390. Pilgrim Son (2)

Continuing Pilgrim Son from yesterday —

Masters dictated an outline of Brutal . . . and sent that with the first two chapters. Dial Press, who had asked for Brutal . . .  in the first place, was impressed, but wanted another reading. Two weeks later, they passed on the book.

Masters was not like you and me; he had friends in high places, so he could find out what went wrong. It turned out that a famous publisher had advised them not to publish anything by an ex-British Indian officer, and they caved to pressure.

Nothing personal, but your book does not meet our current needs. Does that sound familiar?

Masters returned to what he had written, and found it different than any book of its type and better than most. He decided to finish it and send it on its rounds to publishers on spec.

He finished it. He sent it out. It came back. He sent it out again —

As is the manner of things in publishing, rejections began to pile up. A friend of Masters’ gave this advice: (page 127)

A writer’s time is always valuable. If you don’t write anything, I can’t sell anything.  While Brutal is going around the publishers, you should be starting something else. . . .  Why don’t you write a novel? You could, you know.

Master’s says, “The writing of Brutal . . . had given me confidence that the mere mass of works in a full-length book was nothing to be afraid of.”

I offer you that quote here for the express purpose of adding, “AMEN!” Spirit Deer did that for me.

As usual, Masters approached the question with deep thought. Write a novel, or become a novelist? It isn’t exactly the same thing. Masters was looking of interesting work to fill the rest of his life, and provide security for his family. Writing one novel would not further that end. Becoming a novelist — producing novel after novel — would.

He would become a novelist, but what kind. He wrestles with this for many pages, starting on 128, before he decides what we already know. He will write historical novels about India, from the viewpoint of Brits who are half inside and half outside the culture of India. By page 138, he is ready to say:

I listed thirty-five areas of conflict about which I felt I could write novels. They covered the whole period from 1600 to 1947. Taken as a whole, they would present a large canvas of the British period in India. The British would be in the foreground, as they had been in actuality, yet I thought the canvas would show how they were controlled by their environment — India — even while they were ostensibley directing it.

(to provide unity to the project) . . . I thought that the only course left open to me was to put into the foreground of each book some member of a single continuing family.

And that is exactly what he did, through more than twenty novels.

Through all this, and other chapters besides, he interrupts his memoir with short paragraphs like:

John Day rejected Brutal. They said they already had a writer on Oriental subjects. . . .  and  . . . Little, Brown rejected Brutal. It was very well written and eminently readable, they said, but the couldn’t think what category to publish it in, as it contained elements of travel, belles-lettres, adventure, and military history, as well as autobiography.

I also remember those days of frustration. Now rejection slips are kind, vague, and always contain something like, “not for us, but try elsewhere.”  They do not cause hurt feelings, but they also don’t give any useful feedback.

Back in the day, I was once turned down on an outline that my agent was excited about, because the novel, on the subject of Shah Jehan’s reign, was “too Indian”. Imagine that. A novel about historical India that was too Indian. Another novel was highly praised by a publisher, who ended by saying, “But I can’t take it because men’s adventure books are no longer selling.”

Maybe its better when we don’t know why.  Pilgrim Son review continues tomorrow.


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