What the Sternum and the Stars Have To Do with Publishing

It wasn’t until I met “Helena” at my oldest daughter’s nursery school that I thought what I wrote and the Big World of Publishing might actually converge. Of course I’d harbored fantasies: NYT’s book review, Oprah calling, the paparazzi… but until Helena, none of that really seemed within my grasp. I was a stay-at-home mom with two small children who scribbled story ideas on the edge of grocery receipts while I nursed and then hurriedly typed them into what I hoped was something coherent while they napped. The writing was my secret indulgence that I snuck in but never hesitated to put down for more important things like reading fairy tales and watching Mary Poppins, again. And just like in The Elves and the Shoemaker, by the time my oldest started nursery school, a handful of stories appeared on my desk completed.

Then one day, a week into the school year, “Helena” pulled up beside me at the nursery drop-off and opened her car door, and stepped out in high heels and a just clingy enough dress and a fabulous highlighted do, talking on a car phone (bare in mind VERY few people had car phones then). She flashed me a goofy smile and then rolled her eyes at the random stuff that came tumbling out of her car: Legos, an old lipstick and an empty Pop Tart box, without missing a beat on the phone. I’d heard about Helena and her husband. They were from New York City. She’d been an actress. He’d made so much money on Wall Street that he’d given most of it away and still had enough left over to move to Vermont and start a publishing company for her (because that was what Helena wanted). So they were publishers. Publishers pulling up beside me and me thinking, This is the stars aligning.

She was demanding something to someone on the other end of line but in a masterfully charming way, while maintaining eye contact with me and holding out her ink-stained hand to shake mine, and I knew this was a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. I guess I wanted a little piece of that… so as soon as she ended her call, in a bold moment, I said, “I’m writer and I understand you’re a publisher.”

And before I had to move on to the next harder part of the sentence, she said, “I’d love to read your stuff.”

I brought her my handful of stories the next day. And the day after that, at drop-off, she said she and her husband had been up half the night reading my stories and they loved my voice and they were trying to figure out how they could help me get published. They were drama publishers so my fiction didn’t fit into their list, but Helena said, she still had “contacts” in the New York publishing world and all I had to do was turn the story she loved best into a novel and she’d be my agent. Sure, I said, I can do that, my heart pounding as I threw my arms around her, thinking, This is how fantasies come true.

Over the course of the next year I wrote the novel and Helena and I became best friends. She and her husband invited us over for all their social events. They had rapidly gotten to know everyone they thought was anyone, they “collected” people, and while I found the concept shallow and off-putting, I couldn’t help but feel flattered that they considered me “collectible,” treating me as if I were going to be “somebody” any day now. And in between running her publishing business, talking to famous playwrights, managing the nannies and assistants who made her life work, designing and building an enormous home on the other side of the river that included an indoor basketball court and movie screening room, she called me several times a day and sometimes late at night, confiding in me about her marriage and the famous actor (who shall remain nameless here) whom she’d slept with years before and, she told me repeatedly, had a very tiny penis. I have to admit, I was awed by her. Helena lived large. She dreamed big and if she wanted something she went after it with unapologetic zeal.

I finished the novel and she sent it off to one editor she knew and the editor said they’d consider publishing it as long as I changed everything; switched it from first to third person, from present to past tense, made the protagonist less edgy, took out all the sad stuff about the mother, removed any mention of sex or marijuana, and wrote a happy ending. Of course “we” said no and Helena said she knew plenty of other editors and not to worry and had she ever told me about the book she’d always wanted to write?

Several months later Grace Paley (who lived a couple of towns over) came to the nearby college to give a reading. Of course Helena and I made plans to go together. Grace read a few short pieces that made everyone laugh and cry and think and then someone in the audience asked her about writing and publishing and with her inimitable down-to-earth candor she said (and I paraphrase from memory), that she didn’t think writing was for everyone. Do something else, she said, unless you feel absolutely compelled, unless you feel the urge right here, she said, pounding her sternum.

After the reading Helena and I stuck around, talking about Grace and how amazing she was and then Helena pulled me over to where Grace stood surrounded by groupies and she slithered us to the front of the crowd and introduced herself.

And Grace said, “Great to meet you and I love your earrings. Are you a writer?”

