Over the Border
by Michael C. Keith
[His] words were like tinfoil;
they shone and they covered things up.
–– Helen Cross
Emil Bonner was certain he had written a masterful novel––a narrative tour de force. But American publishers did not appear to share his view, or so it seemed from the dozen rejection slips he had received over the past year of searching for a press. They don’t even have the common decency to send a personal note, he sulked. To date he’d received only the standard turndown, usually in postcard form. He was consoled by his writer girlfriend, Amanda, if not by anyone else. Most of his handful of friends had tired of his constant lament to the point they had begun to avoid him. On the other hand, Amanda reminded him that some great novels had been rejected countless times. She had Googled to come up with a list of authors who had faced a similar plight.
“Hon, you’ve only received a dozen rejection slips. You can’t lose faith. It’s a great book. I know it. I read it twice.”
“A dozen is a lot,” grumbled Emil.
“Well, one of your favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was rejected 121 times.”
“And Stephen King’s Carrie was turned down 30 times before his wife, Tabitha, fished it out of the trash and told him not to give up on it.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times and James Joyce’s Dubliners was sent out two-dozen times with no takers.”
“How do you know all this?
“My degree is in English, silly. You know that.”
“Mine is, too, but I didn’t realize . . .”
“Jonathan Livingston Seagull was refused 18 times and . . .”
“Okay, okay! I get it. I’ll check out some more places to send it, but I really think it’s a lost cause.
* * *
After lunch Emil went online to the publisher directories he had bookmarked. Among his favorite was one called Duotrope. It offered one-stop shopping for every type of fiction and non-fiction writing. He had used it to place a half-dozen short stories in webzines and wondered how it could continue its excellent services to writers free of charge. So impressed was Emil with the exceptional author’s resource, he donated $25.00 toward its continuing existence. The idea that it might fold disturbed him since he could see how valuable it might be to him in the future.
Under the category of romantic novels, which was where his book best fit, he found a publisher that looked particularly promising. Its mission statement corresponded with his notion of what a press should aspire to.
Heart Books is seeking original works of literature. We do not publish
the predictable or formulaic. We seek novels with contemporary characters
and fresh, believable plots. A manuscript should possess strong and natural
dialog and plausible character interaction. Anything less will not be
considered. Writers should be certain that all description is authentic
and indicative of period and place. Heart Books is particularly receptive
to exciting new voices in the romance genre. We seek to add serious and
unique titles to our expanding catalog . . .
Yes! thought Emil. Yes! This is the one.
As he read on he believed he had finally found the ideal place to submit his novel. Everything seemed to suggest that Heart Books would be receptive to what he had achieved, until he read the last sentence on the publisher’s guidelines page.
We only consider submissions from women of Canadian origin.
“Shit!” he muttered, pushing his chair back from his desk. “It figures.”
Then Emil had an idea. Why not submit his novel using a woman’s name? At least he might get a response . . . maybe some useful comments or words of encouragement, he considered. Believing he had nothing to lose and feeling mounting frustration with the whole publisher search process, Emil decided to do it. What about a name? he pondered, and then decided to use his girlfriend’s moniker––keep it in the family, at least. Adding to the appeal of his choice was the fact that she had grown up in Toronto––a Canadian woman.
Emil decided against asking Amanda for permission to use her name, figuring it really didn’t matter all that much, since he would likely never hear back from the press or just get the usual “no thank you” note. Moreover, his girlfriend might object on the basis of principle. She had an almost stoic, if not rigid, approach to things, no matter how small, that smacked of dishonesty. While Emil admired this quality in her, he sometimes viewed it as a bit puritanical. It had been the source of friction in their relationship on more than one occasion.
“That’s not very nice,” was Amanda’s pat rejoinder when Emil said something she perceived as sarcastic or cynical.
She had nearly flipped out when Emil confessed that he had accidentally dented a car while he was parking and then sped away to avoid an insurance claim.
“Whose side are you on?” he exclaimed.
To which she had snapped, “On the side of honesty.”
She had spoken in a tone that reminded him of his mother when she would reprimand him for some not so infrequent lapse in moral judgment.
No, I’ll keep this to myself. If they want my novel, then I’ll deal with it. Otherwise, it never happened, thought Emil, as he downloaded his magnum opus to the publisher. In his cover letter, he assumed his girlfriend’s persona indicating that he had grown up in Toronto with parents who were true-blue Canadians. That should be enough to get past their damn requirements.
* * *
Soon after submitting Star Roses to Heart Books, Emil had all but forgotten he’d done so. For the next few weeks he continued to send out his manuscript and receive the customary rejection notices. Meanwhile, as the two went on with their daily lives, Amanda continued work on her own novel about the search for a lost Ojibwa girl in Saskatchewan in the early 1900s.
