Monday, July 16, 2012
The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose
Today, Sally Bellerose, award-winning author of The Girls Club, amuses and amazes with stories of rejection and her ultimate victory. (I would have asked more questions, but I was afraid after the first question.) I've read this book, and it is very good. I highly recommend it.
What is your worst rejection story?
So many to choose from. It took 20 years to get The Girls Club published. I had lots of short stories and essays and poetry published in that time. Pieces of the novel were published and won prizes, including an NEA. I’d put the novel down for years at a time, then pick it back up. The manuscript went through two agents; many presses were interested, but then declined to publish.
So, I could go with the fact that five years ago Alyson Books, a well known decades-old publisher accepted the novel, sent a great contract, and promptly went out of business. Or I could go with the agent who pursued me, promising me the moon and a lucrative book deal, only to keep my manuscript for over a year, rarely answering phone calls or emails, before finally informing me that she had “made a mistake and was not the right agent for the book.”
Like my defunct Alyson Books contract, my worst rejection story started out as an acceptance story. Thirteen years ago an excerpt from the novel won a prize and was published ("The GirlsClub - Chapter One," in Quarterly West, edited by Margot Schilpp, University of Utah Press, 1999.) I won First Place in Best of Writers at Work.
Writers at Work is a writer’s conference, held at the time in Park City, Utah. The prize included $1,500, publicity, free admittance to morning workshops, meeting with an editor, and a featured reading at the conference at The Yarrow Hotel, where the conference was being held.
I arrived at the airport in Utah, where I was supposed to be greeted by a conference worker carrying a sign with my name, who was driven from the airport to the conference. This service was part of the prize. No one picked me up. No one answered the phone when I called the conference.
I figured this was merely a bit of incompetence, much like the fact that my local newspaper never received the information from Writer’s at Work so it could run the story about how I had won the prize. I thought the fact that an organizer called me after midnight to ask for my tax information could maybe somehow be chalked up to a difference in time zones.
When I got to the conference my name, as winner, was on the marquee outside of the hotel. This gave me a moment’s relief. But minutes later, at the registration table, the volunteers rifled through the participant packets and could find nothing with my name on it. I told them I had won First Prize in Fiction. I assured them I had been in contact with the conference organizers who knew I was coming.
“Look,” I said, “My name is on the sign.”
The young volunteers said they would put together a packet and I should return in an hour. I went to my room. An hour later I got my packet and found two organizers, smiling women who said, “Sorry,” and invited me to meet them for dinner, in the lobby, at 7 pm. I had been promised I would receive my $1,500 prize immediately upon arrival. I asked for the money and was told they would have a check for me when we went to diner later that evening. At 7 pm, I went to the lobby and the man behind the desk told me that the folks from Writer’s at Work had gathered and left for dinner at 6pm.
I was beginning to think this was more than incompetence.
These people didn’t like me. But why did they choose my work?
Apparently the organizers of the conference and the panel of judges were two discreet sets of people and not of the same opinion regarding the quality and especially the content of my work. Dagoberto Gilb was the final judge. Gilb’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Harpers. (By the way, I recommend his work. He writes about many things including working class Chicano American life and culture.) At the time of this conference his most recently released book, The Magic of Blood, was on the Arizona banned book list. I have no idea why the organizers chose Gilb, not only as judge but keynote speaker.
I was in the lobby when he arrived at the conference. He went to the registration table, a loud argument ensued. Gilb left the lobby appearing very angry.
Later that evening, during what should have been his keynote address, it was announced, by a smiling woman, that Gilb would not be attending the conference. Another speaker, whose name and topic are not in my memory bank, spoke to the crowd.
I am a lesbian. By this time I had finally come to the conclusion that the organizers were homophobes. I stayed. I won’t speculate what prompted Gilb to part ways with Writers at Work. As the days went on it became clear that not only my sexuality, but the themes of my novel excerpt which portrayed a working class, ill, lesbian and mother, were an affront to my hosts.
During one “Meet and Greet” event I stood in line with the Nonfiction and Poetry winners. An organizer introduced and praised the work of the other two winners and either did not introduce me at all, or said my name without mentioning my work. Still, she smiled. She kept smiling when I again asked for my $1,500 and said, “We didn’t know you needed the money so badly.” I reminded her that I had won the money and had been promised I would receive it as soon as I arrived at the conference.
Fortunately, Susan a friend and writing comrade of many years attended the conference. She was there to witness the snubbing, or I may have thought I was imagining it, or exaggerating events.
What happened at the dinner in honor of the Writers at Work Winning Authors was definitely not imagined. There were several large tables, one winner from each genre seated at each table with organizers and attendees. The winners were allowed to invite a friend. Susan and I got there early. As the organizers arrived they said not a word to me or Susan and sat chatting at the other two tables.
When a couple of late-comers arrived the only seats left were at our table. They looked around, but they were stuck with us or the floor. They could have taken chairs from our table, as a couple of others had, and squeezed in with the Poetry or Non-fiction winners, but they took a seat at our table instead. It was an awkward dinner, saved by Susan’s gracious southern upbringing.
At the meeting to discuss my manuscript with Carol Houck Smith, book editor at W.W. Norton, there was no fake smiling. Houck Smith (may she rest in peace) got right to the point. She told me I was “very talented.” She said she personally had no trouble with the content of the book, but if I thought I was going to be the one to overcome the “shit-barrier”— yes, she used that exact term to refer to the illness the protagonist in the story referred to as “the dreaded bowel disease” in the novel—while also taking on sexuality and class, I was sorely mistaken. She said I was an unknown and this was not a subject that would “fly” in a first book.
After this encounter I sought out an organizer and demanded my money.
Then came my featured reading. I would have thought myself brave for reading at all, but I followed Dorothy Allred Solomon who read from her memoir, In My Father’s House, which depicted her life in as a child in her father’s iron-fisted polygamous Mormon household. Solomon, reading to an audience assembled by these organizers, in a largely Mormon area, was a poster child for brave. The audience loved her.
When it was my turn to read, I was given a lukewarm and barely audible introduction. Unlike the readers who preceded me and read from a raised podium, I was asked to read without a mic at floor level. I smiled back at my introducer and climbed a couple of stairs to the podium and used the mic that was still turned on. Short of tackling me, there was nothing they could do. Well, someone could have pulled the plug, but no one did.
Instead of the excerpt that had won the prize, I read the most graphic sex scene in the book. The crowd, as they say, went wild.The audience, the organizers, and the judges, as it turns out, were three distinct groups.
After the reading an agent rushed me, and by rushed I mean ran up the center aisle to get to me after the reading. She raved about my work, assured me she was seriously interested, took my manuscript, and then strung me out for a very long time before deciding she didn’t want to represent the work.
I am not sure if I left Utah wiser, or more confused, maybe a bit wary of smiling women, but my happy ending is this: My novel The Girls Club was published in September 2011 by Bywater Books.
And is doing quite well, thank you.