Review of “Nobody Likes An Ugly Child”

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Nobody Likes an Ugly Child by Olivier Dunrea

reviewed by Charlotte Delacroix

“The two best things about growing up in a poor family are: First, they have no expectations of you, except that you somehow survive.  And, secondly, they may not be able to read but they are the best storytellers.”  So begins one of the most provocative collections of short stories this reviewer has read in a long time.  The thirteen short stories in this collection tell the painful, often hilarious, and moving trials and tribulations of growing up poor in Chickahominy Ridge, Dismal Swamp, Virginia in the 1950s.

Dunrea’s extended family of parents, brother, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and hardbitten, hard loving grandparents is one of the liveliest and loving families imaginable.  Whereas food and money may be in short supply stories and love never were.   Dunrea’s style is straightforward, unassuming and unsentimental.  Each story recalls a specific incident or time in the author’s life.  Several stories are “remembered” meaning that the story being told happened before the author was born as can be seen in the poignant story titled ‘Littie Pearl.’

In ‘Littie Pearl,’ one of the family’s favorite stories to tell time and time again, Dunrea tells the heart wrenching story recalling the birth of his cousin, Littie Pearl. One hot, summer day as his parents, grandparents, and aunts worked under the broiling sun in the fields in the mid-1940s one of the aunts, Aunt Mildred, goes into labor.   She is told by her father to “Mildred, honey, take a break, and go on and squat under that pecan tree and have that baby.  Your Mama  can help you if you need it.  There’s a an old shoebox in the back of the truck that you can put the baby in.   Then you get on back to work.  If’n that baby’s still alive at the end of the day, you can name it, and we’ll take it home.  If it dies, we’ll just bury it under the pecan tree and won’t say no more about it.”   The baby lives and is named Littie Pearl.

Each story is like a pearl.  Each one is a gem unto its own right.  When they are strung altogether into a complete strand a lively and detailed portrait comes to light of the author’s “dirt poor” childhood and his loving, if somewhat eccentric and erratic family.

‘You Don’t Know You’re Poor Until Someone Tells You’ tells the story as to how the author first learns at school that he is “dirt poor” from a teacher.  “Boy, you ain’t nothin’ but dirt beneath my feet and you ain’t never goin’ to be nothin’ but dirt beneath anybody’s feet.”    With no hint of self pity or regret Dunrea reveals the depth of his family’s poverty.  It occurs to him that it is a bit strange that the women and older girls in the family never actually sit down at the table and eat with the family.  Food is served first to the men and older boys with the younger children left to scramble for whatever is leftover.  It’s not until the author  heads off to college that his mother reveals the secret as to why the women in the family never starved to death.  “Oh, hell, son,” Mama said as we drove north on Rt. 13.  “We picked and nibbled the whole time we were cooking.  We were always hungry, but we weren’t starving.”

In the story ‘He’s Being Beautified’ the painful reality of not being a very attractive child is told in a humorous and no nonsense child’s voice when the author first starts school at the age of five.  His cousins and sisters attempt to tame his “big ass ears” with Scotch tape and the admonition that “Nobody’ll notice your ears are taped back.  Don’t embarrass us.”   Throughout the stories the recurring theme of “don’t embarrass us” is woven seamlessly into the narrative.  What the family lacked in money and education they more than made up for with “pure stubborn Southern pride.”

In the story titled ‘This Li’l Chile,’ the author recalls the time at the age of four when he puts his hands on his hips and announces to his family that “This li’l chile is NOT going to stay in this swamp.  This li’l chile is moving to town.”  And sets off down the dirt road to find the town.  Throughout the author’s childhood he longs to live a life vastly different from the one he lives in Dismal Swamp.

Whether telling the emotionally charged story of one of his favorite uncle’s death, and how his aunt tried to climb into the coffin with him, to his mother’s insightful understanding of her son’s need to express himself and be different, these stories never disappoint.  In ‘No Eggs Will Die’ when, at the age of five, the author takes a dozen cold eggs out of the ice box (the family did not have a refrigerator) and puts them in a “nest” made from his old, tattered quilt.  “After I got all the eggs arranged just right I pulled down my pants and underpants and sat on them.  I don’t know why I thought I had to be naked to hatch out the eggs.  Somehow it just seemed like the right thing to do.”  He proceeds to pull down his pants and sits on the eggs only to be shocked by their coldness and breaks them all.    His mother’s “WHY are you so strange?” is repeated time and time again with love and patient exasperation.

