“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.” – J.D. Salinger
He can say that again.
Or not, because he died last month. But Jerome (whom, I should make clear, I never met) and I do have that in common. We both spared ourselves the haunting, humiliating spectacle of publication, although he had to learn the hard way and produce an American classic first.
I, on the other hand, wrote a romance novel so bad as to be unfit for print.
Let’s understand one thing. Everybody loves some kind of trash sometime. Tabloid gossip is, of course, the biggie. In a class I’m taking on probate law at Eastern Michigan University, the professor brought up Michael Jackson’s kids to illustrate how the rights of the surviving parent to custody are ironclad unless those rights have been terminated by a court. “The minute he died,” we were told, “she could have pulled up to Neverland and grabbed those kids. She – heck, I don’t even remember that woman’s na–”
“Debbie Rowe!!” volunteered way too many of my classmates.
Trash, trash, irresistible trash.
Over Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law kept checking out the newly exploded Tiger Woods scandal. “TMZ!” she grinned, waving her iPhone at me across the table. Silly thing. Doesn’t she know that TMZ is what you look at when your employer is paying you to do something else?
According to my calculations, when I worked at The Ann Arbor News pulling wire copy about celebrity “news,” Si Newhouse paid me $27.71 plus pro-rated health, tuition and retirement benefits to read the mean things Alec Baldwin called his adolescent daughter. Recorded on an answering machine, no less. A “little pig”? Ow! I don’t remember much else about that episode, except that in its wake he threatened to quit the acting business (not before NBC cancels “30 Rock” – please!) and that his kid’s name is Ireland. Ireland Baldwin. Swear to god.
No, Sorry. Vampires Are Trash (Except for Dracula)
What was my point here? Oh, yes. My point is that it was not my own valuable time I was wasting. No. I was having trashy fun on a billionaire’s dime.
Trash, trash, fun trash. Everybody loves it, and until very recently most of us were too embarrassed to own up to our specific brand (vampires, say, or Madonna, or “Fantasy Island”) unless it qualified as camp or until it became the subject of doctoral dissertations. This is especially true of men, at least as far as literary trash goes.
Take my husband and dopey science fiction. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure he eats it up. Occasionally he’ll send one of his brothers a stack of paperbacks to clear some space on his shelves. He says they are about string theory. I suspect he’s lying because the covers feature stuff like robots shooting fire out of their eyes, and you never see that sort of thing on “NOVA” even when it’s a Neil deGrasse Tyson night.
The men in his family frequently engage in e-mail debate over the worthiness of the latest gimmick-heavy comic-book movie or the merits of one laser-‘em-up computer game over another. But here’s the best part: When these guys get together for holidays, they’ll hold forth loudly on black holes or the expansion of the universe or the nature of perceivable reality, and they’re not fooling anybody because each one of them will sneak off at some point to play with little Cody’s “Star Wars” Legos thingie. Trash, trash, dorky trash.
The first romance novel I ever read was a contemporary story by the doyenne of virginal romance fiction, Barbara Cartland. I checked it out of the public library. I can’t recall why I picked it up, but I couldn’t put it down. The woman on the cover looked like Fredo’s bimbo wife in “Godfather II” and the guy resembled George Chakiris in “West Side Story,” only meaner. Of course it was trash; even a seventh-grader could figure that out.
I can’t recall how the blonde ended up an unwilling resident of George’s magnificent estate, but there she was and the servants treated her like a queen all day while George managed his ranch or whatever, and every night an elaborate dinner for two would be served and he would sneer at her by candlelight and she would haughtily demand her freedom, and then he’d spend a couple of hours kissing her passionately before leaving her to toss and turn alone until dawn. In the end she realized she was in love with George and they got married and you could just guess what they did after that because Barbara Cartland certainly wasn’t going to tell you.
My mother saw me curled up in chair, my face in this book. “Why are you bothering with that stuff?” she asked mildly. “It’s trash.”
