ACCIDENTAL BOOK MEETS ACCIDENTAL PUBLISHER By Tia Swanson
A serendipitous SOMA pairing of a writer, a month, and a press
About 10 years ago, Pamela Erens was a bit stuck. Her first novel, published shortly before, had been a critical success, but she had not yet found her way into her second.
So she set herself a different goal. It was National Novel Writing Month, a month once a year when writers are challenged to write 50,000 words – an entire novel – in one month. So Erens, a woman whose novels are serious, literary, and grown-up, decided she would write a story for kids.
“I generally have a fairly laborious writing process,” she explains, but since she had only a month, she needed to find something simpler and less stressful. A children’s story, she thought, sounded fun.
“I had one idea,” she recalls. “A girl whose family wants to adopt a refugee from Vietnam.”
She planned to set the story in 1970s Chicago, her home town, because she knew the ins and outs of that childhood: how kids would get around, where they would go to school, what the neighborhoods would be like, the places their friendships would play out. Other than that, she had nothing planned.
The National Novel Writing Month folks have pointers for novelists writing their 50,000 words; one is to keep throwing drama at the story. And so Erens did. The refugee from Vietnam made room for a story that also was about a friendship and a family dissolving and a tiny, precocious 11-year-old named Matasha, whose name plays on the protagonist’s in War and Peace, learning to find her way on her own.
At the end of the month Erens had 50,000 words and she was back into her writing routine. “I put it aside for a few months,” she remembers. When she pulled it back out and reread it, she was horrified. “This is awful; this is just terrible,” she recalls saying to herself. “I can’t do anything with this. I put it in a file cabinet and it sat there for 10 years.”
She wrote a second adult novel, even more successful than the first, that was lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among others. She wrote a third novel that also got glowing reviews and was named a Best Book of 2016 by The New Yorker. Her two children – it was only after she became a mother that she quit working full-time and devoted herself to novel writing – grew from adolescents to young adults, and Maplewood’s writing scene blossomed.
When Erens and her husband moved here in 1997, drawn to the houses and the ambience (“We just really liked Maplewood,” she says. “We felt comfortable here.”), Erens found a single writing friend, Meredith Sue Willis, and made do with a charming though tiny bookstore, Goldfinch.
In the ensuing years, the number of writers in the two towns exploded. And Words Bookstore, large and thriving, drew breath and then started drawing important writers of all stripes. Erens became part of a burgeoning writers’ circle that included novelists, poets, essayists, editors and publishers.
One day not long ago, one of those writing friends asked her if she had ever taken part in National Novel Writing Month. She remembered her children’s book, went hunting through the file drawers, unearthed it and read it again.
“It wasn’t as bad as I remembered,” she says. “It needed some scenes and it needed an ending,” but she could work with what she had. And she did. She kept about two thirds of what she had originally written, polished up the rest and thought about getting it into print.
Her usual publisher, Tin House, however, was not set up to do children’s books. So she and her agent began looking farther afield, and the SOMA literary circle provided an answer.
It came in the person of Robert Lasner, who with his wife, Elizabeth Clementson, owns a small publishing house, Ig Publishing, with offices and branding in New York, but run, at least in some sense, out of South Orange, where the couple and their two boys have lived since 2015. Clementson also is a vice president at W.W. Norton & Company, so Lasner handles the day-to-day business of the company.
Lasner, who is also the founder of the SOMA Book Festival, had met Erens at literary events, but he likes to think that their real connection was yoga: They both took lessons at a studio on South Orange Avenue. “At some point,” he remembers, “she writes to us, ‘Do you guys do middle grade books? I have this middle grade book called Matasha.’” Lasner took a read and was hooked. He gave it to Clementson to read, and she felt the same.
And so Matasha, a most unlikely novel, was born. It came to bookstores on June 1, and there will be an August event of some kind at Words. It already has received a starred review from Kirkus, which said it “beautifully renders the slow-motion alchemy of growing up,” and praised it as “mesmerizing and memorable.”
It seems appropriate that Matasha – an improbable novel – should find a home with Lasner, since he's a bit of an accidental publisher.
Both Erens and Lasner were literature majors in college and both thought about becoming academics, but eventually opted for careers that felt more connected to the world. Though Erens wanted to be a writer from at least age 6 (after briefly considering careers as a pianist or a ballerina, though not particularly adept at either), she was a longtime magazine editor. And Lasner, who is himself the author of several books, fell into publishing when he met a guy who ran a small publishing house.
His wife, who was then his girlfriend, did work in publishing, so she could offer advice to the friend, and over time, they all three started running it together. Then the original guy left. “We just kind of took it over,” he says now, sounding still a bit awestruck by how it all turned out.
Given what large publishing houses have been through in recent years, it is almost a miracle that this small accidental business has not only survived but prospered. At one time they were $100,000 in debt, their credit cards were maxed out and they thought the end was near. They had tried to follow what was popular, what other publishing houses were doing, but they chucked that. “We decided if we’re going to go under, we should go under on our own terms,” Lasner says now.
Enthusiastic liberals, they began publishing hard-core political books. They did some kids’ books; and they started an imprint for which well-known writers write about their favorite books.
And, lo and behold, the publishing house stabilized, then rebounded. “At some point you’ve been doing it long enough, it’s a full-time, well-paying job,” says Lasner.
In fact, even as they prepare to launch Matasha, Ig Publishing is readying for another book by Erens. This one, due next February, will be part of their ongoing series about favorite books. Erens chose George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The subject seems more in keeping with Erens’ personality. She is an author who lives a lot in her head (“Stuff just floats through,” she says), takes inspiration from other writers, and finds answers in places many would not think to look.
Her most recent adult novel, Eleven Hours, for example, was inspired by Tinkers, a Pulitzer Prize winning book that takes place over a dying man’s last day. Eleven Hours is a completely different story, but it is set entirely during a woman’s childbirth. And her second novel, The Virgins, about a couple in a prep school in the late ‘70s (when Erens herself was a prep school student), is told by a boy who is not part of the central pairing, a narrative form inspired by another novel that uses a similar device.
Middlemarch, a 19th-century classic, influences Erens in other ways. “It’s always been my favorite novel,” she says. “It’s an inspiration just in terms of its view of human nature and psychology and wisdom. It’s a delightful, funny, wise book.” She regularly rereads it.
Like Middlemarch, Matasha’s form is classic; Erens didn’t read any middle grade books as she was revising and shies away from kids’ books set in the present, with their oodles of technology. She also notes that, other than the setting, there is nothing autobiographical about Matasha. And yet, Matasha, too, is a great reader, a child who finds inspiration, comfort and wisdom in the books she loves. And like her creator, she, too, is a writer, who delivers those same things with the story she writes.
Tia Swanson also was a literature major who considered a career as an academic. Her favorite book is "Pride and Prejudice."