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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Editor Wistfulness: If Leona Nevler Hadn't Died. . .

I stumbled across the name Leona Nevler today. I'm reading Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale. In her acknowledgements, she thanks Leona for doing a wonderful job.

Leona Nevler, at the time of her death, was a senior editor at Berkley Books, then part of the Penguin Group. She'd been an editor since, well, just before Harper Lee turned in the manuscript for Go Set A Watchman to a small literary house called Lippincott.

Lippincott was Nevlor's first publishing job. She was a reader there when she dove into a juicy manuscript called The Tree and the Blossom, by a New England housewife, a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Grace Metalious. In this, her first novel, Metalious opened the walls of a serene New England town to reveal the dark, steamy sexuality hidden behind the white clapboard.

Lippencott turned down the book, but Nevlor showed the manuscript to the recent widow of publisher Julian Messner. Nevler was bucking for a job under Kathryn Messner, even though the only job available was in marketing, not editing.

Still, Kitty Messner wanted the book, but only if Leona would edit it. Bam, Nevler had her foot in the door. Soon, the book had a new name--Peyton Place.

Metalious was only the first of many first novelists Nevler mothered to success. She worked with: John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, P.D. James, Dick Francis, James A Michener, Jeffrey Archer, Amy Tan and Fannie Flagg. She was Dorothy Gilman's editor for the Mrs. Pollifax mysteries, and discovered Lorna Landvik. And she almost discovered me.

In 2006, I handed my first novel over to a fine agent, who began submitting it all over. We soon collected a stream of warm rejection letters: "I wanted it, but could not get collegial support." "I wanted it but could not get my exec editor to approve." "Alas, we have decided to pass on THE ONE AND HOLY SKILLET. I'm disappointed as I found it entertaining, smart, and well written . . . {But the Publisher says no.} I'm sure you will find just the right home for this refreshing book - the author handles the large cast of characters with finesse and nicely balances the more serious issues with humor and irony.” 

Leona Nevler, however, wanted it. She needed some minor changes; she was certain we could zip through them. She just had to find her notes. They were here somewhere. . .

On December 6th,  2006, she dropped in the street--a pulmonary embolism-- and a few days later, died in the hospital during surgery. My agent contacted me. I was terribly disappointed, but, well, Nevler was dead. Her family were grieving her loss. I was just grieving the loss of a published novel. 

After a few more regretful nos, and one non-reply, my agent turned the book back to me. I had swollen feet, pregnancy fatigue, a turbo-toddler. I knew I should submit to small presses, but I had only so much energy. I chose to focus what I had on my passionate vision for a novel about race, class and bigotry via one hundred years in a house in L.A., a vision that is almost finished: The Color of Safety.

Some of the publishing houses that turned me down have since gone bankrupt. Several have been folded yet again into others as the world of publishers accordion-fans to fit ever slimmer space. Last year, I found the editor who wrote one lovely regretful note. She had just completed a low-residency masters in poetry. The editor of the note quoted above is currently writing copy for the medical education department of a large university. Friends have self-published their cozy mysteries, their erotic romances, but my work, while (hopefully) accessible, is still too far into the world of literary writing to make self-publishing an intelligent option. This means I'm still, in a way, a hitchhiker in the book world, although that metaphor doesn't really work, since I'm the one who has, in a sense, built the car. A better metaphor would be that the publishing world still owns the roadway system, and I can't drive on it unless they let me in.

It's silly to wonder, and I refuse to live my life facing backwards, but there it was, today, in the acknowledgements of Hannah's book. What if, like Sally Koslow, with her novel "Little Pink Slips," Leola Nevlor had lived long enough to acquire and edit my first novel? Where would I be?

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