Friday, September 25, 2009

Six Degrees to Humpty Dumpty

When I was discussing reviewing Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed with publicist Lisa Roe, she mentioned that the author's publisher's father (are you still with me?) represented Ray Bradbury in his early career. Of course, I have a bit of a Bradbury connection (see 451 Fridays), so when she asked if I would be interested in a guest post from the publisher, I said of course!

So, for your reading pleasure, the twisty road that led one publisher to a book. Enjoy!


(or How a Small Press in Tucson, Arizona became the Publisher for “the First Truly Wonderful Hip-Hop Noir,” the Genre-Busting First Novel by Marc Blatte, HUMPTY DUMPTY WAS PUSHED)

The story behind the story begins many years ago when, in 1948, my father John Schaffner set up shop as a literary agent in New York City in a walkup on Third Avenue and 55th street above a seafood shop. At forty-five, he had previously worked as fiction editor at Good Housekeeping, and before that Collier’s—a publication, which along, with the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly was known for promoting new writers, among whom was Ray Bradbury. Later, my dad was to represent him in placing some of his early stories to magazines.

Over the years, my father went on to a lively and successful career as a literary agent, and was particularly known for ushering forth the new breed of cookbook writers, among them James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Richard Olney and Helen Evans Brown, the author of the West Coast Cookbook and friend of Julia Child. (And, speaking of Julia Child, you can find a mention of my father in her memoir, “My Life in France,” on p. 232: “While in Washington, I had met with John Valentine Schaffner, a New York literary agent who represented James Beard and Mrs. Brown of ‘the Browns,’ among others.”)

I began work at my father’s agency at the tender age of twenty-three, recently graduated from college, with a degree in English, and somewhat clueless as to what I was going to do with it. I had a vague idea of becoming an editor; I first worked as a summer intern for New Directions, a small press that has published a kaleidoscopic array of brilliant writers from Tennessee Williams, to Dylan Thomas, Thomas Merton, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound—you name it, and then found myself working as a galley slave in the accounting department at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, for the next few months, the less said of that experience the bette. At this point, my dad invited me aboard, saying that I could come work for him, or take a slow boat to China.

I figured the slow boat would have to wait; and, looking back, as it turned out, my father was extremely ill at that time, and had only a few months left to live; so, I would have no doubt turned back somewhere in the middle of the Pacific anyway. Long story short, I began work assisting agent Barney Karpfinger (who worked at the agency then, and who has since gone on to be a successful agent), and helped to pick up the pieces after the sudden death of my father’s business partner, Victor Chapin, a literary agent who was also, as it happens, my godfather. Victor, a former actor, was also a novelist and music critic, among his clients was an author of noir fiction named Andrew Vachss. When the manuscript of Andrew’s first novel fell in my lap, titled then FLOOD’S FLOWER, later amended to simply FLOOD, I knew that here was a writer delving into something different. However, it did not befall to me to finally get his work published; there was a curious resistance to his work among the editors to whom I submitted the novel, who it deemed it too dark and violent. But, it opened my eyes to the genre that until then had been dominated by earlier titans, like Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard but which had yet been tested by new blood. Nevertheless, this early venture into the genre fostered a love of noir fiction, both as publisher and as a reader.

Another client of my father’s who stayed on through the transition that followed after he passed away in 1983, was Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of the National Book Award winner CHINA MEN, and the American Book Award winner, THE WOMAN WARRIOR: A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. These books have been a mainstay of contemporary literature, not only for their portrayal of the immigrant experience, but also for their category-defying blend of autobiography and jaw-droppingly beautiful poetic prose. My father had submitted her first work, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, to over a dozen publishers before finally finding her a home with Knopf. I remember how proud he was of her, and how he staunchly defended her crossover style: when people asked him if it were fiction or non-fiction, he would retort: What difference does it make?

This brings me to where I am now, having worked as an agent for a dozen years, and then as a classroom teacher in public and charter schools, and now, back in books with my own publishing company, Schaffner Press, which I founded in 2001. I first starting reprinting works of non-fiction, some of which had been out of print. Among these titles was an astounding memoir titled THE LOST CHILDHOOD by Yehuda Nir, an account of his experiences as a Jewish boy in Warsaw, living in hiding from the Germans during WWII. This book, originally published in the late 80’s is a classic of Holocaust literature as well as a first-rate memoir; I have had the privilege of reprinting it and seeing it take on a new life as it continues to sell over the years. And, it was thanks to Dr. Yehuda Nir that HUMPTY DUMPTY WAS PUSHED came to me, or more specifically, the friendship that developed between Yehuda’s daughter and Marc’s daughter at a weekend riding stable, and the bond that formed between these two “dressage” dads, which occasioned Yehuda’s recommendation to Marc that he send his novel to me.

Tim Schaffner/September, 2009

1 comment:

Violet said...

Thanks for the guest post, it's interesting to know how books come to publishers, you'll never know what a friendship between 2 daughters could lead to :)