‘Sunday Potato Chips’ tells how every Sunday one of the uncles bought a “big bag of Wise’s Potato Chips” to the grandparents’ house, where everyone gathered for dinner, and the once a week special treat of eating potato chips.  “We kids would sit on the floor lined up like China dolls waiting for Uncle Ray to count out each one’s fair share of potato chips.  It was never more than four or five chips and it was never enough.  Each of us placed a chip in our mouth and savored the salty taste.  We tried not to chew so as to make the potato chip last longer.  To wash down the salty potato chips each of us was allowed one sip from a bottle of Coca Cola.  We kids lived for those Sunday treats.”

Childhood and adolescence is never an easy time for anyone.  Dunrea relates one of his deepest regrets in life in ‘Why Do You Always Embarrass Me?’  When he was in high school his mother arrived to pick him up with curlers in her hair and was wearing  a “sad, worn out dress.” The author’s first words to her were “Why do always embarrass me so much in front of people?” He continues his attack with “And your Southern hillbilly accent is just as embarrassing.  Why can’t you talk properly?”  These words come back to haunt him many years later when he becomes a published writer and invites his mother to attend book signings, television interviews, and public speaking events, but she always has an excuse as to why she cannot attend.   Finally, when pressed as to why she can’t attend a particularly important award presentation, she tells him.  “I don’t ever want to embarrass you in front of people.”

Those words haunt the author from that day on.

Nobody Likes an Ugly Child includes stories with titles such as ‘Aunt Mary and Uncle Max,’ ‘Wild Pigs, Wild Times,’ ‘Granddaddy’ and ‘Um, How Do You Say Your Name Again?’

Story by story, pearl by pearl, Dunrea lets the reader get to know  him and his “crazy” family, as he likes to put it.   As we get to know granddaddy, nanny, mama, daddy, and a bevy of cousins and siblings, aunts and uncles, each one adds to the richness and liveliness of these stories.  Each voice, each story rings true and is told in a lively, staccato style.

The title of the collection is taken from the signature story titled ‘Nobody Likes an Ugly Child.’ Dunrea reveals that the word “ugly” in the South has a double meaning: not attractive or, as in referring to a child, misbehaving.  “Don’t act so ugly,” is a refrain that is heard throughout these stories.   When the author was two years old he recalls the time when his granddaddy called him over.  Thinking he was going to be given a treat “I waddled over to granddaddy on my short, bowed legs.  I was not an attractive child by any stretch of the imagination.  My granddaddy looked at me, I looked at him, expectantly waiting for something sweet to be offered.  Instead of the expected treat Granddaddy backhanded me hard across the face and said ‘That’s just for being so ugly.’  Mama, running to my defense said ‘Oh, daddy, I know he’s ugly, but don’t keep telling he’s ugly.’  I quickly learned that if you are the ugly child life is going to be rough.  And it’s best to discover what your talent is as soon as possible.  I discovered that I had two talents: I could run fast and I could read and write.”

In the final story ‘I Won’t Embarrass You’ Dunrea leaves his poor Southern family in order to pursue his lifelong dream of going to college ‘Up North.’   He never looks back.

The author states that his “wild imagination and love of stories, and later, books, saved his mental sanity” through all the chaotic insanity of growing up poor.  “We really were dirt poor, as I slowly came to accept.  Stories were our lifeline.  What we lacked in money we made up with in words.  Words were our currency.    And my family could spend with the best of them.” 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this quirky and ribald family.   I shared their triumphs and their tragedies as if they were my own.  Nobody Likes an Ugly Child is one of those short story collections that you hate to see come to an end.  We can only hope that Dunrea will share more of his family’s stories with us.  

Postscript to How Did I Get Published

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As I was typing the four parts of “How Did I Get Published?” so many memories, stories, anecdotes came flooding back to me.   Believe it or not, those four postings were the condensed version as to how I got my break in New York publishing.

I thought it might be interesting to include a few anecdotes and afterthoughts here in this postscript.

I think I made a mistake in my recall in creating the dummy for No One Will Come to Dinner.  I distinctly remember that we were living on Midvale Avenue in Philadelphia at the time that I worked on that dummy to take on the rounds of the meetings I had set up with editors and art directors.  That means that I actually worked on that dummy in 1978 and took it to New York City in 1979.

I’m a stickler for details and accuracy!

One of the first art directors I worked with was David Rogers at Holiday House.  He was much older than me and literally took me under his wing and called me “Pussycat”.   It was David who told me not to pay attention to the negative reviews that criticized my generous use of “white space” in my illustrations.   He said: “One day, Pussycat, all that white space will make you famous and make your work stand out from the crowd.  Don’t stop using it.”

