It happened twice, mingling with writers and academics in a conference room at the Canadian Consulate in New York City last week. I described my book project to someone (or in one case, one of my MFA advisors did) and her hand flew up to meet the gasp leaving her lips. Her eyes flashed wide and rims went red, tears burning in the corners.
Both of these women clearly had more than a passing familiarity with the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. And both said the same thing: “I’ve never understood how people so kind could be treated so cruelly.”
That, of course, is the point. From here in North America, we look at this as a simple logic problem. Good people, we expect, deserve good lives.
Good Lives Deserve Good Books
That's my mantra these days. Especially after Friday's pitch exercise, when each aspiring MFA met with two of New York’s finest publishing professionals to rehearse our sales spiels and gather information about our books' relative merits.
I was lucky enough to be paired first with Brenda Copeland, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan. Beneath her bright blond bob, her eyes squinted in concentration as she listened to me reel through the story, the possibilities, the platform. Every now and again she'd ask a question or clarify a point. Her feedback was encouraging. In her opinion, the book may be considered too risky by large publishing houses, which make acquisition decisions driven largely by estimates of commercial viability. After all, both the issue and the individual are relatively unknown in the grand scheme of things. But, she said, keep going, because there is definitely a story here. And a smaller publisher or an academic house with a trade imprint should be able to appreciate the topic, writing, and potential impact of the book on their own merits.
Later, I sat with Stephanie Sinclair, an agent with the Transatlantic Literary Agency. Her advice, too, was valuable. Start submitting excerpts, she told me; get that memorable introduction out into the world where someone can pick up on it and run with it. Her suggestions focused on her instinct that readers are going to be looking for books about hope and connections with people unlike themselves.
You Gotta Have Heart
Over the course of the day, I tried out a minor title shift that Brenda recommended on my classmates. Universally, the response ranged from good to "I love that!" Which is promising, because I love it, too. It fits perfectly with the (yet again) revised overview and approach to the book that I'll be rolling out in the next two or three months.
Little by little, the story is moving away from austere, “here’s all the background you need to know” writing. Slowly but surely, it’s getting to what it always was, the story of one memorable moment and the subsequent path to a serendipitous realization.
I’ve been good about separating the story from my heart on the page. But that’s not a possibility anymore. Each essay on the side, each chapter in the manuscript, has to pulse with a little more blood.