In November of 1922, a young foreign correspondent writing for the Toronto Star, kissed his wife goodbye at their home in Paris and boarded a train for Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. Like many young writers just starting out, Ernest Hemingway had not yet found his way into publishing the kinds of works he really wanted to produce, but he managed to get some networking done while working his day job and soon editor Lincoln Steffens expressed an interest in his fiction.
At that point, Hemingway did what any writer looking for his big break would surely do. He contacted his wife Hadley in Paris and asked her to bring his writing to Switzerland. Hadley readily agreed and packed up her husband’s work, carbon copies and all, into a small suitcase. Then she boarded a train just as soon as she could.
Before the train pulled out of the station, Mrs. Hemingway stowed her bags and left them just long enough to locate and buy a bottle of water. When she returned, the suitcase containing all the written works of her future Pulitzer Prize winning ex-husband was gone. The works lost included several short stories as well as a novel about World War I.
I don’t know about you, but to me this is a soul-crushing kind of a story. I’ve borne witness to the agony authors feel when their laptops self-destruct and swallow partial manuscripts. I myself have misplaced thumb drives or failed to back up scenes and lived to regret it. Thousands of words have tripped from my fingertips and fallen, for one reason or another, off the face of the earth, never to be recovered. No matter how careful we are it happens.
And it’s not always the worst thing ever. Often it leads to better scenes, more careful word choices, more thoughtful expressions, and all around improved creative works. Sometimes, it even pushes us to find new ways to share our work with the world.
Recently I lost a novel. I didn’t leave it unattended in a suitcase at the train station, though some days it feels like that’s what happened. Instead I entrusted it to a publisher that fell on hard times and proved unable to care for the work as promised.
The somewhat complicated situation has caused me many sleepless nights and no shortage of agony, but I also count myself lucky. As the author of a project that had not yet reached publication (something that after a previous one-year delay was finally supposed to happen this past month), my position is not as difficult as many of the authors this publisher used to work with before ceasing all communications and leaving everyone scrambling for a way to reclaim their rights.
I know that some of you lovely readers will want to venture legal advice and while I appreciate the desire to help, I assure you I’ve explored a lot of options and carefully considered my best course of action. I’ve had a long time to watch this play out. I just wanted to include you in the loop, and also assure you that the book is going to make it into the world eventually, just not in the way I had originally hoped.
So you see it could be a lot worse.
Hemingway never attempted to re-write the novel he lost. Instead he went on to write bigger and presumably better things, but it seems he may have never totally recovered from the loss either. In some of his drunker moments, he was known to occasionally admit that the loss of all of his work at once was a big factor in his decision to divorce his first wife.
All I need to do is divorce a publisher.
By the way, if you would like to receive updates as I pursue publication for this and additional books, you can sign up to do just that right here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1
17 thoughts on “So You See It Could Be A Lot Worse”
The story about Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, is beautifully imagined in the book, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain. Based on what I learned from it, I think the divorce had more to do with Hemingway’s new girlfriend than anything his wife did. I think one of his hobbies may have been collecting women. 🙂
What’s happened with your manuscript and other authors’ books now being held hostage, is terrible. Making it worse is knowing how easily all could be resolved if the publisher would only have the decency to communicate and return author rights. I admire you for coming up with a good alternate plan and forging ahead instead of giving up. Congrats!
I imagine it was easier for Hemingway to blame Hadley’s mistake than his own shortcomings. Self-reflection is painful. And thank you. As you know, it’s taken me a while to get here, and this is affecting a lot of authors who are unfortunately stuck without really good options.
Mrs Hemmingway going for a bottle of water just shows you how bad for you water can be. On the other hand, WOW – what a devastating experience for you. One can only hope that your MS’s return will be like discovering a hitherto lost Leonardo di Vinci or something – and just as valuable.
Maybe someday, after I’m super famous. It’s been a frustrating experience for sure, but I keep writing and I’ll get my words out into the world one way or another.
I am sorry this happened to you, Sarah, but I am glad you can take it with some equanimity (even if it took you a while to reach it).
Thanks. Small press is a risk. I am certainly wiser for the experience.
Thanks for including us in the loop. I hesitate to even pretend I understand how this may have affected you, Sarah. Certainly heart-wrenching. I join other writers in sympathizing with you. You’re a marvelous writer, with the promise of many more years of fruitful writing ahead of you.
Your standard demands you plumb the depths of your soul to offer a sacrifice of written words suitable for the readers who pick up your book. It is the very essence of yourself, bravely offered to entertain, enlighten, inspire. While this ms was temporarily sidelined by an indifferent, reckless, or careless publisher (perhaps all of those), count yourself fortunate that you were not wedded to such a ham-handed merchant for the long haul.
Your character shines through in this posting. I know you will prevail. I don’t know if my ramblings will encourage you, so I offer you this insight from that paragon of profundity, Willie Nelson: “Fortunately, we were not in control.”
But we know who is.
Thank you, Sam.
I remember when I read Hemingway’s account of the missing book and couldn’t imagine the absolute horror and frustration of losing all that work. This may be why I obsessively back up all my manuscripts on several different thumb drives! Still, I have lost a chapter or two “somewhere” (gremlins?) and it’s amazing how much you can recall once you start reworking those missing pages. Sorry to hear about your poopy publisher.
Thanks. Yes, I back up obsessively, too. I’ve lost short stories and scenes before. Never a whole novel thankfully. At least I do still have this one. I just don’t have the right to publish it. Yet.
Admirable post. Thank you on behalf of authors who have been caught in publishing limbo. A way will become clear, and is opening for you. It is sometimes in dire circumstance that a better way is found. I do believe God will bless your efforts even more because of your attitude.
Yet may we still hope that publishers, especially your former one, will be honest and do what is right.
Wow I was so shocked to learn of what happened to Hemmingway’s manuscripts and then I read what happened to your poor book!! It’s a relief that it can still find its way into the world (unlike Hemmingway’s books) but I’m really sorry this happened. What the hell with that publisher?!? Thankfully you still have the rights to the audio version and hopefully they’ll release the rights to the rest of it once that finds its way into the world (I dunno- I just hope it all works out- and I’m super mad at those people for doing this to you!)
Thank you. Me too. I guess no matter how careful you think you’re being, small press is a bit of a gamble. Even if the publisher never decides to do the right thing, the print rights will return to me in about two years. Without a written release from the publisher it’s probably still too legally dicey even at that point for another press to take it on, which leaves me with the indie route as my only real option. I was so happy to be able to be a hybrid author, but I still think I will be eventually. Next project, perhaps.
You’re welcome. Oh that’s good to know (and such a shame at the same time). Gosh this is terrible. Hopefully! I’m sure it will all work out in the end!
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