Every writer has had them: moments of humiliation so searing that you can’t imagine ever getting over them. One of my favorite books is Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. It is a compilation of essays by important writers who share their worst career moments, from falling asleep at their own reading, to picking up the wrong person at a train station instead of the esteemed visiting author, or shitting their pants while autographing books. I could not get enough of my fellow authors’ tales of horror, because I have had plenty of my own.
My tale of humiliation began when the original editor of Roadfood changed jobs and brought us along with her to the prestigious Viking Press. She stayed with us until the book was about to be published and then took a new job at Random House.
Losing one’s editor is known in the trade as “being orphaned,” but the book was finished and we were left in the hands of an editor who we had no reason not to trust. What we knew about her was she had been Jackie Onassis’ assistant at Viking. What we didn’t know was she was a cutthroat bitch whose goal was to ruin other editors’ projects as she acquired her own.
Without telling anyone, she had copied every page of the galleys of Roadfood and sent the reviews to the owners of the restaurants, asking for their thoughts and corrections. Believe me when I say the restaurant owners had a lot of thoughts. Although Roadfood is a love poem to small regional restaurants, we did point out things we did not like: a deflated meringue on a lemon pie, a meal that took forever to arrive, a goofy looking waitress, that sort of thing.
We were called in for a meeting at Viking in New York City. We were lead to the publisher’s corner office. In the middle of his desk was a huge pile of letters, each one from the owner of a place we reviewed, each one blasting us about our skewed observations. Almost every letter had the word lawsuit underlined in ink.
“Obviously we cannot publish this book,” the top executive said to us. “We will delay publication by a year, during which time you will write a letter of apology to every restaurant and then rewrite the review in a way that pleases them.” Our mouths hung open. “Furthermore, you should thank your new editor for having the forethought to send the letters out to everyone in the book,” he said. We were dumbstruck.
From the lobby of the Viking office building we found a pay phone and called our former editor, now at Random House. I don’t know how she could understand a word we were saying through the crying, the screaming, and the bubbling fury. But she got the gist of the crisis and instructed us to immediately walk fifteen blocks to her office to discuss a rescue plan for both us and Roadfood.
I remember that it was the height of summer in New York, the kind of weather that makes you want to crumple up with fatigue. I was wearing a sleeveless sundress made out of very thin cotton. I had a shoulder strap handbag which swished against the dress with every step I took.
Michael and I walked hurriedly down Lexington Avenue. We were still shouting, crying, and batting our hysteria back and forth like a ping pong ball. Slowly I became aware that everyone we passed on the street was staring at us. I was not surprised because we were acting as if all our friends, dogs, and kinfolk had just been murdered. Our grief was noisy and palpable.
The road to Random House went by Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue. The flagship department store had huge plate glass windows filled with mannequins wearing the latest fashions. I glanced at the glass as we walked by and stopped dead in my tracks. The fast-paced walk combined with the big shoulder bag and the skimpy dress had, with every step, spun the fabric up an inch. The skirt was now gathered all around my waist and my mostly naked butt was reflected back at me in the windows. It was like the classic nightmare of finding yourself naked in public. But this was not a dream. No wonder everyone was staring. I was hiking down the avenue crying my eyes out with my underpants wedged in my ass crack.
Of course the story has a happy ending. Roadfood went to Random House and our original editor. We lost a year before it was published, but filled the time traveling and finding more great restaurants to include, and the book was published with the vengeance of one publishing house upstaging another. Apparently an editor versus editor feud has its upside.
I learned a valuable lesson about myself that day. There is something worse then being naked in public. For a writer, having her ass on display to the multitudes was not a big deal compared to losing a book. I now wear more substantial clothing but what is most important to me has not changed at all. The book always comes first.
– Jane Stern