When we were growing up Mom would frequently sweep her hand in the direction of the University of Chicago Great Books, which held pride of place in the living room bookcase. She and Dad bought that set in the ’50s, when they really didn’t have much money to spare. Aristotle! The Federalist Papers! Darwin! These were important ideas!
But what book was open, face down, on the end table when we got up to go to school in the morning? The one beside her empty coffee cup and the ashtray and the remnants of a slice of lemon meringue pie? “Mistress of Mellyn” by Victoria Holt, thank you very much.
I love that Mom’s trash was so resolutely chaste. I, however, discovered the unprecedentedly steamy “The Flame and the Flower” by Kathleen Woodiwiss during the summer of the Watergate hearings, which were spiced up by a romance, too. No, not John and Martha Mitchell. Remember Maureen Dean, the soignee blonde who sat loyally behind husband John while he tattled on the Nixon administration? Her striking good looks were even more intriguing because, as some of you surely recall, even for the ’70s, John Dean was a serious dweeb.
Anyhoo, that summer I scoped out Mo Dean during the hearings and gobbled up the story of Heather, whose raven-haired, violet-eyed loveliness of course meant big trouble from her step-uncle or some such lech. She takes flight one night in the belief that she has slain the cad in a struggle to preserve her honor. Roaming the dark streets of some English port city, Heather is soon snatched up by a pair of ruffians who take her to a ship, which she thinks is a jail but it isn’t, and Brandon, the captain of the ship, thinks she’s a prostitute, which she isn’t, and … well.
What happened next is what often happened in historical romance novels written in the 1970s. The heroine is raped by the, um, “hero.” And she ends up falling in love with him anyway. Now, at that time I was more than vaguely aware that what Brandon had done to Heather was bad, but clearly the repugnance of rape as a convenient plotting device hadn’t fully sunk in. Women spoke up and publishers eventually got the message: “Sweet Savage Love” can be a wild romp, but sexual assault is no longer an opportunity for meet-cute.
College is, of course, a time for more ethereal means of escapism. But I still found time to inhale the occasional bodice-ripper. I toyed with the idea of writing my own, but historical romances are a lot of work even if they do get away with inserting such unlikely elements as frequent bathing during the time of William the Conqueror.
After college I got a job with a regular wage and paid vacation time – which at the time I actually believed to be a permanent condition of adulthood. Talk about trashy fiction! For several summers in a row, my best friend from journalism school and I drove from central Illinois to Nag’s Head, N.C. In the back seat were the latest additions to our substantial and growing collection of Harlequin and Silhouette romances that featured plucky lady reporters.
In Nag’s Head we found a kind of bliss that was never to be recaptured. Jan and I discovered this amazing place called the Brew Thru: we could stock up on a week’s supply of beer without even getting out of the car! (Years later, Jan’s eyes brimmed with nostalgic tears when I pointed out Ann Arbor’s very own Beer Depot.) Cold Pop-Tarts for breakfast, Ritz crackers and Velveeta for dinner, and day after blistering day of beer on the beach with wonderfully bad books.
We’d read the best lines aloud to each other:
“Lexie wasn’t the kind of obsessive reporter who read the newspaper every single day. She hungered for a real life.”
“Vanya stifled a glower of annoyance and flashed his ice blue eyes at the inquiring correspondent.”
“She hurled her pen aside. ‘Shut up and kiss me!’ she spat.”
I came away from those seaside summer vacations with a chronic skin allergy caused by too much sun and, even better, the soul-searing knowledge that I could write a category romance every bit as awful as the ones Jan and I traded back and forth from our side-by-side beach chairs on the hot sands of the Outer Banks.
Time to Get Plucky
Fast-forward to Ann Arbor, 1992. Husband and I want to buy a house. But this was a long, long, time ago, in the days of what was known as the “down payment.” We had none. What to do?
I set to work, pluckily, on a tale of the wounded, impoverished widow of a crazy young man whose rich and grudge-bearing parents want to make her life a living hell but will settle for custody of their adorable grandson. She meets a guy who is hardened by his own heartbreak. He’s aloof, she’s tormented, he’s baffled, she’s leery, passion smolders and they resist it and waver and come together and part again and then it ignites ka-blammo! … and when the smoke clears they iron out the remaining complications and it’s all good and she isn’t poor anymore.
