How I became an unknown with my first novel
One of Canada’s rising young writers tells with wry wit how his book The Acrobats (it wasn’t about the circus) almost paid its way to oblivion, why “thick books” are best, and how to live on eight dollars a week
“It happened to me”
This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean's Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.
When I returned to Canada in 1951 after two years of wandering in Europe, my father took me out for a drive.
“I hear you wrote a novel in Europe,” he said.
“What's it called?”
"The Acrobats,” I told him.
For the next five minutes we drove in silence. Then, he said, “What in the hell do you know about the circus?”
1 explained that the title was a symbolic one. And, after another ten minutes of uneasy silence, my father asked me, “Is it about Jews or ordinary people?”
1 told him that it was about both.
“Well,” he said, “you're no longer a kid. I guess you ought to start thinking about getting a job.”
When I had quit Sir George Williams Col-
lege and left Montreal two years earlier I had only intended to stay abroad for a few months. My total stake—the proceeds of a variety of summer jobs and an insurance policy cashed in prematurely—was fourteen hundred dollars. With my parents’ help I stayed away two years. For a lot of that time I drifted to and fro between London. Paris, and the Côte d’Azur, and for about eight months I lived in Spain, the setting of my first novel. The Acrobats. I had, since the age of fifteen, always wanted to be a writer. At first what I wanted to be was a fighting newspaperman, like Edward G. Robinson in Big Town. Then, after a year of college, I learned to look down on mere reporters, and I decided: one, to become an alcoholic poet; two, to die young and tragically. This ambition was short-lived, however. By the time I sailed for Europe I wanted only to write novels. Good ones, true ones. Mostly because I felt deeply about—there’s no other term for it—man's fate, but also. I'm afraid, because I sheltered the suspicion that it w'ould bring fame and riches. After a year of wandering I settled down in Cambridge to write the first draft of The Acrobats, reduced to eight dollars a week and the kindness of friends who put me up.
My father had sent me my boat fare home. He was absolutely right about the job. I was twenty-two years old now, and ten dollars was all the money I had earned in the last two years. I got that from Points, a literary magazine in Paris, for my first published short story.
A month after I got home I was still broke and unemployed. I was not exactly straining myself in my efforts to find work. Meanwhile, my agent in London was sending my manuscript out on the rounds of publishers.
“These things take time,” my mother said.
“I’m not worried,” I said.
Two weeks later I had my first rejection. It was from an American publishing house, and the editor there wrote, “This young man obviously does not believe in his characters, but he shows promise. Next time, perhaps . . .”
My family began to apply pressure.
“Remember Marvin Felder?” my Uncle Jake asked.
“The kid you always continued on page 40
How I became an unknown with
continued from page 19
“Maybe Hollywood will make a musical out of it,” said Uncle Jake
used to make fun of? Remember?” “No, I don’t remember him.”
“He owns his own home in Outremont now.”
“When I was your age,” my Uncle Sydney said, “I was married with two kids.”
“Mickey Spillane,” my Uncle Albert said. “There’s a writer for you.”
Ten days later another American publisher had turned down my novel. So I began to search the want-ad columns in earnest, but I soon discovered that my prospects were pretty punk. I was too old to be an office boy and I didn’t know how to drive a car. I had no industrial skills. Any personnel manager seemed to be able to tell with one shrewd glance that I wasn’t “bright, ambitious, and eager to learn.” But once 1 nearly landed a job editing a fashion trade journal. When it came down to the final interview, however, the boss said, “You don’t look like you’re truly interested in girdles.”
One evening, a few weeks and a couple of rejections later, I ran into an old friend. When we had been kids together Herby’s mother had always used to point me out and say, “Why can’t you make good marks in school like he does?”
I guess Herby never forgot that, or the fact that, when we had both been members of the YMHA Chemistry Club, I had convinced him that he could goldplate his mother’s sterling-silver tea set simply by soaking it for two hours in a mixture of mustard and sulphuric acid —which got him into trouble at home afterward. Anyway, we got into his Buick and drove out to Miss Montreal for dinner. Finally, it came. “Did you do much writing in Europe, kid?”
“I guess so.”