“No,” Helena chuckled. “I’m a publisher. I own a publishing company.”

“I’m a writer,” I squeaked from behind Helena.

“Oh so you’re a writer and she’s a publisher. Maybe she can help you out,” she said and pointed back and forth between us and smiled.

“Oh she is,” I said. “She’s my agent.” And as I stood there with Helena and Grace, I thought, This is the way these things happen. One day you’re writing on the edge of grocery receipts and next thing you know you’re a famous author palling around with an ex-actress who slept with a famous actor with a small penis and Grace Paley.

Then Helena said, “I’m not her agent.”

I flushed and my heart pounded in my ears and luckily someone distracted Grace and after she walked away, I said, “Haven’t you been sending the novel out?”

She shook her head. “We should have gone with the publisher who wanted a few minor changes. We’re expanding and I don’t have time for this.” She waved her arm in the air as if I were a fly she was shooing away.

I went home and cried. Hard. I was hurt. And mad at Helena. But madder at myself. Helena knew what she wanted and I thought she could want what I wanted for me. And I replayed Grace Paley’s words in my head and thought, I shouldn’t write. While I’d felt that feeling in my sternum, I thought, other writers feel it more than I do. And I stuffed my novel in the bottom of the filing cabinet and had another baby and moved halfway across the country and four long years later I woke up aching to write. And still it took me two more agents, and three books and a brush with my mortality before I would finally land a publishing contract.

For some people this may not be true. For some it is easier. For some wanting a little piece of it is the way these things happen. And they are far more successful than I am or ever will be. And while I give my current agent (who is a brain, a rock star and a mensch) all the credit for making my publishing dream come true, I know part of the reason it took me all these years to get what I wanted was because I didn’t want it badly enough. I didn’t feel it in my sternum strongly enough. For me the urgency, the achiness, the desire had to be so intense that the stars had no choice but to align.

23 Replies to “What the Sternum and the Stars Have To Do with Publishing”

  1. Gail,

    We all have stories of naiveté in our past, and perhaps we all have a “friend” like Helena. Yet these experiences have the power to shape us as writers. I love how your talent, desire and persistence have come together to bring you were you are. Grace Paley said it so eloquently at the 2006 Muse conference, “If you are meant to write, you will. If not…”


  2. Ha! Thank the stars I haven’t run into a Helena yet, I probably would have filled her car with jello or asked her husband something innocent like “doesn’t it bother you that your wife is still in love with (insert small penised actor here)?” Sounds like you’ve had quite an adventure on the publishing road, makes success all the more sweeter!

  3. BTW–forgot to mention, LOVE LOVE LOVE this line:

    “One day you’re writing on the edge of grocery receipts and next thing you know you’re a famous author palling around with an ex-actress who slept with a famous actor with a small penis and Grace Paley.”

    Very funny!

  4. I agree with Jenny about that line–great!
    I’ve known a couple of Helena types, though none that made me a project. What a heartbreak. But it seems that things have come together for you, Gail, even if it wasn’t the timing you hoped for.
    And we should all wake up every morning and focus on how our sternums are feeling…

  5. Gail, powerful stuff. I can feel the heat flush my cheeks just thinking about the comment she made in front of Grace. Helena may have had a lot, Helena may have gotten more along the way, but there’s one thing you have that she can only yearn for — integrity. That and a mensch of an agent will see you to the top. Brava, Gail!

  6. Thanks Amy. Your time is coming soon…

    Yes, I love Grace Paley! I also heard her speak in Boston the year before last. She was an remarkable woman and writer.

  7. You don’t have anything against small penises? Even really small ones? This post reminds me how oftne fate throws people in our lives- some are there to take us to the next level and others to help us learn a lesson.

  8. Not theoretically. People come in all shapes and sizes. I was just trying to be accurate in my details! And yes, you’re right, Helena taught me many lessons!

  9. Lesson learned: Beware of the “Helenas of the world” who are out there, luring you with promises, to make your dreams come true. Yet the bottom line and key to success is that only you own the ultimate dream and the power to make it happen. And you do, Gail; you have!

  10. I know Lauren,some people are much luckier than I am and good for them!

    You’re right, Larramie! It took me a loong time to figure that out…

    You’re funny, Jenny.

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