First Book, Last Stall in the Seymour Lawrence Stable

Max Steele

Max Steele

When I asked my teacher, Max Steele, about publishing, he told me, “Always submit to The New Yorker first because they pay the most.”  So, when I finished a story, I sent it in a manila envelope with the SASE folded inside, addressed to The New Yorker.  Max was right; the keepers of The New Yorker slush pile responded in about two weeks, which allowed me to submit the story to the next highest paying magazine.  After about six months, the story made its rounds to literary journals that paid cash, and then those that paid in copies, and finally, back to me.  

I papered the walls of my oversized Victorian bathroom with the editorial responses to my submissions.  Waving my hand over the mass of printed rejection slips, I moved visitors along to my special collection of No’s where I proudly deciphered scribbled suggestions to keep writing and submitting.  Insults, if they came from important editors, held prime real estate on the wall.  “Alas, we were not taken with this one,” began a series of notes from an editor who held my work in such disdain that I developed a big head about it; the stuff was good enough to hate.  No matter what the notes said, they fed me tangible evidence – I was working at my passion.

Then, one day, The New Yorker took a story.  The fiction editor, Linda Asher, called me to tell me that she loved The Edge of the Sky, a story set in Senegal West Africa, and wanted to buy it.  As soon as I hung up, I called Max.  “Cow-tow to The New Yorker,” he advised.  Thirty days later, Ms. Asher accepted a second story of mine, The Guide.  After she had carefully picked out all of my “big words” (I confessed that I kept a list of them), the stories appeared in those famous pages, and my literary life changed.

Agents whose printed rejection slips were still taped to my wall invited me to fly up from Wilmington, North Carolina to New York City for lunch.  Students wrote me letters analyzing the meaning of my story and asking questions suggested to them by their teachers.  Old boyfriends surfaced.  All sorts of Whos Who’s wanted me to join their lists and buy a plaque. Finally, Seymour Lawrence called.

Seymour Lawrence. Photo by Ken Collins.

Seymour Lawrence.
Photo by Ken Collins.

I admitted that I had never heard of him, but that didn’t bother Sam.  He explained that he was an independent publisher, responsible for publishing such memorable books as: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Going After Caciato by Tim O’Brien, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger,Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda, and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  Having enjoyed my stories in the The New Yorker, he wanted to know if had any more, perhaps enough for a book?  He said, “I’m going to make you a star.”

His editor at Houghton Mifflin, Hilary Lifton, looked over the four or five stories I had set in Senegal West Africa , and together we came up with my plan to write a book.  I decided to call it Polite Society.  Darren, the narrator of most of the stories, comes from Tennessee, where the term, Polite Society, refers to the flawless etiquette of the upper class.  Through the prism of these cultural values, she encounters a colorful, intense, and sometimes violent West African culture held together by the practice of Teranga, which is the Senegalese world for flawless hospitality and good manners.  I’ve had many wonderful editors, but Hilary Lifton was the first, and I keep her endearing letters in my scrapbook. Here’s one:

Dear Star:

Here’s a photo of you, glowing starlike, which we didn’t use as “award-winning” author photo on your book.  I can’t wait ‘till the Big Event.

Will you wear a big red sweater?

I think not.



For some reason, I was determined wear a red sweater big enough to fit Santa Claus at the book launch, and she was hoping I’d change my mind.Sadly, Sam Lawrence passed away before Polite Society made it into print, and Houghton Mifflin, despite my numerous requests, neglected to put the Seymour Lawrence imprint on the cover.  It was the final book under his label. One of the joys of being an author is receiving mail from readers, and although I am not able to answer all of these letters, sometimes I receive one that demands a response.  Shortly after Polite Society was published, a woman wrote to tell me that her daughter had been accepted to the Peace Corps, but she (the mother) had read my book and was concerned that her daughter would end up like Darren. I had to tell this poor woman that Darren’s faults are my own, and not the consequence of living abroad.  I told how wonderful the Peace Corps is, how, in my experience, the Sengalese helped the Americans as much the Americans helped the Senegalese, that every single person in my stage returned to this country a tougher, wiser, kinder human being.  I told her I would send my own daughter and hope that she would writer her own book.Without the backing of Seymour Lawrence, Polite Society, despite outstanding reviews and a Whiting Award, was trampled under the herd of mass market fiction and lived a only a short shelf life.