I quickly told him what I thought about editors. I said my writing wasn’t commercial. I pointed out that 1 didn’t get the usual printed rejection slips, but personal notes from editors, always asking if they could see more of my work.
“Sure,” he said, “but have you published anything, kid?”
“Well,” he said, “some people hit it off right away. Others struggle for years.” He drove me home. “Some day,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll be famous, kid. I’ll bet you'll be another Ellery Queen.” “I don’t write detective stories, kid.” “Well,” he said, “whatever your writing field I'm sure you'll be tops. I’ll bet you’re another Kathleen Norris in the making.”
When I got home I found that a special-delivery air-mail letter had arrived from my agent in London. Andre Deutsch, Ltd., the British publishers, had made an offer for my novel. A conditional one, however. They would publish The Acrobats if 1 agreed to do more work on it. Attached were several pages of critical notes that had been compiled by Diana Athill, the fiction editor, and Walter Allen, the critic. 1 was offered an advance of a hundred pounds (approximately two hundred and seventyfive dollars)—fifty pounds on signature of contract and another fifty once my revisions had been completed and found acceptable. I sent an immediate cable of acceptance.
“I don’t get you,” my Uncle Jake said. “You put two years into writing
a book and now you’re happy because some jerk in London has offered you a lousy two-fifty for it. You could have earned more than that cutting my lawn.” I explained that the hundred pounds represented an advance against royalties. Once the novel was published I would be paid a royalty of ten percent on the first three thousand copies sold and twelve and a half percent on any sales above that figure. The book was still mine to sell in the United States and, in translation, elsewhere.
“Maybe Hollywood will make a musical out of it,” my Uncle Jake said. “That’s where the money is.”
I got a job at last, working as a news editor for the CBC in Montreal. As I didn’t go on duty until four p.m., I was free to work on revisions of my novel all day. The revisions took me two months, and by the time an acceptance came from London I had saved enough money for my return fare to Europe. I planned to live and start work on my
second novel in London, where my expenses would not be nearly so high as they were in Montreal. Andre Deutsch wrote me that The Acrobats would be published in April 1954, a wait of ten months. Since I was a Canadian myself, and he was counting on a large Canadian sale for the book, he asked me to visit the Canadian distributor of the book in Toronto before I sailed.
I arrived in Toronto early one June morning in 1953 in the midst of an awful heatwave. What I had anticipated was the lavish reception, the literary cocktail party, but what I got, instead, was an interview with the distributor. Before him on his desk lay a manuscript copy of my novel. A good start, I thought, settling back to absorb praise with a modest smiie.
“Well, Mr. Richler,” were the man’s first words, “have you written a thick book?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“This is Canada. Thick books sell better than thin books here.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. Have you read the book?”
“I’m told it’s anti-Canadian.”
“I understand that it’s set in Spain, and that the central character is a young Canadian painter who doesn't like living in Canada.”
“Maybe you ought to read the book,” I said.
“If there are any . . . bad words in it we’re going to have trouble with the libraries.”
“Couldn’t you read it?” I said. “It’s not such a long book.”
I was taken downstairs to the warehouse and shown some of the books that were distributed from there. The thick ones were handed down with pride for me to feel; the thin ones were passed over with a sigh. Afterward, at lunch,
I was instructed in some of the harder facts of Canadian book publishing.
There are only between forty and fifty English-language bookshops in Canada and this, a generous figure, includes department-store book counters and so forth. Most of the publishers here are actually distributors for British and American publishers. Imported books from the U. S. account for approximately seventy percent of all book sales in Canada, and about half the books sold in this country are sold in Toronto, although Montreal is a better book town on a per capita basis. There are only five or six true publishers of Canadian books—that is, companies that can bring out books on their own, irrespective of pre-publication deals with England or the U. S. A sale of one thousand copies, or better, of a serious novel by a Canadian writer is considered good going, although Adele Wiseman. I’m told, has sold more than five thousand copies of The Sacrifice in Canada. No serious Canadian novelist — including Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan — is able to support himself strictly on the sale of his novels in Canada.
The distributor of my book was prepared to risk a first order of four hundred copies for all of Canada. Since my original publisher was British, and I would be paid a royalty of ten percent on the basis of the British export and not the Canadian bookshop price, I stood to earn a total of twelve pounds, or approximately thirty-two dollars, if the first order sold out in Canada.
