In a genre that was already going stale around the edges, the publication in 1994 of Lucy Grealy’s memoir of growing up with a face disfigured by a childhood bout of cancer, Autobiography of a Face , was greeted with relief and praise. Around the same time, at the other end of the publishing spectrum, novelist Nicholas Evans hit it big with his schmaltzy, faux-western romance novel The Horse Whisperer . Presto! Random House senior editor Deb Futter came up with the idea of signing a real horse whisperer to write a memoir with the help of Ms. Grealy, an avowed equestrienne and certified hot literary commodity.
No sooner could you say “part James Herriot, part Bill Gates and part John Wayne”-which is how Random House’s fall 1997 catalogue entry eventually described horse-trainer Monty Roberts-than a ghostwriting deal was struck between Ms. Grealy’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, and the publisher. Sure enough, Mr. Roberts’ The Man Who Listens to Horses has been riding the best seller lists since early autumn. But there’s just one small problem: Ms. Grealy’s name is nowhere in sight. The text she turned in, she said, was nixed “at the 11th hour.”
Still somewhat in recovery from the experience, Ms. Grealy is attempting to turn it to her advantage by departing from the memoir mode altogether and writing a novel. But not for Random House. On Dec. 22, Doubleday senior editor Betsy Lerner, who edited Ms. Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face while at Houghton-Mifflin, made the author a nice Christmas gift of a $200,000 advance, merely on the basis of a 30-page first chapter.
The novel, with the working title Passing Strange , about a man’s search for his estranged brother, will be written in a male voice, Ms. Grealy said, like the Roberts book. But there the similarities end. “It was never made clear to me why my manuscript was rejected,” she said of her foray into collaboration with Mr. Roberts. “The worst of it was, a lot of people may have thought I’d written what was finally published, because all the catalogues went out with my name attached, and it was in Publishers Weekly , and even on the Los Angeles Times best seller list for a while.”
She doesn’t think Random House was to blame as much as Mr. Roberts, who has strayed pretty far from his rodeo-ridin’ roots into a motivational-speaking career in the corporate world. “I think Monty wasn’t happy with the voice I gave the book, and nobody foresaw that he wouldn’t like it,” she said. “He isn’t a literary person. He expected it to be like Chicken Soup for the Soul , which he knew because he was in it. He wanted it to be more business-oriented.” Random House turned instead to Lawrence Scanlan, who wrote an introduction to the original manuscript of the book’s English edition, which came out about a year before the American release.
“The British manuscript was terrible,” Ms. Grealy said. “Lawrence Scanlan came in and wrote a big introduction and changed it a bit.” As a result, she said, “I didn’t get all the money owed me by Random House.”
She’s made her peace, with her new novel as the payoff. Working on the Roberts book, she said, “showed me that I could produce a long manuscript in a short amount of time. I learned a lot about writing.… That also taught me that I’m not one of those writers who can sit down and figure out a book along the way. So when I decided to write my novel, I mapped it out in a five-page synopsis and started writing with the first chapter.”
Right after she sold Passing Strange , she came down with the flu. “I’m lying in bed stoned on Theraflu and reading Rose by Martin Cruz Smith,” she said. Apparently it has further convinced her that memoir-writing is like beating a dead horse. “It’s a trashy thriller,” she said, “and I love reading them. One day I want to write one.”
Weld’s Mackerel Don’t Stink
William Weld, the ex-Governor of Massachusetts, recently discovered he has a way with outlines. His first novel, Mackerel by Moonlight , was born of an outline whipped off in 20 minutes. (The title comes, aptly, from an epithet once hurled by Representative John Randolph of Virginia: “He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight.”)
The idea for the novel came to Mr. Weld last winter, when his ambassadorial defeat was but a glint in Jesse Helms’ eye. He was sitting by the fire at home in Cambridge, Mass., reading Edmund Wilson’s edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon . “The one,” he said, “that includes the outline for the unfinished book. I thought to myself, Wait a minute, I ought to be able to do that. I had this story I’d been wanting to write for years, including some thoughts about legal and prosecutorial procedures, and so I outlined it.” Mr. Weld served as a Federal prosecutor from 1981 to 1988. He said the story, a psychopolitical thriller revolving around a Boston prosecutor, was autobiographical “only in the sense that I used every funny line I’d heard in law or politics over the last 15 years.” As far as villains are concerned, he added, “there are lots of evil people in the book, but none of them are Southern senators.”
By March 1997, he had a manuscript ready to show literary agent Peter Matson, who suggested major changes. “I turned it around very quickly,” Mr. Weld said, a skill he believes was honed not in politics “but by my experience and training in law.” It was the novel’s political provenance that appealed to Simon & Schuster editorial director Alice Mayhew, but unlike the patrician Mr. Weld, she said, “the protagonist is from the wrong side of the tracks.” Simon & Schuster will publish Mackerel by Moonlight in September.
As a new New Yorker-the Governor recently moved to Manhattan to take a cushy job at the McDermott, Will & Emery law firm-the author will be able to experience the full force of a Manhattan publishing event. Of course, he also entertained job offers from the world of investment banking. While he was flirting with that idea, he used to leave his interviews down on Wall Street, he said, “and walk all the way uptown to the Pierre, where we were staying before we got our apartment on Central Park South. I started to notice the smells of all the different neighborhoods. The area with the Middle Eastern food stores on Broadway in the 30’s must be the best-smelling neighborhood in New York.” And what does Central Park South smell like? “Money,” he said.
Better than mackerel.