The most rewarding part of crafting my story was reading the hot parts to Jan. Invariably I’d catch her at work: “You’re not one of those obsessive journalists who pays attention to deadlines, are you? Of course you’re not. Put down those sewer commission minutes and listen to this.” Then I’d read her a draft of one of my novel’s excruciatingly cheesy sex scenes, none of which shall be available for review here or anywhere else as long as I live.
After some six months of dogged labor, I confidently mailed a query letter, a synopsis, the first three chapters and my pen name to Silhouette.
In no time they wrote back, requesting the entire manuscript.
Off it went, and I sat back to await that packet that would be so fat it would barely fit through the mail slot. The one that would whisper “contract,” hotly, into my shell-like ear. The one that fairly throbbed with the promise of sweet, so-long-denied, only-dared-to-be-dreamt-of money.
A few weeks later a one-page letter arrived from Silhouette to inform me that “while you write very well, we suspect that your heart really isn’t in this.”
WHAT? They could tell? They could see the difference between a heartfelt love story and, well, trash?
Like J.D. Salinger in his long later period, I was spared the humiliation of publication. I mean, really. If you had ever aspired to be a serious writer, do you really want “The Cashier and the Cowboy” on your vitae unless you really loved that cowboy and really felt that cashier’s pain? My cynical effort sits on a bookshelf, reminding me of my own time wasted and that, maybe, someday, there might be even more reward to sincere effort than the effort itself.
Still, all’s well that ends well.
Fifteen years later, my husband and I find that the fates have assigned us to that strange subspecies of 21st century American homeowner that actually owes less on their house than what the market says it’s worth.
As it turned out, we didn’t need a down payment. In 1995, my husband was still eligible for a VA mortgage. How vividly I recall the night he revealed the existence of this secret treasure …
She watched him at his computer, his strong, intelligent profile bathed in the electric-blue light that pulsed from the monitor. Manic asteroids, pinpoints of pixelated color, skittered and flashed as he fired away at them, his hand skilled and sure on the joystick.
“If only I had known!” She felt herself sway, buffeted by a sudden gust of white-hot feeling that threatened to overwhelm her, to rob her of reason. “Why? Why didn’t you think to tell me, before … before I… did what I did?”
“I dunno,” he murmured, his focus rock-steady, unblinking. Zap! Whoosh! Beepbeep! Boodledeebip! “I guess I forgot.”
It was as if her hands had, in that instant, claimed a life of their own. They trembled with it. They reached out for him. Inexorably. Irresistibly. She wrapped her fingers around the warm, muscular column of his neck … tight, tighter ….
Who the Hell Is Heidi Montag?
People magazine is my trash of choice nowadays. Every eight weeks or so I pay a visit to my hairdresser, and while she works her magic I catch up on the red-carpet photos of actresses in fabulous gowns and update my count of the number of kids in the Brangelina household. Jennifer Aniston celebrated her 41st birthday in Mexico, in a sombrero, with her toned arms and her best girlfriends. George Clooney? Oh, yeah.
But this isn’t going to do it for me much longer. Easily 80% of the “famous” people in People are people I never heard of. Jason? Kristen? Zac? Huh? Never mind why I should care that Heidi Montag can’t move her face – who the hell is Heidi Montag? It gets to the point where you wonder what Mo Dean is up to these days.
Well, I’ll tell you. She’s enjoying Salinger’s “marvelous peace.” The one that comes from not publishing.
Mo’s first novel, “Washington Wives,” came out in 1988. Her second, in 1992, was “Capitol Secrets”: “Aiming to be the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives,” blurbed Library Journal, “Rep. Laura Cristen unexpectedly learns that the cosmetics company she founded is about to secretly distribute a mind-control drug. “
They’re both out of print. Dawn Treader, here I come.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader and gratefully unpublished romance novelist who lives in Ann Arbor.