Somewhat dampened in spirit, I sailed for England to begin work on my new novel. My first novel, at the time, was still going the rounds of the New York publishers. Most of them didn’t care for it. One editor wrote, “The Acrobats is all wine and women, but no song.” Finally, on its eighth time out, The Acrobats found an American publisher. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, was willing to take a chance on me. They paid me a sorely needed advance of seven hundred and fifty dollars, and wrote that they planned to publish the book in the late August of 1954. They had high hopes for it, and were going ahead with a first printing of five thousand copies.
Meanwhile, in London, there was trouble. A morality campaign of sorts was going on, and several doubtful books had been withdrawn by publishers. At the time a case was pending in the courts against William Heinemann, a very reputable publisher. The company that prints books for Andre Deutsch took one look at The Acrobats and got themselves a lawyer. (In England, printers as well as publishers are liable in the event of any legal action.) The printer’s lawyer wrote, in effect, that my novel was blasphemous, salacious, and sordid, and he could not advise his client to print it in its present form. So Andre Deutsch got a lawyer too. He read the book and said . . . well, it’s outspoken. Several words and offensive phrases could be deleted without harming the content, and so it was up to me. I agreed to make the necessary deletions. This was not
the end of it, however. For when the book finally appeared many provincial booksellers refused to take copies. Others hid it under the counter. One of the country’s two leading lending libraries refused to stock the book at all, and the second immediately put it on an “on demand” basis. This meant they wouldn't dsplay it, but would supply it to the shadier types who asked for the book.
1 was, at the time, not idle. 1 worked deeper into my second novel w'hile waiting for the first one to appear. Early in February the sales manager of Andre Deutsch, Ltd. told me that the advance sile on The Acrobats was good. A total oí two thousand copies, including the Canadian order of four hundred, represented the pre-publication sale. One book buyer, looking at the title, hastily ordered twenty-five copies. “Those circus books always go like crazy,” he said. Nobody contradicted him.
There was more good news to come.
Printer’s proofs of my novel were available two months prior to publication and my agent began to send them ait to foreign publishers. Rather quickly the book was bought for translation by publishers in four countries. Advances against royalties from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden came to five hundred and forty-five dollars. This raised my total earnings on the book to fifteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars (less ten percent agent's commission), and the book wasn’t even out anywhere yet. Shortly afterward my American publisher wrote to say Popular Library, Inc., a paperback house, had offered a one-thousand-dollar advance for The Acrobats. As reprint money is split fiftyfifty with the original publisher that meant five hundred dollars for me. but not for some time. There was one condition to the sale, however. Popular Library wanted to change the title to Wicked We Love, and that's what the book was called when the paperback edition appeared, bosomy girl on the jacket and all. eighteen months later.
This, without a doubt, was the peak period for me in the history of my first novel. It’s true there were a couple of minor irritations. Omens, perhaps. Wallace Reyburn wrote from London in the Toronto Telegram, “A young Canadian here. Mordccai Richler, has a first novel coming out soon that ought to take both sides of the Atlantic by storm. 1 never heard of her before . . .’’To this, my first newspaper employer, the Montreal Herald, replied, “Mordccai Richler ought to punch Miss Reyburn on the snoot.” G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, sent me a copy of their fall catalogue. They were, at the time, trying a new experiment in book selling. If you didn't enjoy a Putnam book your bookseller would return you the money. Only two books in the fall catalogue failed to carry this guarantee. Mine, and another young writer’s.
But, all the same, I was halfway through my second novel, I had money in the bank, and my first novel was about to appear in seven countries. All there was to do, I figured, was sit back and wait for critics and public to take notice.
I waited, and notice was taken, but not quite the kind of notice I had anticipated.
The day after The Acrobats had been published in England I wandered down Charing Cross Road, the street of bookshops. confident that it would be displayed in every window. It was displayed in none. Only in Foyles, the world’s largest bookshop, did I find a stack of The Acrobats. There it was on a long table with nineteen other fresh stacks of novels—the twenty new novels of the week.
