Times Editor’s Flashy Book Proposal Lands $850,000 Deal

If you want to be a millionaire, you could sit down with Regis Philbin and sweat it out under weird lights while a studio audience weighs in on whether a morel belongs to the mushroom family. Or you could write a disaster book. Just find a tragedy, round up a cast of surviving characters, nab a hands-on agent to help work up a proposal, and submit it to a bunch of publishers. Then watch the numbers climb. That’s what New York Times Magazine editor Sara Mosle did.

True, Ms. Mosle’s 17-page proposal–for her first book ever–didn’t quite get her to the million mark. But it did set off a minor frenzy that resulted in one of the biggest nonfiction book deals of the year. On Nov. 2, Alfred A. Knopf editor Jordan Pavlin (with a nod from the boss) plunked down $850,000 for the opportunity to publish Boom: An American Explosion . It concerns an accident that killed more than 300 children in the East Texas town of New London in 1937, when an errant spark hit a gas leak in a school basement. The event was a top news story of the day, but you’d have a hard time finding it in the history books. So much the better; Ms. Mosle’s book cannot be written off as another The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air wannabe. Which is to say, fresh tears ahead.

The disaster genre, it would seem, is alive and well. Sure, the cold-air adventure side of things might be wearing thin, what with the 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy tapped out and all. But four new books on the tragic 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart yacht competition are still coming off the presses. The timeless appeal of bad weather, bad families and bad luck still sells. Just ask Oprah Winfrey. “There are so many of these disaster books,” said Time Warner Trade Publishing chief executive Laurence Kirshbaum. “We’ve seen half a dozen major proposals in the last six weeks.”

In big-league publishing, the best way to bring out the handkerchiefs is to go wide and deep. Don’t isolate the tragedy. Talk to the survivors (“characters”), try to rhyme it with a current event (in this case, Littleton, Colo.), reach into the heart, and craft an American tale. Erik Larson did that with Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time , and The Deadliest Hurricane in History . As a reward, his story about the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, Tex., and the early days of the U.S. Weather Bureau won nine weeks on The New York Times best seller list.

Ms. Mosle’s proposal immediately drew attention from six major publishers. Her agent, David McCormick of IMG Literary, sent it to Harper Collins; Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group; Houghton Mifflin Company; Riverhead Books; Alfred A. Knopf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux and the Random House Trade Book Group (known as “Little Random”). Farrar passed. The rest were interested.

Within a few days, the bidders had narrowed down to Riverhead editor Chris Knutsen, Little Random senior literary editor Daniel Menaker and Knopf’s Ms. Pavlin.

One editor, upon hearing about the deal, said, “People are desperate for stuff that’s offbeat and interesting.” And in Ms. Mosle’s case, the editor explained, her gender makes the project even more offbeat. “She’s a woman writing about violence. This could mean a potential publicity bonanza. Is she well connected? They could get her on Oprah .”

Ms. Mosle, who will be 36 later this month, is indeed connected. It is an occupational hazard of working in the incestuous East Coast media establishment. Since 1995, she has leapfrogged from The New Yorker to The New York Times Magazine to The New York Times Book Review and back again to The Magazine . Her last two gigs were as an editor. She has also taught third grade in a public school in Washington Heights, appeared on Charlie Rose to talk about education reform and written for The New Republic.

Ms. Mosle said her book went to the “people I knew least … I had never met Sonny or Jordan before,” she said, referring to Ms. Pavlin and Sonny Mehta, the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf. “I don’t think I was on their map.”

She is now. Her proposal, obtained by The Observer , is an object lesson in how to tastefully pitch a tragedy. “I want to tell the story of a boomtown and explore the high price of American aspiration,” reads the proposal, written in the form of a letter to her agent. “It’s a tragedy, as you’ll see, whose meaning is still relevant today.”

Here’s how Ms. Mosle’s proposal yoked New London to this year’s events in Littleton, Colo., where two students shot up Columbine High School and killed one teacher and 12 classmates. “If the outpouring of emotion after Littleton represents one extreme in a community’s response to tragedy, then the silence about the tragedy that quickly enveloped New London represents the other, and together they serve as bookends to a history of American grief.” In the “vast non-Freudian America” of 1937, Ms. Mosle wrote, “there were no grief counselors.”

Asked about the connection to Littleton, which was cited four times in the proposal, Ms. Mosle said in a phone interview, “I think all these resonances to modern-day time will be up to readers.” She added, “I mentioned it in the proposal. I didn’t try to capitalize on it in any way.”

Ms. Pavlin was almost dismissive of the Littleton connection. “I don’t see the two as being related at all,” she said. “Sara is using the story of this terrible accident to tell a much larger story about America just before the outbreak of World War II, about a particular kind of American tragedy, about oil and greed and lost hopes.”