Not knowing how unusual it was to sign multiple book contracts before I had ever had anything published I honestly didn’t quite know what I was doing.  I had no agent and no expertise in contract negotiation (I DO now!).  It was the contracts manager at Harper & Row, the renowned Barbara Dicks, who called me and pointed out that “…in that you are signing multiple contracts with various publishers there is a clause you might want to strike out…the first right of refusal to your next book…you can’t very well grant that right to any of your publishers, not even us, in that you are signing so many contracts.”

I will be forever thankful to Barbara for pointing this technicality out to me so that I didn’t make a huge legal blunder and get sued by any of the publishers I was signing contracts with!

Then I discovered the best reference book I could ever have come across:  The Writer’s Legal Companion.  This book gave definitions to all the myriad technical contractual terms and their use (and misuse) by publishers.  I still refer to this book even today if I don’t quite understand a clause in a contract or come across a clause that I have never seen before.

At the start of my career I used to make numerous public appearances and do book signings (NOT anymore!).  Obviously, I spent a great deal of time waiting in airports and on airplanes (in 1993 I was in 37 states from Maine to Alaska!).   I am not the most comfortable flyer/passenger and back in those days reading material was crucial.  I always travelled with a number of books or manuscripts that I was working on—notebooks, NO laptops back then!

I came across an ad in the In-Flight magazine that struck a chord and made me think.  The headline in the ad read: BUSINESSMEN GET WHAT THEY NEGOTIATE, NOT WHAT THEY DESERVE.

Aha!  If businessmen can negotiate deals and contracts why couldn’t I?  I learned that contracts are slanted 90% in favor of the publisher (or whoever is offering/writing the contract).  As the party on the other side of the contract I realized that it was in MY best interest to 1) ask questions if I didn’t understand something in the contract and 2) negotiate better terms and percentages wherever possible.

The business side of publishing is something that is learned: from experience, from books, from other writers and illustrators. And even from editors.   An honest editor will inform a writer or illustrator about any clauses that they might want to take out or renegotiate.

Since 1979 I have worked with more editors, art directors, book designers, contracts managers, subrights managers, marketing folks, etc. than you can shake a stick at.  I have learned something from each and every one of them.

There is an old adage: Forewarned is forearmed.  To paraphrase that as a writer I always think “Better informed is forearmed.”  I make it my business to ask questions and understand that everything in a contract is negotiable.

I might ask for the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars knowing full well that I might only get the Sun and Moon and not the stars.

Understanding the terms of any contract is vital to anyone’s success.  And there is no reason why writers and illustrators should NOT understand what they are signing and what they should ask for.  ASK QUESTIONS!

The final thought is: As in any business the more you know about your particular business, the better your understanding will be as to how YOU fit into the overall scheme of things.

Editors really do want to publish interesting and original stories/manuscripts.   But they also expect writers to know the marketplace and who publishes what.   Many writers set themselves up for rejection simply by submitting a manuscript to the wrong publisher who has no interest in their particular subject matter or story.

Do your homework.  Know which publishers publish what.  There are numerous professional reference books on the market these days that provide exactly this kind of information.

I always quote Gertrude Stein when it comes to how I regard my own writing: “I write for myself and strangers.”   I LIKE my writing!  I LIKE my stories!  Even when no one else does.  I write the kind of stories that I find interesting in one way or another.  IF you don’t find your own writing interesting/fascinating why should anyone else.

Something to think about.

How did I get published? Part Four

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It took about three years in order to secure those first book contracts.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard to carve out a career for myself as a writer and illustrator.

The final footnote to this story involves why I was never published by Harper & Row.

During the two years that I was constantly drawing specific “ideas” for T—-, it never occurred to me that nothing would ever come of it.   As Fate would have it, one day when I was bringing in another batch of requested drawings to show that I could draw ‘whatever’, I bumped into the editor who had the office next door to T—-.

Her name was B—-.   We literally bumped into one another and when she figured out who I was she burst out with “I love your work!  If T—- doesn’t want to work with you, I would love to!”

I was astounded!   Here was an editor that I had never met, but who had seen all those drawings I had been slaving over and she was excited about my work!

B—- invited me into her office and explained to me that she worked for a subsidiary publishing house at Harper & Row called Thomas Y. Crowell.  Her speciality was nonfiction picture books.

She said: “If I knew you could write nonfiction I’d offer you a contract on the spot!”

