A Writer's Experience


I wrote the first version of the book as a member of a writing workshop at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Each week the instructor read two or three pieces of work submitted by students, after which he and we critiqued them. To enable us to talk honestly, the author was never identified. I submitted a chapter every week or two. My efforts were returned with helpful criticism and encouraging comments. However, my work was never once read to the group during the two terms I was a member of the workshop.

When I finished the book, the instructor took the manuscript and gave it to a well-established and widely respected New York literary agency. A few weeks later, I received a letter from the literary agent, calling me a talented writer. She also said, ". . .your book has a good deal of potential but also has some problems." After enumerating them, she concluded that she would be "very receptive to reading the revised novel," or my next book. I should have been gratified. Instead I was upset and disappointed. It had taken me two years to finish the manuscript, and I couldn’t face rewriting it. I showed the letter to my instructor who said, "You like it; I like it; that’s two to one. Forget them." And that’s what I did.

I didn’t realize it then, but with this decision, I committed several disastrous errors of judgment. I simply did not understand

1. That it is difficult for an unknown author to get a literary agent to represent her, and almost impossible for a top-flight agent, like the one I rejected, to look at the work of an unknown and unpublished author.

2. That good literary agencies recognize problems in a manuscript, know what will sell and what won’t and will therefore deal honestly with writers, who are their bread and butter.

3. That it’s a lot easier to have a book published if one has an agent, that it is the exception not the rule for an author to publish without an agent, especially an unknown, first-time author.

I was no longer a member of the workshop and did not have regular contact with the instructor. He had implied that he would find another literary agent for me, but although it was clearly my responsibility to do so, I did not pursue this possibility and ceased contact with him. One of my problems was that I could not understand why the literary agent and my instructor, whose reputation as an outstanding teacher I concurred with and whose classes always had waiting lists, disagreed on the merit of my work. Today, I believe I have at least a clue. The horrors of the Holocaust were incomprehensible. Details of Nazi cruelty were not then widely known. People were in awe of survivors and their stories. What had happened to these Jews was outside of normal experience. The details overwhelmed many people. Perhaps my instructor may have had difficulty coping with my Holocaust history and did not apply his usual critical standards to my book. Perhaps this was also why my work was never read in his class. While I believed at the time that the literary agent made an honest mistake when she referred to my manuscript as a novel, later I wondered whether she could not imagine that the horrific events I related had actually happened. Early on, a personal friend recommended the manuscript to a lecturer at one of the City Colleges who was beginning to specialize in Holocaust literature and is today prominent in the field. The lecturer replied she would read the manuscript, and presumably try to get it published, if I were willing to let her write a preface. I didn’t think my book needed a preface. So I made another mistake and declined her offer.

I began sending the manuscript directly to publishers, beginning with the major houses and then proceeding to smaller and specialized publishers. My submissions were always technically correct. They included an outline and one or two chapters. They were typed using only one side of the page, double spaced, each sheet numbered and bearing my name and a header. My covering letter was as brief, and I always included a stamped self-addressed return envelope. I acquired a sizeable collection of rejection letters. Some were personal notes, but most were well-drafted form letters.

While I was still writing the book, I met a retired FBI agent who confided that he had written a book about his experiences at the agency. Unable to find a publisher, he relegated his manuscript to the top shelf of a storage closet. I was aghast that he had given up on "his baby." And yet I eventually did exactly that. Not only did I become discouraged, but I was at long last earning my living as a writer. Following years as the unpaid newsletter editor of every organization of which I was a member and writing literature for almost every political campaign in which I was involved, I spent five years as a reporter and feature editor at The Riverdale Press, winning several prizes for my articles. In 1985 I joined the press office of the Comptroller of the City of New York.

In 1990, after I moved to England and remarried, my new husband insisted that I resume my efforts to get my book published. Rereading my manuscript ten years on, it was immediately clear that the literary agent was correct in her assessment, so I decided to rework the material. Moreover, in the interim, a great deal of information had become available on the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany. One of the national networks screened a series about a fictional German Jewish family whose travails were reminiscent of my own family’s experiences.

In my revised second version, I scrapped the first ten chapters and started the story with our arrival in Paris in 1939. I reasoned that our story of survival in wartime France had not been told and was more likely to find a publisher than the original version, that was full of now well known events. I sent chapters of the revised version to various British literary agents. A number complimented the work, but refused it on various grounds, for example that they could not take on any more writers or that the subject matter was outside their field. I was ready to cease the effort, when my husband came up with the idea of surveying publishers of Judaica. An editor at a leading Orthodox Jewish publishing house in Brooklyn wrote they were no longer publishing biographical accounts and suggested CIS Publishers, who replied quickly and positively.

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Copyright (c) 1999, Eve Rosenzweig Kugler.  All rights reserved.