COVER

How I became an unknown with my first novel

This wry article by Mordecai Richler in 1958, his first of 48 to appear in Maclean's, reflected on his less-than-glamourous life at the time, even as he was being described as one of the country's “rising young writers.”

MORDECAI RICHLER July 16 2001
COVER

How I became an unknown with my first novel

This wry article by Mordecai Richler in 1958, his first of 48 to appear in Maclean's, reflected on his less-than-glamourous life at the time, even as he was being described as one of the country's “rising young writers.”

MORDECAI RICHLER July 16 2001

How I became an unknown with my first novel

COVER

MORDECAI RICHLER

This wry article by Mordecai Richler in 1958, his first of 48 to appear in Maclean's, reflected on his less-than-glamourous life at the time, even as he was being described as one of the country's “rising young writers.”

"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. “Yes.” “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?”

I explained the title was symbolic. And, after another 10 minutes of uneasy silence, my father asked me, “Is it about Jews or ordinary people?”

I 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 College and left Montreal two years earlier, I had only intended to stay abroad for a few months. I had, since the age of 15, 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. Mosdy 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 would bring fame and riches.

My father had sent me my boat fare home. He was absolutely right about the job. I was 22 now, and $10 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 The Acrobats out on the rounds of publishers. Two weeks later, I had my first American rejection. My family began to apply pressure.

“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

IF ALL 400 COPIES IN CANADA SOLD OUT, I STOOD TO EARN APPROXIMATELY $32

personnel manager seemed to be able to tell with one shrewd glance that I wasn’t “bright, ambitious and eager to learn.” But once I nearly landed a job editing a 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.”

Then, Andre Deutsch, Ltd., the British publishers, made an offer for my novel. A conditional one, however. They would publish The Acrobats if I agreed to do more work on it. I was offered an advance of 100 pounds (approximately $275)—50 pounds on signature of contract and another 50 once my revision had been 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 twofifty for it. You could have earned more than that cutting my lawn.”

“Maybe Hollywood will make a musical out of it,” 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 4 p.m., I was free to work on revisions to my novel all day. After accepting them, Andre Deutsch wrote me that The Acrobats would be published in April, 1954. 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.

I arrived in Toronto early one June morning in 1953 in the midst of an i awful heat wave. 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 smile.

“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.”

“What?”

“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 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 40 and 50 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 70 per cent of all sales. There are only five or six true publishers of Canadian books —that is, companies that can bring out books on their own, irrespective of prepublication deals with England or the U.S. A sale of 1,000 copies of a serious novel by a Canadian writer is considered good going. No serious Canadian novelist—including Morley Callaghan or Hugh MacLennan— is able to support himself strictly on the sale of his novels in Canada.

The distributor was prepared to risk a first order of 400 copies for all of Canada. I stood to earn approximately $32, if they sold out. Somewhat dampened in spirit, I sailed for England to begin work on my new novel. Then, 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 $750. Meanwhile, in London, there was trouble. A morality campaign of sorts was going on, and several doubtful books had been withdrawn by publishers. 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.

I was, at the time, not idle. I worked deeper into my second novel while waiting for the first one to appear. The sales manager of Andre Deutsche, Ltd. told me that the advance sale was good. One book buyer, looking at the title, hastily ordered 25 copies. “Those circus books always go like crazy,” he said. Nobody contradicted him.

This, without a doubt, was the peak period for me in the history of my first novel. It’s true there were minor irritations. Omens, perhaps. Wallace Reyburn wrote from London in the Toronto Telegram, “A young Canadian here, Mordecai Richler, has a first novel coming out soon that ought to take both sides of the Atlantic by storm. I never heard of her before....” In the end, the book sold something more than 900 copies. I had not earned my original advance against royalties, and 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 made the night watchman buy a copy. But he didn’t care for it himself. I wouldn’t recommend it for children, he wrote.

My last royalty statement from New York cost me a good deal of sleep. It covered the last six months in 1956, and in that period two copies of The Acrobats had been sold. One domestic and the other Orient. For nights, I was kept awake thinking who in the hell do I know in the Orient? 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 sms being well displayed at last. There’s a huge pile of remaindered copies in Classic’s Litde Books on St. Catherine Street and they’re going (slowly, mind you) for 98 cents each.