I replied: “I can write nonfiction!  In fact, I would love to write a nonfiction picture book on a fascinating prehistoric village that I visited in 1978 and have gone back to explore every year since!”

B—- said: “Well, if you want to show me a manuscript about it, I’d love to read it.”

This was a Friday.  I took the train back to Philadelphia and spent the weekend writing my first nonfiction manuscript titled: Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric Village.  

I called B—- first thing Monday morning and announced that I had finished the nonfiction manuscript.

B—- said:  “You’re kidding?  YOU wrote an entire nonfiction manuscript about an archaeological site over the weekend?”

I replied:  “Yes, I did.  And it’s good.  I know the story of this village and how I’d like to tell it like the back of my hand.”

We made arrangements for me to take the train the next day back to her office so that I could show her the manuscript.

B—- read the manuscript while I sat quietly in her office.  When she finished she took off her glasses and put the manuscript down.

“This is really good,” she said.  “I want to publish it.  Do you have any sketches of this place?”

Of course I had sketches!  Tons of them!

After looking at the sketches and glancing through the manuscript again B—- went on to say:  “I not only want to offer you a contract for Skara Brae, but I would like to offer you a second contract for you to write a nonfiction book for children as to just HOW an archaeological dig is done; how a site is uncovered/discovered, and all that.  Think you could do it?

Naturally, I said “Of course, I can!  But, I will need a bit more time to do some research in order to come up with just the right way to tell the story as to how an archaeological dig is done.”

And this is my first author photo published on the back inside flap of Skara Brae:

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I tried very hard to look like a serious writer to be taken seriously!

Note:  It never occurred to me that editors were in competition with one another in securing manuscripts, writers, and illustrators.  I learned that T—- never really did have any real interest in publishing my work, but she thought I had talent and she didn’t want another editor to offer me a contract.  It was a hard lesson learned, but I learned it well.

So, now I had contracts for Eddy B, Pigboy and TWO nonfiction picture books.  I had one last appointment to meet with an editor at an independent publishing house called Holiday House.

M—– was as energetic and enthusiastic about books as I am.  She was tall and angular and was one of the most talkative editors I’ve ever met.  When I arrived for our late afternoon meeting I was so excited as to how my day had gone that I had to tell her my great news!  I was being published by two editors!

M—– was taken aback with the news and jumped right onboard.

“WHAT projects do you have left that haven’t been signed up?  I want them!”

And that’s how Ravena (No One Will Come to Dinner) was signed under contract along with Mogwogs on the March!, Fergus and Bridey, and a blank contract to be filled in when I had a manuscript.

During the course of one week I signed seven book contracts!

I never did fill out that application for the Wharton Business School.  I still wonder IF I ever had a chance of getting accepted.  But, then again, why wouldn’t they have accepted me???

*****

How did I get published: Part Three

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I didn’t return to New York City until a few weeks later in order to follow-up with several of the editors.   I worked on my portfolio, took out pieces that had nothing to do with book illustration, and took the train from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to Penn Station in New York City—by myself!

Of all the editors and art directors I had met Charlotte Zolotow was the most encouraging.   She had me meet with an up-and-coming editor named T—- whom she thought might be a good fit for me and who might be interested in working with me as a writer and illustrator.

T—- was young, sophisticated, and very interested in my work.  During my first meeting with her she asked one important question:  “Did you know what children’s picture book is considered to be the most perfect picture book?”

I had no clue.  I loved quite a few children’s books and had my favorites, but I didn’t know that there was ONE perfect picture book.

“Goodnight, Moon,” she said.  “I want you to study this book and see if you can figure out why it is considered to be the perfect picture book.”

T—- and I had many meetings over the next few months.  I felt like I had made an entrée into the world of children’s book publishing even though I had not yet been offered any kind of contract.

T—- read several of my manuscripts and had said “I wish I could tell you to concentrate on illustrating alone, but your writing is really good.  You’re almost there.”

“Well, tell me what to do to be there and I’ll do it!” I had said, feeling a bit frustrated.

“I can’t,” she said.  “It’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself and when you do, you’ll be there, and I will want to work with you on a project.”

Believe it or not, this kind of exchange went on from 1979 until 1981.  I stopped making appointments with other editors and art directors because I really thought that Harper & Row was going to be MY publisher.   Charlotte continued to be interested in my progress but left me in the “capable hands” of T—-.

T—- kept asking me questions like: “Can you draw sheep?  Do you think you could do a few dozen sketches of sheep and bring them to me in a couple weeks?  I have a manuscript that you might be just right for.”

