Betty and The Book Clubs
Three years ago, a friend gave the book I wrote to her friend, a famous literary agent we’ll call “Betty.” It was a big favor, and a long shot. I wasn’t even really a writer; Betty’s writers won Pulitzers.
But I had spent many years working in publishing, marketing both children’s and adult books. In the case of the latter, there were more titles like “Cats on Parade” and “Dreams and You” than I could shake a stick at. My story, on the other hand, was unique. It was heart stopping. It was unimaginable, and yet, it was real.
Mine was a “story-to-end-all-stories.” I felt it in my bones.
Three days later, a number surfaced on my cell phone I thought was the dentist, and ignored. Later I learned it was “Betty” the big agent, calling to say, “We love your book! Call me back!”
I didn’t call “Betty” back before playing her message repeatedly to make sure I was standing in my house holding my iPhone, my name was Maggie, today was Friday, and a really big agent –who’d received my book only days before – was telling me she liked, no she’d loved my book!
It was every writer’s dream.
Then again, my story was every mother’s nightmare.
In 1990, I was married to a man I thought “perfect”: a rising star journalist, a loving, attentive spouse, a doting father. John went to the office every day while I stayed home with our two-year-old child, and was pregnant with another. Highlights of my lovely life included running with my mom posse through our charming old world streets of Hoboken and, now and again, validating my Masters in Dance by staging local musicals.
One highlight John and I shared was to, every Thursday night at 10:00, snuggle up on the couch, turn on the TV, and watch Thirtysomething.
Thirtysomething was our This is Us. Like John and me, the show’s Michael and Hope were hip, well-educated, upwardly mobile young parents who savored fine wine while wrestling the problems of whiny kids, work-life frustrations, inter-faith differences and the perpetual need for more space.
Nothing we couldn’t handle, if John just felt better. Lately he’d been dealing with recurring petty annoyances like skin rashes, digestive discomfort, a hacking cough and a limp. And he was always tired.
When the doctors diagnosed “stress,” it made perfect sense. Eliot on Thirtysomething ran his own ad agency, and was stressed to the max. John, managing ten reporters at a major newspaper, was stressed to the max. Who among us YUPPIES, wanting it all, living the life, weren’t stressed to the max?
Still, I resolved, once this second baby came, I’d make things easier on John. Get a job, or something.
But when that baby came, John stayed home from work for two weeks to help but lacked the energy to get up off the couch. One evening soon after he returned to the office, he collapsed in a restaurant, feverish and disoriented.
One day later, he was hospitalized.
One day after that, he was diagnosed with AIDS.
You see where I had a story?
In 1990 AIDS, otherwise known as “The Gay Plague,” was a raging epidemic. 170,000 mostly homosexual men had been infected, with 30,000 dead. Counted among them was matinee idol Rock Hudson, Queen front man Freddie Mercury, preppie designer Perry Ellis, also perhaps, sadly, your brother, cousin, uncle, college buddy, office mate, and the guy who starred with you in the school play.
Not your husband. Not the father of your babies. Not the man you married you thought was straight.
The next day, in a doctor’s office overflowing with sick men, I was the lone woman taking an AIDS test.
Suddenly, whiny kids and lack of space weren’t problems, and TV’s Thirtysomething wasn’t us. Suddenly, our marriage wasn’t us. And John was…?
The real story of what happened in the next twenty inexorably secretive years, of how it felt to be a woman and mother isolated and silenced by her closeted husband’s unmentionable, mostly homosexual men’s disease, was one I’d firmly kept in lockdown.
In fact, “Betty” wasn’t the first publishing honcho interested in making my story a book. Just days after John died, a hot editor, picking up on some intel about his demise had chased me down and dangled a big advance for the rights for my “tell all.” (With two small children to raise, I needed the money so bad, I could taste it.)
But were the money offered the sale price of Mar-a-Lago, I would be saying – nothing. Though John had miraculously not infected the children and me with HIV, if people discovered what killed him, they’d think we had AIDS, too.
On my watch, there would be no story. No one could know.