Emil tried to appear interested in his girlfriend’s novel but was far more consumed by the fate of his own fictional work to really engage her on the subject. This bothered Amanda but she kept quiet about the hurt she felt trying hard to offer Emil as much support as he appeared to need, which was substantial. He had a delicate ego that needed considerable massaging to keep him in an agreeable mood. To Amanda, keeping him in good spirits was worth the effort. When he wasn’t brooding about the fate of his novel, he was decent company, and they shared enough common interests to keep the relationship viable.
A month after Emil had sent his manuscript to Heart Books he received an email that at first made him cheer out loud and then sink into his chair in despair.
It is with great pleasure that we offer you a contract for your
excellent novel Star Roses. We find it fresh and original and
believe it will compliment our list of forthcoming titles. Please
see the attached contract. If you find it agreeable, sign and return
it to us within the next 14 days.
My very best regards . . . and congratulations!
Senior Acquisitions Editor
Oh my God! They want to publish my book but not with my name, sighed Emil, staring in disbelief at the email. I don’t believe it! I just don’t believe it! I’ll withdraw it. Send back the contract. My life is a freaking horror story.
But Emil could not bring himself to pass up the opportunity to see his words in print, even if they would be attributed to someone else. At least his girlfriend’s name would be on it and not the name of a total stranger, he rationalized, but then he thought about Amanda’s reaction to being a part of the deception. She’ll go postal on me . . . freak out.
After several more minutes of agonizing over the situation, he decided to sign the contract, figuring the tiny Canadian publisher would only put out a modest run of the book and it would fade into obscurity with Amanda never knowing about its existence. At least, Star Roses will be published. No one wants it in this country. That’s for sure.
Dear Mr. Carson,
I’m thrilled that my novel will be published by Heart Books. I have read
the contract and agree to its terms. It is attached to this email. I look forward
to my book’s publication with great excitement.
* * *
While Amanda toiled on her novel, Emil began work on another. Three months after his initial correspondence with Lyle Carson, he received the page proof of Star Roses. Little editing had been required, and he quickly made the suggested revisions and returned the manuscript via email. Five months later, almost to the day that Amanda completed her first novel, The Disappearance of Little Deer, Emil found a package addressed to his girlfriend from Heart Books in a Fed Ex envelope inside the lobby door of their apartment building. He was thankful he had the chance to snatch it up before she saw it.
Rather than take the chance of Amanda seeing it, he walked to the nearby park where he opened the envelope and extracted the object it held. It was an oversize paperback with a matt finish cover depicting a starry sky intersected by two red roses. Thumbing through the book’s pages, Emil was thrilled to see his words in print, but his delight was short-lived when he remembered that he could never take public credit for its appearance.
He rose from the park bench and deposited the book in a nearby trashcan. As soon as he did, he had second thoughts and fished it out of the barrel. He took it home and stashed it behind a bookcase in his office space. During the coming weeks, no matter where he was, at work or home, he could not shake the image of the book’s cover from his mind’s eye. However, eventually it began to fade as he dove deeper into his new manuscript, which he was beginning to believe superior to Star Roses.
“Another rejection,” noted Amanda, holding a postcard in her hand.
To date, she had received a half-dozen turndowns on her first novel, but unlike her boyfriend, she had received a couple of brief, but encouraging, notes from editors that helped buoy her outlook.
“No personal note this time, huh?” asked Emil.
“Nope. Just your standard rejection,” replied Amanda. “But I sent it to a couple of other publishers, so, as I’ve told you, hope springs eternal and good things eventually happen.”
Her positive attitude grated on Emil because he felt she was out-of-touch with the harsh realities of getting a book into print without going the route of a vanity press or eBook.
“You’ve just started. It’s a long tough road ahead. The odds are against you no matter how good your stuff is. The book market is crashing, so don’t hold your breath.”
“You’re just down because you haven’t had any luck with your own yet, but you will.”
“I don’t think it’s about luck. It has more to do with who you are than what you write.”
“What do you mean, ‘who you are’?”
“Nothing . . . never mind,” pouted Emil, rising and returning to his computer.
* * *
Encouraged by how well his work was going on his new novel, Emil’s mood began to improve and the tension with Amanada decreased. Occasionally he received emails from Heart Books describing what it was doing to get word out about the release of Star Roses, which struck Emil as modest at best. Who cares, he thought. Let it die. It’s been nothing but a sad experience. To Emil the frustrating episode was all but closed.
He was wrong . . . terribly wrong..
“What the hell is this?” said Amanda, waving an envelope and its contents in her hand.
She had just returned from grocery shopping and had picked up the mail on her way up to their apartment.
“Huh? What’s the matter?” asked Emil, thrown by her anger.
“An award for my book? What’s this about?” said Amanda, heaving the letter at Emil.