I frantically drew sheep and went back to see T—-.

“Can you draw fish and whales?”

“Can you draw city scenes?”

“Can you draw….”

Over the course of two years I must have drawn hundreds of things that T—- asked to see.  But it never seemed to get me any closer to being offered a contract.

Working all day in an office and staying up most of the night drawing whatever T—- requested me to draw, was starting to take its toll on me.  I was exhausted!  But most of all, I was frustrated.

This is when Ed came to my rescue.

I told him that I really needed more time to work on my portfolio and that I needed to make appointments and talk to other editors.  He agreed.   Ed is a talented watercolorist and has always been my toughest critic.   We made a deal:  I would quit my job and would take a year off to work on my portfolio.  I had listened to everything every editor and art director had said to me, especially Charlotte and T—-, and now I knew that I really had to work on a focused manuscript and dummy.

Ed would support me financially for a year.  And at the end of the year IF I did not get my break in publishing, I would apply to Wharton, get my MBA, and put all thoughts of being a professional writer and illustrator behind me.  I would be one tough, kick ass CEO in a corporation.

From 1981 through most of 1982 I worked on No One Will Come to Dinner.  A quirky story about a small Scottish banshee that didn’t quite fit in with her clan.  I wrote the best story that I could telling of her the little banshee’s adventures and determination to live on her own away from her clan called the Ravenlocks.  The small banshee’s name was Ravena.

I spent a great deal of time in bookstores (back then there actually WERE bookstores that you could visit and look at books for as long as you liked.   There were no cafés in the bookstores, only books).  One of my favorite illustrators is Trina Schart Hyman.  And one of my most favorite books that she illustrated is titled Magic in the Mist written by Margaret Mary Kimmel.

I read and reread that book at least 200 times.  I studied every illustration and layout of the book.   When I made my first dummy for No One Will Come to Dinner I basically used Trina’s layouts to inspire my own book design layout.

I still have that very first dummy.

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In 1979-81 we didn’t have personal computers.  The only way to make the words in the dummy look “professional” was to buy sheets of Chartpak rub-on letters.  In this dummy every single letter of every single word and punctuation was carefully positioned and rubbed onto the paper in the most painstaking manner you can imagine.

Here’s what a sheet of Chartpak letters looks like:

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And here is that very first manuscript!

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In the beginning of my career I was a messy writer!

No One Will Come to Dinner was published as Ravena in 1984.

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But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself in telling the chronology of my  publishing story.

It was 1981, my time was running, money was tight, and I had to start taking temp work as a secretary/administrative assistant.  Ed had been patient, but my break hadn’t come yet and it looked like the year that I had given myself was coming to an end and i would have to start filling out the application for Wharton Business School.

I am an honest person.  Or, so I like to think I am.  Back in those days we didn’t have unlimited long distance calling.  Every time I called an editor or publisher in New York City it was a long distance call.  And I really couldn’t afford to make many long distance calls.

I was working in an office and had a moment of panic.  I only had  two weeks left before my time would run out and I would have to honor my promise to Ed and give up my dreams of being a published writer and illustrator.

I did something not very ethical.  I used the phone in the office that I was temping in to make a few long distance phone calls to publishers in New York City.  I thought if I’m not going to make it at least I’m going to give it one last try so that I could always say:  “I tried, but I wasn’t good enough.”

I made appointments with four publishers.  I won’t drag this part of the story out but let the record show that when I returned to New York City for my final swan song I was offered SEVEN book contracts by these four publishers!

It was amazing!  Ravena was the first book that I worked hardest  on, but it was Eddy B, Pigboy that was the first book to be published by Margaret K. McElderry at Atheneum.

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It was this little 5″x7″ book that launched my career as both a writer and illustrator.

I signed the seven book contracts in 1982.  Eddy B, Pigboy was published in 1983.

At the time I never thought it might be unusual to have been offered so many contracts at one time before I had ever had anything published.   But, that’s the way it happened.

*****

How did I get Published? Part Two

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My first meeting with a bonafide, hardbitten, uninterested NYC editor didn’t deflate my enthusiasm.  My work simply held no interest for her.

Charlotte Zolotow (whom I knew as the writer of one of my favorite books, William’s Doll) was the complete opposite of the editor named N—-.  She was warm, friendly, made me feel welcome, and started the conversation with “I can’t wait to see what is in that portfolio!”

