I LOVE READING MAIL, my own as well as other people's. Here's some. A note from Peter Skolnik of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, a New York literary agency, told me he is now tidying up the loose ends of a newsworthy sale, $265,000 for a novel based on a 109-page proposal. What's interesting is not only the figure, which is very high for no more than a proposal by a couple of authors who are not household words, but that the two authors. Diane Cleaver and Nikki Smith, are coagents of Skolnik's at the Greenburger Agency. I've often wondered about agents -- when they sell a property for a lot of money for somebody else, do they ever think: I can write better than this myself? I know that editors do when they buy.
Working together at the agency, Diane and Nikki found that the same things interested them both, power and ideas. Last fall a random comment by an editor about what she'd like to see as the central theme of a novel -- a custody fight -- set Nikki and Diane to thinking. A novel began to take form in their imaginations, a novel set in northeast Texas, the end of the South and beginning of the West, and dealing with how power and money passed through three generations of women from 1917 to the present day. Cleaver and Smith began making separate sets of notes and character sketches, and swapping the "bits and pieces," as Diane calls them. "We worked separately most of the time. The longest stretch of time we spent together was a 14-hour session over the Memorial Day weekend." From the bits and pieces evolved what-both women call a "floor plan" for the novel, and it was a floor plan rather than the customary outline-in-two-chapters that was auctioned by Skolnik.
The winner over three other bidders was Marty Asher of Pocket Books, taking hardcover and paperback rights. The loose ends that Skolnik is tidying are who will print the book in hardcover (most likely Pocket's parent company, Simon and Schuster) and what pseudonym Cleaver and Smith will choose. The manuscript, to be titled, Morning Glory, is due in a year's time.For half the team -- Smith -- it's a first novel. So far she has been coauthor of the nonfiction, The Fad Book, for Crowell. For Cleaver, it's second time out. Last year, Doubleday published her first novel, Sherbourne's Folly, under a pen name, Nora Barry.
Neither one of the women presently plans to leave the literary agency, even if their book should go through the roof. "I love being an agent," says Cleaver. "I love all the complicated details of making deals and putting the pieces together." And the money? The $265,000? "I have no sense of reality about that much monely," sighs Diane. "I wish they'd bring around a wheelbarrow stuffed with it, so I can see it."
The following letter was not written to me, but to Nancy Kahan, director of publicity for Crown Books. Any minute now, Jean M. Auel's name will be known by everybody, thanks to her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear. In preparation for her second novel in the Earth's Children series, Auel has been spending time in Glass Butte, eastern Oregon, at the Malheur Field Station, learning primitive ways of coping with wilderness life, ways she is exploring in her novel. To the survival school recently came Jack Fincher of People magazine, to do a story on Auel.
It is he to whom she refers in her letter which reads in part, "Three hours of taped interview, sitting on mats in the 'cheat' grass which sticks to anything but especially to wool. I showed him some biscuit roots we had collected, the mat I made out of 'tules,' the native Paiute Indian name for bulrushes, which we had collected from a marsh (complete with mosquitoes) a few days before, some velvety-soft buckskin which had started out as stiff, hairy hides a few days before, and I made cordage out of dogbane (Indian hemp) while we talked. Jim Riggs made a fire for him the next morning by twirling cattail stalk between his palms on a 'hearth' or a platform of clematis vine, in something less than five minutes. Hard concerntrated work. I tried it the next day, and didn't quite succeed, though I came close twice. If i hadn't been sitting out in the hot sun with cameras trained on me, I might have tried harder. . . .
"It's interesting, to the native peoples, it was not barren, desolate country. They were not impoverished, though they had few possessions. To them, it was like walking through their own supermarket. Everything they needed was there, just for the taking . . . they spent no more than a average of 2-3 hours a day on subsistence activities. That included making the tools and implements as well as gathering and processing the food they needed and the clothing and shelter. The rest of the time was leisure: Playing, resting, gossiping, philosophizing, telling stories, whatever, and we think we do well with an eight-hour day!"
And, finally, my friend at Brownstone Publishers, Inc. received a large, bulky, brown manila envelope in the mail recently. Coming from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it bore the following legend on the outside: Notice: Hazardous Waste Activity. Inside were two imposing booklets, one of them the reproduction of the federal regulations for the identification of hazardous wastes, the other beginning formidably, "Your organization has been identified as one which may possibly handle hazardous wastes. . . ." Brownstone is not so paranoid as to think they are the only publishers to receive this intimidating packet, but they are wondering whether the so-called hazardous wastes refer to arsenic-bearing sludges, mercury-bearing sludges, or books in general.