So I’m on the phone with my new editor, Evan. She has this valley girl twenty something voice and ends every sentence with a question. She uses exclamations like “Insane,” “Awesome,” “Shut The Door.” Hardly what an editor of a mainstream publisher should sound like. But over the years after dozens of publications, I’ve had them all: Snooty literary types, silent types, disapproving types, but this one is new. Anyway, we’re discussing Rats, my new book of short stories, about my pre-covid relationships with men, and with men I met during the pandemic.
“Rats is such an …interesting title,” she repeats. Her voice soft as a gnat. “Why…Rats?”
I pause. “Rats gnaw at you, until everything is gone, chew away, and than after they destroy you, they hide in their holes. Until the next victim.”
“Insane.” She sighs, reverently. Then she pauses. “I….worry that our readers like…want happy?”
“Happy,” she replies. She sighs again, as a parent sighs indulgently at a child making up lies.
I continue. “I don’t know happy. Happy is a formula. What’s happy to a reader isn’t happy to to my protagonist.”
“So your protagonist is…you?”
“ I reply. Once I write about a part of me, she becomes someone else.”
She pauses. “Very JD .”
“JD?” I ask.
“JD Salinger. Your protagonist is very Holden Caulfield. Angry — sarcastic…insane?” She gasps. “Salinger was a rat.”
“Yes, so was Philip Roth,” I say, perking up.
“Your protagonist Betty is the main rat. She seduces men, reels them in, gnaws at their vulnerabilities and then dumps them. I think maybe we should show her vulnerability a little more? We think that we’d like a happy ending? Maybe she ends up with say Miles Shapiro, your main rat in the book. After all he fell in love with her.”
“Only because he couldn’t have her,” I remind her. “Once she’d end with him he’d be a rodent.” I take a breath. “Unlike poor Scarlett O’Hara who hung on to the door jamb at Tara shouting Rhett, Please, don’t go Rhett. I love you, Rhett, my protagonist moves on.”
“But that’s what we want,” she exclaims. “ Scarlett showed vulnerability.”
“That’s not vulnerability,” I insist. “That’s need. Don’t you see?”
She sighs again. “ We need to tighten the book. Accentuate her …inner vulnerability. If you do, we’re sure we have a bestseller?”
“No. I can’t change a word. I can’t. I’ve worked on it for years. I want it unedited.”
Silence. “Hello? Are you there?” I ask.
She sighs. “…Let me take it up at editorial on Friday. Will get back to you.” As she talks about how if I follow her instructions and end the book“happy,” I know if I don’t follow her rewrite, turn the rats into sweet happy little mice, she’ll kill the book. Even though I need the money, my soul is not for sale. I’ve already done that many times and it never works. Happy is being true to myself.
The Pandemic rages on. I wear two masks, a shield, hat, dark glasses. Evan has not called. Meanwhile I don’t get advance money until the draft is approved and I’m frantically trying to find ways to earn money. I’m offered a weekly podcast call The Rant. On it , I rant about America, Trump, and racism. “White people! Take a knee!” I rant.
I spend a great deal of time designing masks. I get tons of referrals from my artist friends who also buy my paintings. So I’m earning enough money to pay my landlord, a Nazi who almost kicked me out because I didn’t sort the garbage, right. At midnight, he rang my doorbell. He was holding up a garbage bag, shouting that I mixed, “foil with food!” When I said the bag wasn’t mine, he said “Haw! Your unpaid bills are in here! See! Don’t lie! Or out the door!” Meanwhile the old building is falling apart, holes in the backstairs, but I love the old moldings, high ceilings, sounds of traffic and sirens and San Francisco life .
Summer transitions into dusk and fall. Yellow puffy leaves float along the hills, like pressed stars. Evan agrees to publish the book and sends me a cover. It’s horrible, looks like a teenage romance cover with pictures of rats all over a figure of a woman wearing Cleopatra type lace up six inch heels. “I hate it,” I say.“The art department is “insane,” over the cover.
I walk along the San Francisco hills, collecting leaves as I go along. I wear plastic gloves and two masks but I can see the glimmer of fog mixed with smoke floating along the sky and you should see the yellow roses that are still in bloom and the mist laying over the ocean like thin veils of lace and it’s so beautiful.
BarbaraRoseBrooker/author/journalist/ She is working on a new book. Her TV appearances, podcasts are on www.barbararosebrooker.com and on you tube.