My life in publishing Part I
When I was in third grade I put together a group of carefully selected poems-one to my broken arm-"I say goodbye to you my friend, you white villain of plaster. I say goodbye to you my friend, this is from your master." I called it The Collected Works of MaryEllen Moynahan which was really hard ball because I never, ever answered to the christened name. My parents expressed some delight at this feat of self-publishing so I quickly followed up with a short story that embraced every cliche I had ever heard-"They were two ships, passing in the night..." They jeered and I was effectively squelched.
In high school I submitted poetry and short stories to the very lofty literary publication, Cymbals. Everything was promptly rejected. Finally, in senior year they published my poem about death. The only line I remember is, "Sleep is waiting, her arms outstretched, singing her song, weaving her shroad." It was truly emo. My parents didn't say much. They understood that my adolescent self-pity was affecting my literary life and ignored it all.
In college I wrote massive amounts of things in notebooks. I had a series of bad boyfriends who wanted to write and modeled themselves after Bukowski, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Rimbeau, Dylan. Totally unoriginal. They typed things together and read them aloud while I sat in the other room filling up more notebooks. Finally, in senior year, I took a creative writing class and was told I should submit things. I did not. My father was a writer, I had met many famous writers, I was not one of them. I was going to be an actress and then drink myself to death.
After several years in San Francisco where I did very little acting and tons of drinking and drugs, I crawled back to the east coast and auditioned for the New Jersey Shakespeare Company run by a notorious sadist named Paul Barry. At age 25 I was accepted as an apprentice and handed a hammer. We who were not talented formed something called FOST, the Federation of Set Technicians. We smoked pot and placed mylar on this massive grid that Mr. Barry wanted to hang above a set. I wrote in my notebooks. One day the Technical director borrowed my car, got stuck somewhere and started reading the pile of college lined books in the backseat. "You're a writer," she said to me when she returned. "You're an amazing writer."
Uh huh, I said. I took all the notebooks out of the car.
I finally stopped drinking. I continued to attend auditions in New York and get really small and ridiculous roles and then my eldest sister was killed. Life stopped. I became emeshed in a depression that was breathtaking. It was absolutely impossible to stop grieving. I met someone, married him, started drinking again and had a brief interlude of violence which led to sobriety. This time it was real.
First, there was nothing. Just meetings and ice cream and sadness and weird crushes on convicted embezzlers and famous people and more meetings and horrible conversations with my family.
"Do you want wine?"
"No, I'm an alcoholic."
"That's right. How's it going?"
I wrote nothing. I got a job in publishing and was paid $12,000. Or maybe less. It was dull and sort of demeaning but also cool. One editor was absolutely lovely and kind while the other was a bastard. However, he was surrounded by friends dying of AIDS and quite, quite brilliant. The only one left from that circle is Edmund White. The rest all died of AIDS. Hilton Als, now a senior writer for The New Yorker, was our messenger. I sometimes spoke to famous people on the phone and generally life was sweet. There were huge parties that we crashed and stole bread and lied about our identities. Occasionally my father would ask what I was doing with my life. But no one knew I was a writer.
I started dating a writer for ROLLING STONE and he had the worst writer's block of anyone I'd ever met in my life. He was under contract to write a book about the history of punk and he was like 2 years past the deadline. He was best friends with this major honcho in publishing who had been the youngest editor for Rolling Stone and used to edit Hunter Thompson. She called me up and asked me to come work for her so I quit my job and went to work at an even bigger publishing house where I became an assistant editor and was paid maybe $14,000 but I had an expensive account and so I kept taking people out to lunch and eating enough for dinner.
She was evil in a way that people in the 80s were evil, dishonest, seductive, brilliant and terrible. She stole my ideas and promised to introduce me to Sam Shepard and Bruce Springsteen but she never did. I showed her a few things I'd written and she dubbed them cute. Finally, she did something really bad and I confronted her and she fired me.
"Maybe you can go write that novel," she said, leaning against my cubicle doorway in a $10,000 suit.
I didn't do that right away. First I went slightly beserk and had like 50 interviews with all the people that hated her and I got on unemployment and I took a few horrendous jobs and I cried and made speeches at meetings about acceptance and I told all the writers I worked with about it and they were sorry and suggested I start writing. Start writing, everyone said. Well, I'd never actually stopped. So, I sat at the typewriter and I started taking things out of those notebooks. Those things were pretty raw and the one I kept when Catherine died left me in a heap. However, I didn't have anything else to do except work in this terrible Fish Restaurant where the cooks threw fish at you. I wrote and wrote and cried and wrote and soon I had 250 pages of something.
One day I ran into this nice agent who I had taken out to lunch and she asked me what I was doing.
"Writing something," I said.
"A novel?"she asked.
"Maybe," I said. "No."
"How long is it?"
"Can I see it?"
So, I sent it to her. Typewritten 250 pages. She called and said she liked it but I should change certain things. Small things but they affected everything. So I rewrote the entire book,
making corrections on the hard copy, typed it again (slowly) and gave it to her. She wanted more changes. Did it all over again. She said okay.
"Yes. Now, we'll submit it."
"To a publisher?"
I didn't tell anyone.