Javascotia is where it all started for me.
This was a dream come true, to publish with a major house, and experience the support of the generous professionals who got behind my work. Professor Willy Maley at Glasgow University took a liking to the story I submitted in application for the school’s MLitt in Creative Writing program; he acted with keen and friendly interest in my development as a writer in his role as Advisor; and well before it had earned one, he gave Javascotia a recommendation to an editor.
Willy also enjoyed a pint, and kept me alert with great jokes such as his claim that he’d sang back up on some Rod Stewart songs. Unbelievably, when I grew discouraged he had Alasdair Gray sign 4 or 5 editions of his books, and he shipped them to me, with no provocation. This was a few years after I’d graduated from the program. Remarkable. When he came to Minneapolis for a conference, of course, we met up at Nye’s Polonaise Room.
Meanwhile, the editor that Willy recommended me to, was Judy Moir, who had worked at a Canongate until the arrival of Jamie Byng. (A hit of literary dirt there for you, folks, as Moir and Byng didn’t see eye-to-eye.) Anyway, as if I hadn’t been the beneficiary of enough good fortune, Moir did the improbable for me: after reading the only 25,000 words of my novel, she asked me for more, and remained in touch with me for 3 years while I completed the book.
These are my Javascotia memories that I will cherish forever. I’m eternally grateful these two persons who made a life in literature more possible than it had ever been before. I credit myself with being hungry enough to make it happen somehow—but who knows, in this crazy industry.
Now, there is as I see it nothing to lose in stating the plain facts around the production of Javascotia. There was an economic recession in fall of 2007, and mere moments after offering me a written contract to buy the worldwide rights, Judy’s role at HamishHamilton was ended. She was let go. She had worked out of an office in Edinburgh, on a mission to bring to the market fictional works set in Scotland, addressing Scottish issues, and exploring issues of Scottish national identity. (The last of these being the element that she found interesting in my American take on Scottish culture, people, and the ways of Brits, etc.) Now, that mission was done.
For me it was kind of like that Seinfeld episode, when George wonders if a woman dating him was the factor that drove her to “play for the other team.” Judy spends money on my work and is immediately dispatched. Hmm.
Despite Moir’s departure, Penguin kept up their end of the bargain. I signed in November of 2007 and was put on the Spring 2009 catalog.
I was blown away to be on an imprint that was the British publisher of such writers as Zadie Smith, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, Dr. Seuss, Alain de Botton, J.S. Foer, and two of my idols—John Updike and David Foster Wallace. Wow. I definitely took a screenshot of the press’ author page at one time, where all these mugs smiled in a grid, along with me. We were like members of a big literary Brady Bunch.
In London, assigned to other editorial and publicity personal, my manuscript was allotted a lot of funds for multiple rounds of editing, which I am grateful for. They made coasters to go with the coffee theme, and had me write cross-promotional pieces for the Guardian. It got attention from a copy editor, of course, and checked for Scottish place names and dialect. I also scorched thirty thousand words.
Judy had told me of her plans for shaping my MS, fading out Mel’s fixation on the language differences, for example, and making the book shorter. She said to me once that I could express a wish to Juliette Mitchell, my new editor, that she be the one to edit it. But for some reason I did not say that to Penguin. I wish I had. The only explanation I can think of is that I must have felt I was not entitled to make such a request, lest I come off as a demanding, difficult author.
The book had been slated for publication in hardcover. Someone in the company decided to cut costs and downgraded the cover to a cardstock cover.
So. There were some favorable reviews. Some readers reached out to me to say they enjoyed the work. I gave a reading or two. I recall an email from an agent at my London agency at the time saying he had been sleepless during the night, and had finished reading Javascotia in wee hours, warmly engrossed in Mel’s sad plight, the action through the Highlands, the revelations of family, etc.
Getting a novel published with one of the world’s top literary publishers enables people to believe that you know how to teach fiction writing. Of course, I did other editorial work by day for many years. But, hired to teach workshops on the strength of this important credential (and a few story publications), I began said teaching at The Loft. This experience enabled me to teach at Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC, and only after learning, in the trenches, over the course of ten years, how to teach well, did I go freelance, and have the career that I do now, with Aspiring Writer Syndrome.
And for that, I’m immensely grateful. Thanks, Javascotia!