How small turned out to be beautiful
Michèle Forbes: 38 agents' rejections in Ireland and the UK. photograph: anthony woods
WORD FOR WORD:In the late 1970s, my father wrote for The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen, Les Dawson and Roy Hudd, among others, in what now could be considered a golden age in television comedy. Before that, he had many rejections. Being the first home from school, I would find his returned TV and radio scripts nestled among the nuggets of coal in the shed where the postman always left them.
My father would mark these rejections with a shake of his head, then, a few days later, would stride lively to the post office with a fresh brown envelope in his hand to send his work off once again. My father displayed not tenacity (tenacity sounds too sure of itself) but a quiet determination to keep going, and in his negotiations with producers and editors over the years the one quality he valued most in himself and in them – call him old fashioned – was good manners.
It had never dawned on me to send my debut novel, Ghost Moth, to the US, but in 2011, as part of Dublin Writers’ Festival, I attended a workshop with the American author Paul Harding. Harding is the author whose quiet, contemplative debut novel, Tinkers, nobody wanted.
He’s also the author who went on to win, with that same quiet novel, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction after it had been published by Bellevue Literary Press, in New York.
So, after 38 rejections from agents in the UK and Ireland, I metaphorically brushed the coal dust off my manuscript, popped it in a fresh brown envelope and set it sailing off across the Atlantic. A few weeks later Bellevue offered to publish it.
Bellevue was established in 2007 and is a project of New York University’s school of medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center, the oldest public hospital in the US. (The hospital came to the attention of the world recently when, during Hurricane Sandy, medical staff had to carry intensive-care patients one by one down 17 flights of stairs while emergency crews pumped 10 million gallons of seawater out of its basement.)
At the time Tinkers was published, in 2009, there were only two people at Bellevue, the editorial director, Erika Goldman, and the associate editor, Leslie Hodgkins.
Being agentless – not that I’d planned it that way – meant that I had to navigate my own way through the publishing process, but being with a small and prestigious press you’ll always get talking to the person you want to. It has also meant that I had creative input at every step, down to what cover would be used for the American edition.
Since the storm, Leslie Hodgkins rings me from his temporary office on East 12th Street. He is a man with an unadulterated passion for what he does. Throughout our dealings, he has been nothing but generous with his time, clear-sighted with his advice and the height of good manners.
Bellevue will publish Ghost Moth in the US in April. Later in the year, Penguin will bring out their edition in Canada and Weidenfeld Nicolson, an imprint of Orion, will publish the book in the UK and Ireland. I’m looking forward to the homecoming.