The Long, Winding, Booby-Trapped, and Occasionally Rewarding Road to Publication
Lou Mathews on a Hell of a Journey
The road to publication for my first novel was not only long and winding, but also booby-trapped, and in places there was no road, just long empty gaps that could only be filled by time.
I started L.A. Breakdown as a junior at UC Santa Cruz, in 1972. I was old for a junior at 24. Married at 19, a kid at 21, I’d been working as a warehouseman, and college was delayed a few years.
The novel was about street racing, my obsession in high school and for a few years after. The street racing scene in the mid-60s was a nightly carnival, hundreds of races across the 80-mile L.A. basin, from Watts, Compton, Gardena, and Long Beach, north to San Fernando and Pacoima, Burbank, Glendale, and Eagle Rock into the San Gabriel Valley and Downey and Santa Fe Springs. Sometimes for money, sometimes for kicks, or to defend the imaginary honor of your home drive-in. It was a loud nightly drama and a world I thought should be remembered.
I finished the book in 1978 and faced what every first novelist faces: How does a manuscript become a book? I needed an agent. A good and generous friend, Morton Marcus, offered to introduce me to his, George Diskant, a partner of Evarts Ziegler. They were the only two west coast agents who commanded real respect in New York publishing and that was due to their client list and movie sales. Diskant had three principal clients, Evan Hunter, who also wrote as Ed McBain, William Goldman (Princess Bride, Magic, Marathon Man, seven other novels and two Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the Presidents Men) and John D. McDonald, responsible for the color-coded Travis McGee novels, winner of the sole National Book Award given for mystery writing. Heavyweights.
One of Diskant’s junior agents read L.A. Breakdown and liked it. I was signed. The manuscript was set to go out to New York publishers in September. I was asked to come down for a meeting.
Alison and I drove down from Santa Cruz. The offices were at the Beverly Hills end of the Sunset Strip. I parked Alison at the Hamburger Hamlet opposite—where we had our first star sighting, Richard Dreyfuss—and I went to meet my agent.I attempted a collect call to Michael Korda, a man who had recently published a book titled Power! How to Get It. How to Use It, that advocated tall desks and shortening the legs of supplicant’s chairs for a height and authoritative advantage.
The meeting was a blur, Diskant was warm, Evarts Ziegler was courtly. Mostly I remember the woman who had actually read and approved of my work, Patty Detroit. When I thanked her, she said, “You don’t understand. You can really write.” I was bashful, but what registered was that I seemed to be a rarity in her world. I lived on that through some lean years.
The end of the visit came when Diskant handed me a piece of paper with a phone number. “Michael Korda wants to talk to you,” he said. “He’s read the book. He wants you to call him tomorrow.”
Michael Korda was the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster. I had no idea who he was or what that meant. Later, I would learn that he was New York royalty, a friend of Graham Greene, related to the Korda Brothers, English film producers, and nephew of actress Merle Oberon, famous for his deal making, his own best-selling books and ability to finish books for stalled writers.
We were staying with friends, two poets, Killarney Clary and Ralph Angel. I explained what I had to do and asked for the loan of their phone. Since they were as poor as we were, I decided it should be a collect call.
Ahh, the incredible arrogance of young writers. At the appointed time—11 a.m. California, 2 p.m. real time, I attempted a collect call to Michael Korda, a man who had recently published a book titled Power! How to Get It. How to Use It, that advocated tall desks and shortening the legs of supplicant’s chairs for a height and authoritative advantage.
“Will you accept the charges?”
Confusion—I know nothing about this. This is confusing.
I called back on my own loaned nickel to a warm and gracious welcome:
“I’m so sorry … The only person who calls me collect is my son from summer camp and it’s not summer.”
After that we talked about my book and the problems it presented. The basic one was subject matter—street racing, scruffy, working-class kids, a lot of them definitely not white, in the nowhere city of Los Angeles.
Korda said, “How much do you know about the Hard Back Fiction Book Buying Market?” I could feel the caps.
“Not much,” I confessed.
“The numbers don’t favor you. The audience is primarily women, around 75%
(I’m fudging these numbers 45 years later, they could have been higher. ) predominantly college-educated, 70%, overwhelmingly middle to upper-class, 75% and Urban, 70%
“Now, given those demographics, not only is this audience not interested in your characters, they would prefer that they did not exist.”
And then Michael Korda said, “But we can deal with that.”
My education continued.
“As I see it, your book has three main problems that have to be addressed…”
I struggle to remember the first problem, it might have been about my narrator, Fat Charlie, and that he shouldn’t have been fat, or that too much time was spent on technical detail. It wasn’t important. The second was.
“The second problem is that one of your central characters, Vaca, is … How do I put this …”
And I thought what was coming was—You’ve given us a monster, a psychotic asshole, which I would defend.
“Vaca is crippled,” Korda said. “He’s in a wheelchair.”
“Yeah,” I said, “That’s kind of the point. He builds the race car to make himself whole and ..”
“You have to think of the movie rights,” Korda said, “Paul Newman isn’t going to sit around in a wheelchair …”
I didn’t know how to answer that.
