Every actor knows that an onstage line or gesture that will bring down the house one night, may fall dead the next. An audience response can be utterly unpredictable. And so it often is with readers. For years I’ve wondered why the E.P.Dutton editor who rejected my YA novel the first go-round–accepted it two years later. When I asked, she murmured something about “enhanced characterization.” Yet I hadn’t changed a word. My teenage daughter, on whom I’d modeled my protagonist, had resubmitted it without my knowing. Did the editor have an upset stomach the day of the first reading?
There is no way, it seems, to anticipate a reader’s reaction. When my daughter Lesley married a young man with whom she’d already lived several months, I published a story in Yankee Magazine called “The Bride Wore a Broomstick” (in college she’d belonged to a coven). My friends thought the story hilarious. A neighbor stopped me in the PO with a pious face: “You told all your family secrets,” she said, wagging a finger. “How could you?”
I put these and other tales into a family memoir in which I used real names of friends and neighbors (naively)without written permission, and luckily no one sued. The book was a particular success in our Vermont Bookshop, probably because people thought they might be in it. But I was unprepared for the response of my oldest child: “Not a true word in it,” he announced his friends–“Mother’s written another novel.”
But the most bizarre reaction came out of an ancestral story. I’d married an 8th-generation Vermonter whose great-grandfather was expelled from our local church because of an unsavory lawsuit. It seems Victor Wright inherited a Merino Sheep farm, along with 500 acres of land and almost as many sheep, that made the young bachelor a magnate for women. One was Marietta, his childhood girlfriend; the other was Anna Mae, an impoverished widow in her early thirties. She wooed Victor with moonlight suppers and nocturnal treats–how could he resist? She spread it all over town that they were engaged. But as she pushed for a wedding date, Vic ran scared. One night he popped the question to Marietta, pleaded not guilty to an engagement with the widow, and together they posed the banns on the church door for a fall wedding. Anna Mae was not pleased.
So she hired a lawyer cousin and sued for breach of promise. To everyone’s surprise, she won the suit, and as settlement: a portion of Victor’s meadowland of her choosing. The lawyer advised her to wait until August when the corn was full; by measuring the height of the stalks, one could then tell which part of the land was the most fertile. But Victor didn’t wait. In May he and his hired man located the rockiest strip by the Lemon Fair river and dumped cartloads of rich, black, rotted manure onto it, ready for planting. In August, Anna Mae gazed with awe at the gorgeous crop of corn, a head higher than the rest and said, “Mine!” Victor pretended to grieve over the loss of his “best” acreage, but exalted the following spring when, as usual, the river overflowed, washing away the manure, and there it was: twenty acres of rock ledge. His delighted friends called it Petticoat Strip.
Amused by the caper, I sent off a short story entitled Petticoat Strip to The Saturday Evening Post. It was rejected by an editor named Julie Nixon Eisenhower–shortly after her dad had to resign the presidency; her husband happened to be the grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower. I was so pleased with the rejection that I entered a contest in Writer’s Digest for “Best Rejection Slip.” I won, and the letter was printed in the magazine. A week later WD forwarded the following missive:
Dear Nancy Means Wright: I am a prisoner in Atticus State Prison. I saw about your Strip story in the Dijest. I am ofering you the opportunity to tell my life, you sound like the one to do it. I been through it all, beleive me, booze, brake-ins, abduction, you name it. I hope to get out in a few years but for now we can colaborate by mail or you could interview me here . You get 15%. I’ll expect yur anser. Send details. Sincerly, Ron G…
I sent Ron a polite rejection letter, but admittedly, I was anxious about his reaction to my rejection. I was pregnant at the time, and didn’t want an angry felon knocking on my door. Now, though, with a little invention, I might turn the unpublished Petticoat Strip story into a murder mystery.