has this to say about her experience: “I felt a writer as talented and lauded as Lucia could only help us grow the reputation of the book press, and that while we did a lot of work on Salvation, just looking at the original draft, it was clear to me she was certainly skilled enough and serious enough about her writing to find the right path. You could just see the intelligence and the care in the book, and this amazing prose throughout, that told you it was worth pursuing.”

The Ugly Duckling

When I think back to that three-page sketch, I am in awe of both the inner processes and the professional collaboration that helped bring Salvation into being, then coached it assertively into finding its rightful place in the world. Kinda like my character. Talk about the Ugly Duckling!

You can buy Salvation right here and learn more about the book here.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

5 responses so far ↓

  • Katherine // Apr 30, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    What a fabulous process, Lucia. That sort of editorial assistance and advice is becoming rare.

    What point of view did you end up choosing? (It’s a subject close to my heart as I’ve been struggling with a 100,000 word omniscient first person pov in my novel and have just started again in third person.)

    Would love to hear what worked for you and look forward to reading the book.

  • Lucia Nevai // May 1, 2008 at 7:40 am

    Katherine, I stuck with the first person p.o.v., but it only worked because I truncated the story line. I believe you are on the right track. The third person p.o.v. can have all the immediacy of the first person p.o.v. Also, third person has the advantage of allowing you to interpret the narrator’s physicality — not easily done in first person. Good luck! It sounds like you have a deep commitment to your novel!

  • sue ellen(cross) (dunn) crosslea // May 4, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Lucia- I see that you are reading at Prairie Lights in a while. I am busy trying to find/buy all your work as I have things scattered & stored about. I am dying to read Salvation as I’ve been able to find a fair amount of comment about it. I know almost nothing about writing, as you know, but have learned some from a program here in IC, where I have been living for @5 yrs. due to health problems that took me out of work at 57. The program in Patient Voice—grad students at the Workshop volunteer to teach disabled people to write, hoping that the creative process will help us eventually. And, it does, almost immediately–I’ve loved it when I’ve felt able to focus on it. I am post BD w/ mastectomy, have an auto-immune disorder called which is fairly manageable, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (similar to the Plague) and severe depression plus PTSD from family life-long abusee which I didn’t realize until the physical stuff got so bad I decided to move back home to the loving arms of my family. HA Right into the lions’ den. Currently have NO family involvement whatsoever per all my doc’s orders. It has been a rough few years, but the worst is over. I’ve written several poems about it along the lines of “A Million Tears.” Not great, but say what I needed to say. Had another published in the Patient Voice book–am verrrry proud of that accomplishment. Am exhausted, vulnerable to germs, the flu and stuff, so lead a fairly narrow life which is okay with me since my work was always extremely people intensive and I enjoy the solace of my wonderful little house and my two great canine companions with whom I share a lot of ‘puppy love.’
    Never dreamed I would be totally alone at this age, almost 66 yrs., but have found most people’s problems, and mine, are rooted in the expectations we had for ourselves. Thus, I have stopped making plans too far into the future and just think about getting up tomorrow and finishing the strawberry bed I’m planting in the front yard.
    Would not have moved here—I had lived in Atlanta for 19 yrs.–but I really came here for the family bit–that is such a tricky little sword trick that gets pulled on us. Would have moved to Nashville, I think now, but that was 2000, and I am too old and debilitated to learn my way around one more big city now. Life is good here,although a little cold, and also a little hot, but the hospital is okay, and when I get fed up with them I go to Mayo, which is a fabulous place to go to seek answers. I spent six wks. there a few years ago, and it saved my life. Sorry to go on so much about my health. It’s hard not to, however, as it influences–mainly limitis—everything I do. I read a lot, still try to write some—not writing as you know it, but writing as I know it. I write lots of letters to people about my life, but don’t send them as I can’t often just sit down and write.
    I very immodestly love most of my poems, however, and feel proud that they represent my feelings, and sometimes a bit of creativity I did not know I had. The only other writing I’ve ever done was dozens of grant applications, and I was Maynard Jackson’s personal letter draft writer to consituents for a couple of years. Now, there was a very smart and articulate man. I felt so proud to work for him. Blah. Blah. Blah. Write me a note with your schedule when you will be in IC. Maybe we can find some window washer and bake him a chocolate cake. Love, SE

  • Lucia Nevai // May 5, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Sue Ellen,
    I am horrified to hear of the physical suffering you’ve endured. Not that it hasn’t taken its toll — but you sound as if your spirit is bright, strong and undimmed. How wonderful that you’re writing! You always had such a great heart for people. I always thought of you as a soul truly committed to making the world a better place. Congratulations on making it into the Patient Voice book! I will order it. The Iowa City reading is scheduled for June 27, a Friday. I’ll be arriving earlier in the day, depending on brother Tom’s schedule — he’s driving. You and I will have to spend every possible minute together. Another Iowa friend who is a wonderful , prize-winning short fiction writer lives in Iowa City now — Kate Kasten. She was from Des Moines originally — our families were friends.
    Keep writing!

  • Kathy Breen Herald // Nov 21, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Lucia, I haven’t read this book but am interested in it. I am sorry but I would love to hear from you too. Please email me back you know me you have been my friend for years and I miss you. Please talk to me at least email me. i would also love for my daughter to be able to meet you. She is a great poetry writer and she is working on a book. Please forgive me for whatever I have done. I love you like a mom and miss you tool. email me if possibility of forgiveness. Thanks if no congrats on your success in writing hopefully you will read some of my daughters books someday. Jamie Breen, Thank you so much, love kathy