“And the third thing is that you have no prime female actor running the length of the book.”
I thought there was and mentioned two, Donna a waitress, and Charlie’s main squeeze for part of the book and my favorite character of all, Connie Ciccarelli, who bears Vaca’s child and reigns over a third of the book.
“No,” Korda said,” They’re secondary, you must have a prime female actor.”
I finally understood what he meant. These were the dying days of the television show Happy Days. They’d gone beyond even jumping the shark and introduced an almost universally loathed character, an attempt at a female Fonz.
I took a shot, “You mean someone like Pinky Tuscadero?”
“Exactly!” Korda said. “A woman who is a street racer, an equal. A rival.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
And after another five minutes, that was where we left it, I would think over his suggestions and get back to him through George Diskant.
Even now, 45 years later, there’s still a dull ache when I think about how easily I turned down that chance. I told Diskant the next day that I couldn’t live with either of Korda’s suggestions. I may have even used the word “integrity.”
But Korda was the first editor I’d heard from. The book was out at a dozen other houses. I was sure there was another editor out there who would understand what I was trying to do.
There wasn’t. The other responses trickled in, nothing above lukewarm, and the unwinding process, agent and client in reverse courtship began. It took me a while to realize how final that “no” was. The book was now tainted.
And I was one of those guys, with a novel in a drawer.
About here I’d like to say, flash forward 20 years. That’s not the way it went.
The dream that ends the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has always haunted me. Our hero contemplates his new briefcase that supposedly contains his college scholarship. He opens the briefcase. Inside is an envelope and inside that another envelope, and another and another. As he tears open each one, he hears his grandfather’s voice, “Them’s years.” He reaches the final envelope, stamped with the state seal. Inside is a document containing a short message in letters of gold, abridged for modern audiences: To Whom it may concern: Keep This Boy Running…
The dream concludes: “I awoke with the old man’s laughter ringing in my ears.”
Any writer, attempting a first novel, without connections or a contract, should be haunted by that dream.
Once in a while, a new envelope would present itself to me. The first two chapters won a Katherine Anne Porter Prize. The judge, Alison Lurie, passed the chapters along to a hustling junior editor at Random House who thought L.A. Breakdown might be her ticket. Wiser heads prevailed. She was informed about regional writing and forced to write the rejection letter for her sins. I kept working as a mechanic and I kept writing. We were living in Los Angeles now so that Alison could go to law school.
Periodically, excerpts would be published, friends would once again express shock and dismay that this wasn’t a book. Shock and dismay eventually got to be a lot like thoughts and prayers. One friend, Carter Wilson, who kept a copy of the manuscript in his guest bathroom thought my book might become legendary samizdat. Three guests had finished the book during their stays.
Meantime, it was now 1985, Alison had finished law school at UCLA, I’d written my way out from under the lube rack and was a full-time free-lance writer and working on an MFA. By 1990 I was teaching year-round in UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. A few envelopes later I’d acquired a Pushcart Prize , a National Endowment Fellowship in Fiction, more publications, more teaching jobs, two novel manuscripts I was working on simultaneously, but still, no book. The manuscript of L.A. Breakdown was now in the basement, along with 20 years of letters to agents, editors and writers. Twenty years of wheedling, promises, groveling and lies; it was the repetition that caused me to wince. Approaching 50, I self-published my first book Just Like James, a short story that had been a hit single—published/anthologized 18 times—along with an essay and a memoir. It wasn’t going to happen any other way.
In 1998, a friend, Gordon Skene, who had been desperately trying to sell his own first novel, had run into the California wall in New York. He started looking abroad, specifically in the U.K. He answered an ad for a British publisher looking for American fiction writers.
He had received a reply, “I would very much like to read your novel.” Gordon sent his manuscript, a fictional account of growing up in L.A. in the ‘60’s Over, Under, Sideways, Down , which appealed in part because the publisher—we’ll call him Bernie Harrads for convenience—was planning to move to Los Angeles to establish his Bi-Coastal (semi-West Coast of England / West Coast of U.S) publishing empire.
He offered Gordon a small advance and asked if Gordon knew of any other worthy west coast novelists. He planned to concentrate on first novels. Gordon gave me a call.
Bernie Harrads was a tall, ruddy somewhat rough-hewn git from Worcestshire, brimming with energy and ideas, and in keeping with a region famous for fish sauce some of the ideas were slightly fishy. To this day I couldn’t tell you whether Bernie Harrads was a con man or a man of vision in over his head.
He rented offices in Redondo Beach and set out to conquer the colonies. His largest idea was a series of first novels—British and American—called Great First Novels. Bernie spent a lot of time interviewing writers. He was always encouraging. More time was spent seeking out ideal hyphenates: writer-investors. Adjacent Palos Verdes seemed to be filled with rich widows and retired doctors needing help on children’s books or memoirs.
I was the second book signed, the only other writer to receive an advance, and my treatment was also different. I could only conclude Bernie was confused enough to think I was connected. He may not have understood the difference between UCLA— the Mother Ship—and UCLA Extension—the galley where I rowed. Or he may have thought that my age and arcane honors made me respectable. And they might have, in Worcester, but this was L.A.
