The one question almost every writer (and illustrator) I know gets asked is: How did you get published? The obvious answer is that it is a different scenario for each and every writer.
In the next series of blog posts I am going to attempt to chronicle my own publishing story. Most likely the telling will weave back and forth in time (as I remember specific details that I may have left out as I am furiously, frantically typing).
Note: A good “background” story as to my first leanings to becoming a writer can be read in my autobiographical novel based on one of my journals that I wrote when I was 17 years old. (I still have my first journal that I wrote when I was 12 years old). The novel is titled: 4″ by Gabe Hooton. I chose to write and publish this edgy, quirky, darkly humorous, compelling narrative under one of my pen name in order to avoid any conflict of interest with my children’s books.
If you like you can read 4″ in Amazon’s kindle store. It’s a fast paced, in-the-moment, breathless kind of storytelling.
4″ basically covers the latter half of my senior year in high school. It is the first book in a trilogy: 4″, 8″, 12″. The three books cover exactly one year in my life and how my life drastically changed when I went off to college and Europe when I was 17 and 18 years old.
The first thing you should keep in mind when reading my publishing saga is the fact that I pretty much have always known I would be/wanted to be a writer (my mother’s dream for me was to be a waiter in a fancy restaurant—one letter in a word can make all the difference in the world: waiter or writer. I knew that being a waiter in any restaurant was NOT my ultimate goal in life.
I am the first person in my family to go off to college. All through junior high and high school I thought of little else except getting into a good university and begin pursuing my goals in earnest.
Note: I had written out my “Life Plan” when I was 12 years old. I am one of the most focused and determined people you might ever meet or want to meet. Or NOT want to meet!
From that very first trip to Europe in January 1972 everything that I saw, experienced, ate, smelled affected my life and goals in a dramatic and momentous fashion.
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 1975 and ventured off to the west coast to work on my master’s.
I moved to Philadelphia in April 1976 after a disastrous love affair that nearly did me in (that is another story altogether). I chose Philadelphia for two reasons: 1) to be closer to my mother who had remarried and was living in a suburb of Philadelphia called Drexel Hill and 2) to be within commuting distance of New York City without having to actually live there.
In July 1976 I met a handsome young architect (10 years older than me) named Ed and pursued him hard until he relented. I told him: “I know you don’t love me, but trust me, you’ll get used to me.” He did. I was 22 years old.
Ed’s influence on me was profound. He is one of the most intelligent, intellectual, ivy-league educated people I know. We are complete opposites in that he is very quiet, hardly talks, and is even more focused than I am. He was a challenge. He was also very talented.
Note: I use the past tense for some odd reason. Ed is still in my life. We own Henwoodie together and have lived together for almost 40 years now! We are no longer partners, but we are family.
Because of Ed’s influence on me I applied to, and was accepted, into the master’s program/doctoral program at the University of Virginia (where Ed had earned his degree in architecture). I did not want to be an architect but I do love architecture, art history, and design and it seemed like the route I should go.
However…I was in a brand new relationship and I was torn between returning to graduate school (even for a few years) or remaining in Philadelphia and being in a happy, productive relationship. I chose the latter and have no regrets whatsoever.
My reasoning was that I could always pursue a profession anywhere at any time, but I wasn’t so certain I would ever be as successful in a relationship. My #1 Life Plan Rule is: My relationship and the person I love always comes first in any and all things. My #2 Life Plan Rule is: My career always comes second and will never be put ahead of my partner/husband or relationship. My #3 Life Plan Rule is: Friends and family are important but will never interfere with Rules #1 and #2.
I’ll explain in a bit why Ed played such a pivotal role in my career.
So, I’m in a happy relationship but not in grad school. I have to find a job. I wanted to understand Ed’s profession better, and be able to hold up my end of the conversation, therefore the most logical job choice was to seek employment in an architectural firm. Not as an architect, but in an administrative capacity.
Note: I said that Ed is one of the most intelligent and intellectual people I know. For the first two years of our relationship I carried a pocket dictionary around with me in order to understand everything Ed said. His vocabulary is extensive and far beyond most ordinary peoples’ understanding. His feeling was that I was college educated and I should have a working knowledge of an educated vocabulary.
I’ve always said: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Ed increased my vocabulary thousandfold.
From 1977-1979 I worked for two wonderful, creative, liberal architectural firms in Philadelphia. The architects I worked for were young (in their 30s), talented, open-minded, and remain friends to this day, all these years later.
I wasn’t unhappy managing these two small/midsize firms but it wasn’t where I wanted to be in my own career. I did consider applying to Wharton Business School and earning my MBA, just in case I did pursue a professional administrative career.
And here is where Ed’s most direct influence changed my life.
Ed first took me to NYC in 1979 to make my very first attempt to get published. I had never been to NYC but I had called and made appointments to show my portfolio and manuscripts to publishers such as Holiday House, Harper & Row (at that time), Macmillan, Atheneum, etc.
That very first trip to NYC was thrilling! I was never nervous about showing my work or meeting editors and art directors. I was too excited and too full of myself. It never occurred to me that anyone MIGHT say “No” to me.
My very first appointment was in the morning at Harper & Row at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Ed waited on the sidewalk while I went up to my appointment. When I stepped off the elevator into the high gloss glass and chrome lobby of Harper & Row the first thing I saw was one of the most elegant black woman sitting behind a huge desk. She had an air of authority and don’t-mess-with-me attitude and the longest fingernails I had ever seen on any woman in my life.
Naturally, I assumed she was the president of the company. I marched up to her desk, bold as brass, plunked my large portfolio on the floor beside me and announced to her in the most enthusiastic and not-to-be-ignored voice I could: “Hi! My name is Olivier Dunrea. I’ve been in NYC for ten minutes and I want to be published!”
Without missing a beat with filing her long, elegant nails the woman looked me up and down and simply said: “Yeah, baby, so do ten thousand other people.”
NOT to be put off or brushed aside I bravely continued my spiel.
“But, I’m NOT ten thousand other people! I’m different! And what I’m about to show you I promise you, you have never seen before.”
Just at that moment another elegant New York woman entered the lobby. She was older, white, beautifully, impeccably dressed, and was carrying a fairly impressive pile of papers (manuscripts).
“Who are you?” she asked, as she looked me up and down.
Note: I had worn my best beige corduroy suit in order to impress the sophisticated New York publishing folks.
“Hi! My name is…,” I began all over again. I hate my little speech down pat.
“Yes, yes, I heard your pitch. What is it exactly you do? And what do you want? Are you an agent?”
“I want to be published1” I blurted out, abandoning my rehearsed speech.
“Well, that’s nice. Who are you here to see?” she asked politely, but in an interested sort of way.
At this point she placed the pile of manuscripts on the black woman’s desk and asked her to please see that A—- and M— got them.
The elegant black woman was the receptionist, as I quickly figured out.
The older woman was none other than the renowned Charlotte Zolotow. I told her who I was there to see and her response was:
“After you have shown your portfolio to N—, would you mind if I took a look?” she said.
“Sure! I’ll show anyone who wants to see it!” I exclaimed unabashedly sure of myself.
“I like your enthusiasm and confidence,” Ms. Zolotow said.
The editor I had the appointment with breezed through my portfolio in about two minutes. It was obvious that nothing caught her eye and she showed absolutely no interest in my work or listening to my pitch as to what she was looking at. And she certainly had NO interest or intent or reading any of my manuscripts on the spot.
At the conclusion of our meeting I asked her where Ms. Zolotow’s office was located. She pointed out the way to me and merely turned her back on me. That was that. I had met my first New York City editor.