Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet, her tenth small press book to be published. It was released on September 5th by Loose Leaves Publishing after making the rounds of publishers since 1986. She Writer Dorothy Bendel, author of Expatriate (poems) and a novel-in-progress, wanted to know more about Diane’s novel, as well as her thoughts on agents, the self-publishing option and, most of all, persistence. Here’s what Diane had to say.
Dorothy Bendel: Set in the 18th century, the story that unfolds in The Fiery Alphabet deals with faith, feminism, history… What inspired you to write this novel?
Diane Lefer: I hope you’re not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.
Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind, but at that stage of my life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. The more I tried to learn about the world she lived in, the more excited I got.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had great power while orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy. As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women’s pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.
Dorothy Bendel: Can you describe the long and winding road to publication?
Diane Lefer: I finished the novel in 1986 and it’s only being published now in September 2013. So that road truly did have twists and turns.
In 1986, I actually had an agent. A famous one. I lived in New York City at the time, so I brought her the manuscript in person. The Famous Agent said “It weighs too much. Cut 100 pages.” I said, “I wish you’d read it first.” She said, “If I enjoyed reading, I would have become an editor, not an agent.” Soon after, she called and asked me to come in. Of course my fantasy was that she’d actually read my work and loved it, maybe even sold it. Instead, I entered her office and found her standing on the window ledge throwing things and screaming she was too stressed out to get her hair done. When a sheaf of pages landed at my feet, I bent to retrieve them. She hollered, “Freeze!”, then jumped down, grabbed me with her fingers around my throat and started to squeeze. We struggled. When I broke free, the Famous Agent said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone what happened in this office.” It was Christmastime and I thought I should wait till after the holidays to fire her. In January, I sent what I thought was a polite letter. She phoned me right away. “No one fires me ever,” she said. “You are not getting your manuscript back.”
She had the only original. I had a messy carbon copy because I hadn’t been able to afford a photocopy. (Does anyone reading this remember carbon paper?) So I had to retype the manuscript–which back then was 500 pages long. That turned out to be a good opportunity to revise and edit what I’d written.
Then I made another change. In the original version, Daniela wrote two journals: one which she left lying around for Balsamo to find in which she presented a self designed to attract him, and the other in which she was honest. I thought this was psychologically important, but then A.S. Byatt published Possession which also features the split between a public and a private journal and I was afraid people would say I’d stolen the idea from her, so I reluctantly got rid of the concept. I now think simplifying the manuscript’s structure was not a bad idea.
I found another agent–a lovely person who was well respected in the business. Soon after she took me on as a client, everything started getting screwed up. Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be early Alzheimers.
I figured I could do a better job representing myself but overnight the policy in mainstream publishing changed. Only agent submissions were read and I had no luck finding a new representation. Since then, with the advent of POD and e-books, we have more small independent presses than ever and once again there are actually some editors out there who will consider your work. I started sending out queries and sample chapters. I also reread the manuscript and found myself cutting about 100 pages. The Famous Agent might have said “I told you so,” but if I’d tried to cut back in 1986, without guidance I don’t think I would have recognized which pieces needed to go.
Finally, in 2012, I heard from Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing. She had loved the manuscript when she worked for a different publisher but her boss turned it down. Now she had the authority to make an offer and she wanted to know if the book was still available. YES! Besides being an astute editor, Jessica is a specialist in medieval history, especially medieval Spain–a place that’s figures briefly in the background of my novel because Balsamo believes Daniela has inherited the secrets of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah. Jessica and I both love Spanish language and literature. It really does make a difference when you find an editor with whom you share common interests.
It also occurs to me that the cultural tensions in the 18th century–science vs. religion; the subjugation of women–may have seemed irrelevant to contemporary life when I started sending the manuscript around. Sad to say, not anymore.
Dorothy Bendel: How has your writing process changed from the time you wrote The Fiery Alphabet to the way you write now?
Diane Lefer: The computer! In the old days, the chore of retyping made me reluctant to make changes even when I recognized awkward language or unnecessary paragraphs, or sections that would work better if moved. The computer made me–or let me–set the bar higher. But it came at a price. In 2003, I developed a severe case of computer vision syndrome from so much staring at the screen. My focusing muscles went slack and it was eight months till I was able to read, write, or drive again. These days I have to limit my hours at the computer. That may account for why I used to write from point A to point B but now find myself working in fragments that then have to be pieced together. Completed manuscripts still read as though they are more or less continuous–at least I hope so–but they aren’t created that way.
Dorothy Bendel: Daniela, the protagonist of the novel, is a strong and determined woman. While reading The Fiery Alphabet, the root of her character reminded me of the tenacity required to push the novel forward to publication. Do you see any parallels between your own journey and Daniela’s?
Diane Lefer: Not so much the tenacity as her weaknesses! The idea of the two journals got dropped but it came from my own memories of being 10, when I had a diary with a lock but even so I never told the truth in it. I wrote the sentiments that I thought a girl my age was supposed to have. And Illusion vs. Reality, Truth vs. Lie — it’s a personal obsession. Three times in my life, I’ve been duped by a pathological liar. Three of them! Once can be understood. But three times? And I don’t mean lies like “No, I did not have sex with that woman.” I mean Big Lies.
Dorothy Bendel: What advice can you give to those who are struggling to get their work published?
Diane Lefer: Never give up! Publishing is important. We write because we want to communicate with others, not just mumble (or scream) to ourselves. But don’t let that desire spoil your joy in the process of creation.
To tell the truth though, I did give up. Writing fiction had begun to seem thankless and pointless. And then there were the Famous Agent’s parting words: “You will grow old, embittered, and unpublished, and you will blame the publishing industry but it will not be the publishing industry’s fault.” I didn’t want to become bitter so I self-published my novel Radiant Hunger, decided That’s all, folks! and devoted myself to social justice work. But I have to write, so I started writing for the stage. It was reinvigorating to explore a new outlet for creativity and to see my plays brought to life, but I did miss the texture and heft of fiction. I decided So what if no one publishes me? I started writing new stories and began a new novel and also revisited old manuscripts. Some I cringed at and abandoned. Others, including The Fiery Alphabet, I still believed in.
Next year, Aqueous Books will bring out The Still Point, and that novel had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (It seems even when I write contemporary fiction, by the time it’s published, it’s historical.)
So I repeat: Never give up! There will always be people like the Famous Agent who will try to paralyze you with the curse of self-doubt. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been vulnerable at least for a while. I had to remember that writing well is a joy in itself–as well as the best revenge. Today I have three short story collections, three novels, and a co-authored nonfiction book in print. While I wonder if the Famous Agent found a safe way down from her window ledge.
Tags: 18th century, Age of Enlightenment, alchemy, Aqueous Books, Boris Karloff, Cagliostro, Daniela Messo, Dorothy Bendel, Gyn/Ecology, Jessica Knauss, Jung, literary agents, Loose Leaves Publishing, Mary Daly, Masonic lodges, mysticism, occultism, Psychology and Alchemy, Riane Eisler, She Writes, The Fiery Alphabet, Thriller