One benefit, editorially, was benign neglect. There was no editorial process. I was left alone to rewrite. Copy-editing was done by a friend, Mia Taylor, who also wrote the jacket copy, and the dust jacket design was done by a neighbor and friend, John Dismukes, which I gladly paid for after seeing some of the proposed designs from the U.K. where hot rods were something beaten out by the village smithy.
The book itself, when it was finally produced, was also a special case. Harrads’ books were printed in Malta, and all of them, except those of the rich widows who were willing to pay extra, and mine, were uniform: short and thin, see-through paper and tiny type. Cut-rate productions.
L.A. Breakdown was a hefty book, with thick creamy paper and large airy type marred only by the cheesy logo that Harrads imposed on the dust jacket. A rampant lion that looked more like a poodle between crossed British and American flags. Below the Poodle / Lion was a banner with a Latin motto: Ut Bona Fabula Narretur—In order that a good story may be told, which, the publisher declared, reflected our belief that tomorrow’s literary heritage depends on investment in today’s writers.
Publication day arrived. I did a bunch of readings, some book festivals, reviews were good, sales may have been good. That end of the business was a bit of a mystery.
The office staff—one receptionist/secretary, one bookkeeper—were sworn to secrecy. A year-end accounting was promised. All would be revealed. Given the chaos of the office and Bernie’s business methods. It was easy to understand why a reckoning might be difficult, but it wasn’t just a matter of how many had been shipped, how many sold. I didn’t even know how many had been printed. There seemed to be copies in the U.K. and perhaps elsewhere.
Meantime, more and more books were being issued, more investors were being courted, and Bernie decided a multi-tentacled approach was called for and set up two writer’s conferences, one in northern California, one in Southern California. I was asked to participate, but on a volunteer basis, and declined. My spot was filled by the receptionist/secretary who became an editor for the weekend.
The standards, for admission to the conference, and for the literary discussions led by Bernie and the new editor, were helium light. Everyone, it was agreed, had a book in them. It would only take good editing and an encouraging editor to make it happen. Both were available.
Then came December 5th, 1999. A day that will live in infamy in the annals of Worcestshire publishing history.
I got an early morning call from a friend, Linda Sandoval. “Have you read the paper yet?” I hadn’t. “Better take a look. You’re in it.”
Back then, the Los Angeles Times Book Review staff did a year-end review, and there, on page six, sandwiched between Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and a new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, was L.A. Breakdown, listed as one of the best works of fiction published that year.
The effect was immediate, and in Redondo Beach, at the publisher’s office, galvanizing. Orders poured in by mail and phone. Libraries across the country used the New York Times and Los Angeles Times year-end selections as reliable guides and bought accordingly.Gradually it began to dawn on us that what we were witnessing, on a small scale, was the plot of Mel Brooks, The Producers.
The staff was excited and busy for the first time, taking orders, packing and shipping. They got to know their mailman. Questions arose—Would more copies be shipped from England? Would a second printing be necessary? Would this mean an eventual paperback?
The effect on Bernie Harrads was curious. At a moment when we expected him to flow into full sales/entrepreneurial mode he became recessive, spending less time in the office, and a startling amount of time walking alone on the beach.
The excitement of the staff had spilled over to some of the other writers, who now had hopes that lightning could strike twice, for the more deserving. Eventually the excitement reached some of the investors.
Gradually it began to dawn on us that what we were witnessing, on a small scale, was the plot of Mel Brooks, The Producers. As long as the operation had been small-time, with few reviews and fewer sales, not much was expected, but with even a minor hit, expectations were raised. The investors came sniffing. The books being discussed were not literary but financial, although the term “fictional” was used with regard to some of the numbers.
Meetings were held, demands were made, lawyers invoked. Within the month, Bernie Harrads fled back to Worcestshire and chaos ensued. The printers in Malta would not deal with the new regime. They refused to give any print run numbers, declined to state whether they held any further stock, and finally refused to speak further.
Bernie Harrads also went silent. The lead investor had inserts printed with the name of the renamed book company, now based in Westlake Village rather than Worcestshire and Redondo Beach, which she pasted into the copyright pages of the remaining books, proving she’d won.
Since the office was now shut down, orders went unfilled, mail was returned to sender and by spring the whole operation was past tense.
We—the authors—were invited to come on a Saturday to the shabby garage in Torrance where the remaining books were stored and take them away. Six of us showed. I took home a little over 200 copies which I sold on Amazon over the next decade, until Amazon threw me out.
And then the final flash forward. 2021. A young editor at Turner Publishing—who co-published my novel Shaky Town under Jim Gavin’s imprint Tiger Van Books, asked the question you want to hear from an editor. “You got anything else?” I went to the basement and dusted off a copy of L.A. Breakdown. Handed it to him. “Here is a book that was born to be a paperback,” I said. “It’s about illegal street racing in Los Angeles.” He bought the book and one other but has since moved on to edit science writing. He has a family to support and learned a lot sooner than I did that fiction, unlike crime and science, doesn’t pay.