As I look today at my first email to Betty, I blush a little. It’s more than a little pretentious—more than a little self-serving. I should have known better. I was certainly old enough. By October 26, 1998, I was about to turn fifty-four; I had already retired from my career in the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools (in mid-January, 1997) and was already receiving lots of mail from the AARP. (I was also living on a pension and discovering the delights of that.)
There are three paragraphs in my message. The first informs Betty that I just finished reading her three-volume edition of Mary Shelley’s letters—“a stunning piece of scholarship,” I call them. I say I’ve recently published an annotated book about Jack London, so “I know what an enormous amount of work you did to produce such wonderful, meticulous annotations.” Hmmm … just a little self-congratulatory?
My middle paragraph—the longest—tells her about my recent YA biography of London (released by Scholastic Press in 1997)—and about my plans to write a YA biography of Shelley, as well. I tell her about all the Shelley and Shelley-related reading I’ve done—and about my plans to head to Europe to start seeing things as soon as the reading (or most of it) is over.
I’m surprised, as I read this over after more than fifteen years, to discover I had already read so much of Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But at the time I was in the first flush of excitement after retirement. I was spending all day every day—seven days a week—reading and taking notes and thinking about the book I would write.
I was also negotiating with publishers, principally with Scholastic Press. I wanted them to do the Mary Shelley book, and I was certain they would go for it. After all, the London bio had sold pretty well, had earned solid reviews, won a couple of awards—the American Library Association had listed it as one of their Best Books for Young Adults for 1998. Here’s what the ALA still says on their site about it: This exciting portrait of the author of The Call of the Wild focuses on London's true-life adventures riding the rails, dogsledding during the Yukon gold rush, and sailing the South Seas.
But in 1998, Scholastic didn’t think they’d be interested—but they wondered about other writers I might do for them? But by then Mary Shelley was firmly gripping my imagination, and I just could not imagine dropping her project and turning to someone else. So I told Scholastic thanks-but-no-thanks, thereby chopping off the only live branch on my publishing tree.
In August 2002, having just finished a draft of The Mother of the Monster, I sent Scholastic a copy—along with a letter detailing the work I’d done on the volume. And I waited.
Four months later (December 12) … a kind rejection. Thank you for submitting … intrigued by the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley … [not] right for our list … a bit too institutional … please accept our best wishes for your future success.
I was angry.
But began a long process of querying other publishers and literary agents. I have a fat file of letters to and from scores of them.
No luck. And so on March 2, 2012, I published the book myself on Kindle Direct.
And now I realize I’ve once again drifted away from Betty Bennett to talk about myself. Typical. Back to my first email to her …
My final (shortest) paragraph apologizes (genuinely? speciously?) for my talking about myself so much, then praises her again for her “scholarship” and her “devotion to MWS.”
Signed: Daniel Dyer (Dan)
I’m not sure I expected an answer (no mention of such an expectation in my journal for that day), but I know I was hopeful. After all, remember Earle Labor? And, later (as I mentioned many pages ago) Emily Sunstein, who wrote the first biography of MWS I read?
So I was surprised—thrilled—to see a reply in my inbox on January 4, 1999, more than two months after my original note.