Ms. Mosle, a native of Dallas, said she had heard stories about the disaster from her mother, who was a child at the time. “The idea that was interesting to me was a community that loses all its children,” Ms. Mosle said. She initially tried writing a novel. It didn’t work. “I wasn’t happy with how it was going. I didn’t know that much about the event. One weekend last February, I visited this museum [the New London Museum, home to relevant documents and artifacts], and then I realized that was the story. The novel wasn’t playing to my strengths,” she said. “It was a matter of matching the story with the proper form.” She will tell the story in three parts, she explains in her proposal: the “terrible disaster, the boom leading up to it, and the [almost yearlong] civil trial that followed … my book will offer a portrait of a quintessential American boom town.”

Possibly the boom is in the eye of the beholder. “I’m not sure I would call New London a boomtown, in the full sense of the term,” said Chris Casteneda, an associate professor of history at California State University in Sacramento and the author of Invisible Fuel: Manufactured and Natural Gas in America, 1800-2000 . “East Texas was a boomtown region, I’d agree with that,” he said. Then he added, “I hope she doesn’t try to show that this event is connected with all sorts of changes that occurred in the industry. I don’t think she’d be writing this book if there wasn’t a sensationalist aspect to it. This is basically a minor problem that results in a major tragedy.”

The accident may never have happened if the New London school board had not decided to save some extra money and siphon unmarketed natural gas–from a waste line–apparently gratis. The line it tapped contained gas with no odorant, and so the leak went undetected.

To Ms. Mosle, the accident had wide-ranging implications. “The explosion is … the prototype for a particular kind of 20th-century tragedy, one in which arrogance, hatred or greed is disastrously amplified by technology,” reads her proposal.

That stuff’s for the book. What comes across loud and clear in the proposal is carnage. Several pages of it, from a severed head to the casket shortage to the wailing in the night. Ms. Mosle re-created the event in vivid detail.

“Proposals like this are rare,” said Ms. Pavlin, who has worked in publishing for nine years. “It has all the elements of a great story, and she [Ms. Mosle] is uniquely suited to write it. She has been a public school teacher herself, she’s passionate about education, she’s born and raised in Texas.”

She is also suited to write about grief: “And I know from the death of my own older sister (from cancer) when I was seven how grief can play out in a family,” reads one of the last lines in her proposal. Among the clips sent along with it was a 1995 New Yorker article she had written about her students’ journals and her sister’s death.

Ms. Pavlin, who this year published Susan Minot’s novel Evening and Nathan Englander’s story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and will be editing new nonfiction works by Rich Cohen and Rick Bragg, noted that she has been following Ms. Mosle’s byline for years. “We think she’ll be a terrific promoter. Readers will really respond to the story and to her.”

Ms. Mosle oozes credibility. ” The New Yorker and The New York Times –those are the best credentials of all,” said an agent whose clientele includes journalists. “Credentials always matter, track record matters less. Publishers want confidence that their investment is with someone who has the kind of history that suggests a really professional, reliable author,” said the agent.

One veteran editor thought otherwise. “Sometimes the difference between being a good book writer and a good journalist is the difference between a marathoner and a miler,” said the editor.

“I was amazed there was so much interest in the book,” said Ms. Mosle. “It’s not like I’ve never written anything, but I’m appreciative to Knopf.”

She’s particularly grateful to Mr. McCormick, who toiled with her for months. “We started with a traditional proposal that was much more roman numeralesque,” said Ms. Mosle. Then they hit upon the conceit of a letter, complete with Mr. McCormick’s address, a “Dear David,” and the sign-off: “All best, Sara Mosle.”

Ultimately, she and Mr. McCormick cranked out 18 drafts of the proposal, calling the project BT (for boomtown) in its traditional form, and Boom in its epistolary one. Mr. McCormick did time at Texas Monthly and in the fiction department of The New Yorker . “The thing I’m appreciative to him [Mr. McCormick] for is his editing–’Should this paragraph be here, be there?’” said Ms. Mosle. “Just what you do when you line-edit something. Mr. McCormick declined to be interviewed.

“I realized that the right way to tell the story was through the individual characters,” she said. As the proposal states, “Each part [of the book] will have its own engine of suspense–the exciting search for oil, the fate of the people we’ve come to care about, the verdict of the trial–that will drive the narrative forward.”

In January, Ms. Mosle will bid farewell to The Times and head south to “spend some time on rigs … and remind myself of the weather of my youth.” There are more survivors to interview as well. “They were open, but it was clear they had never talked about it before,” she said. “Often they were very emotional. I didn’t get any resistance.”

In order to earn back the advance, Knopf will have to convince some 200,000 members of the book-buying public that Ms. Mosle’s book is a must-read. It is scheduled for publication in spring 2002, and will subsequently be published in paperback by the Knopf Publishing Group’s Vintage Anchor Publishing Division.

“Popular American history is easy to sell,” said an editor who had seen Ms. Mosle’s proposal. “It’s like [Sebastian Junger's] The Perfect Storm or the second volume of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography. [ Boom ] is the type of book that gets prominent review attention, which is half the battle to making a best seller. And there’s book club sales. It could be a book review cover. It’s the kind of book that gets nominated for prizes.”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.