He picked it up from the floor and read it.
We are thrilled to inform you that your marvelous book, Star Roses, has won the prestigious Canadian First Book Award. It will be presented in Vancouver
on May 22 and Heart Books will be delighted to sponsor your attendance. This means a great deal to your reputation as an author and to the sales of your book, which will certainly reflect the significance of this stellar recognition.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you. I didn’t think it would get to this point, honestly.”
“Told me what? This is your book but my name on it. Why did you do that?”
“I never thought publication would happen. It was a momentary impulse. They had this restriction that only Canadian women could submit to them, and I was frustrated because otherwise they seemed just right for my book. So I sent it to them with your name on it. Stupid, I know, but they accepted Star Roses, and I thought, why not. We could make a few dollars. I should have told you I put your name on the manuscript.”
“Damn right you should have told me. You deceived the publisher and stole my name in the process. That’s fraud . . . a crime.”
“Only if you make it a crime. C’mon. Who’s to know? You know how goddamn hard it is to get a book published. You can use this to get your own book published. It’ll give you a step up. Besides, how have I gained from this? My book is credited to someone else . . . you. So get off your high horse and stop treating me like a common thief. I never meant this to happen. It was just . . .”
“An unethical act? I don’t know about you . . . us. This really changes things.”
“I said I was sorry. Look, submit your novel to Heart under your own name. They’ll take it. After Star Roses won the award, you’re good as gold with them.”
“I’m not going to accept an award for something I didn’t write.”
“How many rejections have you gotten for your book so far? Look, don’t be silly. This could be the break you need. It’s miserable out there. Real publishers are disappearing, and the ones that remain only want guaranteed bestsellers. We don’t write that kind of book. Heart would be perfect for you. I’m not getting anything out of this. It’s not like I did this to benefit myself. I did it as an experiment, and, well, it won an award. At least I know I can write. That’s all I get out of this, but you can get so much more.”
“I got to think this thing out. I need some air. I’m going to take a walk.”
* * *
An hour later Amanda returned, and her mood had changed.
“Okay, what if I do accept the award. What then. What about you?”
“What about me? Just do the smart thing. Get your own manuscript published. Maybe I’ll come with you and meet the staff at Heart Books. You could help me a little if you’d acknowledge me during your acceptance speech. Maybe say that as a writer myself I helped you sharpen Star Roses, or that I inspired you to finish it. Something like that could open the door for me at Heart.”
“So you want me to accept an award I didn’t earn and praise you for helping me win it?”
“Well, not exactly like that. Jeez, we’re a team, right? We’re both trying to get our books published, and you know that isn’t easy. This could get us both on track. It could be great. Just what we need for our careers.”
After a long silence, Amanda said what Emil prayed she would. “I’ll think about it.”
“Great! And I am sorry I didn’t tell you about putting your name on my novel. I should have, but this is turning out to be a good thing.”
“Yeah, a good thing,” said Amanda, with a note of sarcasm in her voice.
Later in the evening, Amanda said she’d accept the award, and Emil again prompted her to mention his role in the creation of Star Roses.
“Just think, we’ll both be published authors. Just what we always dream about,” said Emil, attempting to wrap his arm around Amanda’s waist as she moved away.
* * *
On May 21, they flew to Vancouver for the awards ceremony. Since Amanda’s discovery of her boyfriend’s ruse and her reluctant agreement to accept the award, she had been more reticent than usual. But Emil felt she was coming around to his point of view, and he eagerly awaited the recognition that might pave the way for his new manuscript.
At the pre-wards ceremony, Amanda was warmly engaged with Lyle Carson. Emil had tried to insinuate himself into their conversation, and he felt neglected when their discussion quickly returned to Amanda’s new manuscript.
“Well, we’re delighted to forge a partnership with you, Amanda. You’re certainly someone who fits well with what we do. Star Roses was just the start of a long and productive career for you,” said Carson, casting an obligatory glimpse at Emil, as they filed into the auditorium for the awards presentation.
“Don’t forget to give me a little plug, honey. We’re in this together so may as well make the most of it, right?” urged Emil as the program’s host introduced the recipient of the Canadian First Book Award.
Amanda climbed the steps to the stage and took her place at the podium. Emil applauded enthusiastically, prepared for his moment in the limelight. Payback time, he thought, his heart racing. What he heard greatly exceeded his expectations.
“Thank you so much for this wonderful acknowledgment,” said Amanda, appreciatively. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth all those long days and nights toiling alone at the keyboard. I can’t begin to express how I feel about this singular honor.”
And with that, Amanda returned to her seat.
The one next to hers that had been occupied by Emil was now vacant. The award-winning author smiled wanly and placed the trophy in the empty chair.
Bio: Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, several story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com