The old school editors were not hesitant to show a bit of enthusiasm and encouragement to would-be prospective writers and illustrators.  1979 was the beginning of the end of the Golden Era in children’s book publishing.   There were still numerous publishers, both large corporations and the smaller independent publishers such as Holiday House and Houghton Mifflin.  All this would change in the course of the next few years and publishing houses began merging and becoming huge conglomerates.

Charlotte, as she had instructed me to call her, had her assistant, S—- bring us coffee and some pastries.  S—-was a startling handsome and VERY New York young man.  Very friendly.

Charlotte took her time looking at my portfolio.  She paused over each piece that I had carefully chosen to include (hoping to highlight whatever talent I might have) and asked insightful questions as to why I had included such-and-such a piece, where did my ideas come from, and how did I see myself in the world of children’s book publishing.

She made me feel special.  She made me feel that she was interested in my work.

After about twenty minutes or so.  She closed my portfolio, took a sip of her coffee, and looked straight at me.   What followed next were words that I would carry with me throughout my career as a children’s book writer and illustrator.  Her words gave me hope.

“You are very talented,” Charlotte said.  “One day you are going to be quite famous.  There is that something extra in your work that is unique and appealing.  However, you have no idea what this business is all about.”

She went on to tell me that I was showing set design, costume design, whimsical drawings and studies, etc.  Her big question was: “Do you really want to do children’s books?”

“Yes!” I had exclaimed.

“Well, here is my suggestion: look at what is being published, familiarize yourself with what books are being published by which publishers.   See if you can figure out where you might fit into the scheme of things.”

There was one small pen-and-ink drawing that I had put in my portfolio hoping that it looked like a “classic” black-and-white children’s illustration.

Charlotte opened my portfolio and tapped her finger on that small drawing, which is no larger than 5″x7″, if that.

“This is the best thing in your portfolio,” she said. “It speaks volumes.  It intrigues me to ask ‘what is the story?’  I want you to see if you can see why this sketch is so magical and try to capture its essence in future sketches and artwork.”

Here is that drawing.  I have it a small frame that sits in a bookcase in the Lincoln Room here at Henwoodie.

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As rough as this sketch is Charlotte Zolotow saw something that appealed to her sensibility as an editor.

After we had finished talking she studied me and her next question caught me completely offguard:  “May I ask what your plans are for lunch?  I’d like to take you out to lunch if you’re free and talk a bit more.”

Without thinking I blurted out “I’m busy!  I can’t do lunch!  I have five other appointments to keep and this is my first time in New York City and I’m having lunch with Ed somewhere on Lexington Avenue!”

Charlotte laughed and said “I see.  Here’s my card, check with Ed and see if he would mind terribly if the three of us had lunch.”

I thanked her for her time and took her card.  She asked if I had any questions before leaving.

“Just one,” I said.  “How do I get to Third Avenue from here?  I need to find the offices of Macmillan.?

Charlotte laughed and asked S—- to show me to the elevator and ride down with me and show me which way Third Avenue was.  Needless to say, I felt relieved and grateful and assumed that this is how everyone’s first meeting with an editor went.

In the elevator S—- told me that Charlotte must have been impressed with me to go through so much trouble.  He gave me a wink, squeezed my butt, and when we reached the lobby he walked outside and pointed out the direction that I should go in order to get to Third Avenue.

Ed was waiting for me on the sidewalk but had the good sense not to come over while I was being given directions.

“Who was that?” Ed had asked.

I told him who S—- was and that I thought he must be gay and that he was VERY friendly in the elevator.  As we walked toward Third Avenue I told him how my very first meeting went and told him that Charlotte had invited us out to lunch, but I had told here that we had plans.

Ed stopped dead in his tracks.

“An editor wants to take you out to lunch and you told her you were busy?”

Ed couldn’t believe his ears.   He made me find a pay phone (this was decades before cell phones) and call Charlotte and tell her that I had checked my schedule and that I was free to have lunch with her, if she still wanted to.

When I called Charlotte (ten minutes after leaving her office) and explained to her that I was free to have lunch if she still wanted to.  She laughed and said that would be fine, but something had come up that required her immediate attention and she wondered if S—- could meet us for lunch and fill me in a bit more as to how Harper & Row and I might be a fit.

Lunch was great!  S—- was funny, had the strongest New York accent I had ever heard and regaled me and Ed with stories of his escapades at Studio 54, on Fire Island, and on the “docks”.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of meeting with editors and art directors.  Ed and I returned to Philadelphia exhausted, but pleased with my first brush with New York City publishing.

*****

How did I get published? Part One

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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.

*****