That u’eek-cnd I searched all the major British newspapers and magazines for reviews. There were none. The next week I got my first mention. The Manchester Guardian listed The Acrobats among “books received.” But I waited three w'eeks for my first review. It appeared in the Spectator, and it was not a bad one. John Metcalf wrote:
Mr. Richler (of Canada) is trying hard in Valencia to be old and disillusioned and European. At twentytwo this is not very easy, even for so
distinguished a talent as Mr. Richler’s. No doubt about it, this is an astonishing little book . . . Mr. Richler has a fire and a frenzy all his own which, when they truly take hold of his characters. produce a powerful effect . . . the failure to find an answer is what The Acrobats is about. And as such —as the work of a worried, whirling, overread young man who's prepared to face up to not seeing the way out —this book should be looked at, and looked at by a lot of people ... He has real talent . . .
There were no other important reviews, and The Acrobats never sold more than the advance order of two thousand copies in England.
When the novel appeared in Canada a couple of months later Walter O'Hearne wrote in the Montreal Star:
Why do very young writers insist upon getting such novels as this not out of their systems but into print? And why indeed do publishers encourage them? Mr. Richler. who is 22 years old, and who, from the evidence of
this book has a Montreal background, is a young man with considerable talent. At some time in the future he may write novels of real distinction. The present work, however, is a combination of promise, precocity and of adolescent morbidity . . .
But the book did get some good Canadian reviews, notably from Nathan Cohen on the CBC, and it gradually sold two hundred copies across the country.
Broke again, and somewhat disheartened, I packed up and went to Munich, where my German publisher owed me two hundred and seventy dollars. Living in a rented room I managed to spread the money over three months and complete the first draft of my second novel. Then I returned to London to get married. I married Catherine Boudreau, of St. Catharines, Ont., and two days after the ceremony she went out to work.
The Acrobats did even worse in the U. S. It was. as they say. not widely reviewed. I got a rave review in the Miami Herald (above my picture, the headline. REMEMBER THIS NAME, and below. MOR DEC AI RICHLER, but Time magazine took no notice, and the New York Times critic wrote:
On the whole, this depressing story is well told: its most violent and tasteless episodes give evidence of originality and a good eye and ear . . .
With this novel out of his system, Mr.
Richler’s second one may be an entirely mature and rewarding book.
The only good and important U. S. review I got came from W. G. Rogers, the Associated Press critic, who wrote. “Fiery conviction, zest, and an uncommon intensity make this an outstanding first novel.”
The hook sold something more than nine hundred copies, and when the paperback money came through I was not given my share. I had not earned my original advance against royalties of seven hundred and fifty dollars, and so the paperback money was credited to my debit account against this sum.
My family began to apply pressure again.
Advertising, my Uncle Jake wrote, that’s where the money is.
I borrowed a copy of your book the other day, my old friend Herby wrote, and I think it’s terrible.
Maybe you shouldn’t write under your own name, my Uncle Sydney wrote. After all. the family . . .
My father wrote that he’d made the night watchman buy a copy. But he didn’t care for the book himself. I wouldn't recommend it for children, he wrote.
There was one bright ray of hope. The Kinsey Institute wrote to ask for a copy of the novel. Why, I never found out. But one was dispatched immediately.
Then, as The Acrobats began to appear in translation, the story was the same. Spotty reviews, bad sales. Only in Germany, where the book sold nearly a thousand copies, did I earn a royalty beyond my initial advance. Two years after The Acrobats was first published there I got a cheque for twenty-seven dollars.
This, however, is not as bad as you think. For every six months I still get bills from G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. It appears I still owe them S5.96 for some extra copies of my book that I ordered. My last royalty statement from New York cost me a good deal of sleep. It covered the last six months of (956, and in that period two copies of The Acrobats had been sold. One, Domestic. and another. Orient. For nights I was kept awake thinking who in the hell do I know in the Orient? Who bought my book there? Was it sold in China, Japan, or Burma? Would it be possible to trace the buyer? Shouldn’t we correspond? Or did he, perhaps, buy the book in error?
When I returned to Montreal again this autumn—this time after an absence of four years—I found that The Acrobats was being well displayed at last. There’s a huge pile of remaindered copies in Classic’s Little Books, Inc., on St. Catherine Street, and they’re going (slowly, mind you) for ninety-eight cents each. ★