Now, two decades later, those kids were in college and beyond. People were surviving AIDS. Rainbow hued flags flew high everywhere – people were coming out in droves, telling their truths. It was high time for mine, as well.
High time for me to free myself from my crippling, unresolved feelings of shame and anger, to try and forgive John, and move on.
To take fully five years to write the story had been freeing. Now, to publish it, would be a dream realized.
Now, here was one of America’s top literary agents, “Betty,” to make that possible! Trembling with anticipation, I dialed her back. She took my call right away. Even before I could say “Hello,” she lauded my book as “Terrific – a truly unique tale for women,” but then gushed an apology that, as a new author, she couldn’t personally take me on – would I mind holding on for her “Wonderful colleague, Anne?”
“Anne” was wonderful, indeed – wonderfully smart, literate, and hard working, but also wonderfully young – too young, in fact, to feel the impact of AIDS in my life, and in the world of the early Nineties. The editors to whom she pitched the book for publishing fit her description, and weren’t feeling it, either. Weren’t feeling it; weren’t buying it.
Comments from their rejection emails, (gone are the days of storied rejection letters perfect for lining your bathroom walls) still smart, such as, “This is dated. Isn’t AIDS over?” and “Isn’t she too angry?”
It took nine months for these young publishers to render my story-to-end-all-stories dead-in-the-water; about the same time it took for AIDS to kill John. (And I can’t say the question of his ghost at play didn’t come to mind.)
Speaking of ghosts, so utterly devastated was I by this patent rejection of my future bestseller, for weeks afterward I was a veritable zombie stalking the B&N shelves, my glassy eyes staring down rows of volumes about “Cats, “Dreams” and what have you, my cracked lips muttering, “How could they not love my book?” Why, I had written the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, life-altering story–to-end-all…. Why, my book, it was – “A morality tale for the ages!” “A poignant story of love, hate and forgiveness!” “A moving portrayal of sexual fluidity, then – and now!” “One woman’s courageous struggle!” “A unique snapshot of the hidden victims of The AIDS Crisis: Women!”
I became the master of writing reviews that would never happen, of my book that would never happen.
And then, I shut down. Stopped writing. Put all the papers, newspaper clips, love letters, photos and sky-high hopes away.
That is, until my book club saved me.
The seven women with whom I met once a month to discuss books were among the few privy to my story and its nuances during the lockdown years. (I mean, are there really any secrets among women who boozily discuss books – often concerning themes of homosexuality and AIDS – long into the night for eighteen years running?) When I threw in the towel on publishing my story, they were noticeably alarmed. “Your book is good,” they insisted. “Make it happen. Even if you have to self-publish.”
And so, last December, with a modest budget, almost no fanfare, no agent, and zero expectations I did just that, publishing NOW EVERYONE WILL KNOW, the story of my young husband dying of AIDS, and my path toward honesty, forgiveness, and moving on.
What happens when you resurrect your dream of publishing a bestseller, whittling down your expectations for your book to just about nothing?
You’re in shock when people start to read it, that’s what. Soon after my book showed up for sale on Amazon, scores of women began contacting me to say they’d not only read it, but that, what had happened to me, had happened to them. (Something they’d “never told anyone before.” I could relate.)
Other women contacted me to tell me that reading my book took them back to where they were in the early Nineties, flooding them with memories.
Some told me they also knew, all too well, the imprisonment of secrets.
Some invited me to their book clubs, in the next town over, Colorado, L.A., and points in between – at homes, libraries, synagogues, churches – Pilates studios.
And at these book clubs meetings I was thrilled to see that, far exceeding my greatly reduced expectations, for each person, my book meant something. Not, as I naively first saw it, as an epic “story-to-end-all-stories.” But as one that talked to them where they lived. That made a difference in their lives. That motivated them to think, feel, and share those feelings.
Take away “Betty,” who calls you back in three days. Take away the agents, publishers and others who tell you what you can or can’t say, and when you should or shouldn’t say it – what you should or shouldn’t write.
Take them all away, and what you’ve got is the chance to finally say it, and say it where it matters.
Which, in the end, is actually what you’ve needed all along.