when New York said no

When New York said no, I put the manuscript in a box and went on to something else. When I thought of the story at all, it was only to remember the flaws.  The novel is called All the Home I Have, the title taken from a poem by W.E. Aytoun.

The earth is all the home I have,

The heavens my wide roof-tree.

It’s a novel set in Ten Mile Creek, Oregon in the 1980s. It’s about the forest and logging. It’s about community, the meaning of home and our responsibility to place. New York complained that I had set the story in the 1980s when clearly, from the way people lived, it should have been the 1960s. Obviously, they had never been to Oregon.

I would mention the manuscript sometimes in talks, as an example of how not to begin a novel. If you begin a novel with a point to prove, I’d say, then your allegiance is to that point and not to the story.  Do not set out to teach a lesson, I’d say. Who wants to hear it? Your values, the things you think are important, find their way into your stories.  They are inherent to storytelling. When it comes to writing, I almost never give advice, but I would say these things sometimes.

I’m writing a nonfiction book about Ten Mile Creek and, thinking I might find something in that old manuscript to use, for the past two days I’ve been reading it again, after all these years. It is not the floundering, moralistic, sentimental, cliché-ridden mess I had recalled.  No! It’s good. It’s funny and quirky and thoughtful and honest. Reading the manuscript again, I feel like a traitor. I believed the publishers, instead of myself.


5 thoughts on “when New York said no

  1. Alison – I just had to comment, a friend linked this post on Facebook. (I’m Bob Rees’ wife, by the way, and hope to meet you someday.) So, yes, don’t listen to those publishers, although moving on to other things is good. And while I agree with your advice about not trying to prove a point, certainly there’s a lot out there being published and heralded by New York (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom comes to mind), that is overtly moralistic and, I’d argue, sentimental. What else does a writer have than to believe in herself?

    1. I could easily have become one of those people who get stuck writing the same book, or even the same passage, for years and decades, but my agent used to be ruthless— when a book didn’t sell, she tell me to go write another one, and I obeyed. But sometimes NY was wrong. Or sometimes a book belongs someplace else.
      Nancy, I’ve heard about you so much over the years. I can’t believe we haven’t yet met. I just finished reading Freedom— let’s talk about it when we finally do meet. I really liked that book, although I guess it was a little sentimental. Partly I was relieved to be over my hostility towards Franzen which was irrational and fueled, I suspect, by simple writer’s envy–masquerading as a feminist critique.

  2. I always liked that novel and always thought it didn’t sell in NY because New Yorkers are so myopic. You wrote about the real Oregon that didn’t match their Idea of Oregon. What are you going to do with it? Raid it for material for your nonfiction book or try again?

    1. That is my burning question, Sara. Can I do both? Is it legitimate for me to use the same material, and occasionally the same or similar passages, for a novel and for a nonfiction book? Couldn’t it be seen as an example of the relationship between the two— this is what happened, this is the way it is fictionalized? Or is that cheating? Can I plagiarize myself? They are two very different manuscripts but sometimes a passage is perfect for both—– do I have to choose?

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