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by Elizabeth Bales Frank

Part 1: My Book in a Store

       Twenty-five years ago, shortly out of college, I published my first novel with a Major Publishing House. I saw it in a store exactly once—back when there were bookstores and the hope to see your book in one was not entirely unreasonable. However, the store was not a bookstore, but a branch of Ikea. Stripped of its soul-crushingly horrible jacket, my novel was a design element. Its spine was the same jaunty blue as the blue in the Ikea logo, or in the Swedish flag, which may have inspired the Ikean designer to pluck it from the remainder pile. My first literary effort was displayed alongside a few other loser books and a cute blue vase containing a yellow paper flower, on a bookcase. I’d seen it from across the store when I looked up from a selection of thrifty kitchen linens: Cooder Cutlas by Elizabeth Bales Frank.
      To convince the checkout clerk that I had a claim to the objet d’art on the shelf, I produced my driver’s license, pointed to my name, and the name of the author. “See? That’s me. I wrote this. It’s out of print. I need copies.” The clerk’s eyes skated over the lines of cash registers in a vain search for a supervisor to relieve her of the burden of this request, amidst the commotion of the enormous flat-box merchandise sliding down the checkout ramps. Finally, she shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I don’t know … it’s just . . . we never sell books.”
      “Oh, that’s okay,” I wish I had said. “Neither do I.”
      Cooder was the product of my lonely life until that point. The teenagers of my adolescence—in the 1970s and 1980s—lived in a kind of isolation few American teens endure anymore. They have cable, the internet, chat rooms and “social media platforms” where they can find kindred souls who share their enthusiasms, however obscure or radical. I was stuck in the Midwest with my friend Linda who shared my taste in music. We both loved for Bruce Springsteen who was, when we discovered him, still obscure enough for him to be ours, for better or worse.
      Linda and I suffered through the agonizingly long wait between the release of Born to Run and the release of his following album by extrapolating fanciful narrative plots about the characters born to run through Springsteen songs. It began as a private joke, an exchange of made-up tales about a garage mechanic who restores classic American cars. (That was the “Cutlas” in Cooder Cutlas. Cooder was for blues guitarist Ry Cooder) and falls in with a scruffy group of musicians one summer in 1974 in a crappy tourist town on the New Jersey beach.
      Finally, as Linda and I entered our junior year of high school, Springsteen’s fourth album was released, Darkness on the Edge of Town. His first, Greetings from Asbury Park, had been a bit folky, heavy on complicated lyrics and deft rhyming schemes—he, like so many others, had been labeled “The New Dylan.” The second, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (my favorite, still) was jubilant and jazzy. Born to Run was his bid to get a goddamn hit on AM radio. And Darkness, with its intense vignettes of cinematic drama and its, well, Darkness, would have been his autobiographical novel, had Springsteen written books.
      Springsteen was the John Irving of rock and roll. Irving’s breakthrough novel, The World According to Garp came out the same year as Darkness; it, too, followed three previous works of brave imagination and low to middling success. Springsteen would most likely not have survived the hit-it-or-quit-it mentality of today’s music business any more than Irving would have been allowed to publish a fourth novel in today’s publishing industry. Trial and error, experimentation, finding your footing, exploring your voice and themes in your early work in public—none of this is possible anymore.
      What today’s early John Irving would probably do is self-publish.
      Which is what, one recent summer, I thought about doing with Cooder Cutlas.

Part 2: Self-Publishing

      A colleague at my day job ran an e-book publishing house, targeting the young adult (of course) crowd, with novels of vampires and werewolves geared to feed the maw of teenage girls born too late for Bruce Springsteen or John Irving. One of the novels she published had been the most-downloaded novel on iTunes but she’d made the mistake of offering it for free (hence the day job.) She had the technical know-how that I lacked; she could handle the logistics of e-distribution. She would be happy to! Cooder was probably too “literary” for her e-imprint (it had received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly) but she could help me set up my own. Just send her the Word file!
      Aye, there’s the rub.
      I wrote Cooder Cutlas on a typewriter. I didn’t have a Word file and I didn’t want to retype it. I couldn’t bear it. Revisiting the text was like creating a fresh wound on an old scar. I didn’t have to type it, my colleague said. Scan it! Run it through the office scanner and create a Word file. No problem!

Part 3. The Problems

      A scanner produces the best results when working with flat documents on the screen of the copier, as opposed to books. I took an Exacto knife to one of my few remaining copies of Cooder Cutlas. I cut the pages free, all 311 of them. Then, I had nice small pages to reproduce to a file. It was a tedious process, copying page by page, then cleaning up the scanned text paragraph by paragraph. Sometimes the scan result was weirdsmushsedtex and sometimes it was whole sentences like “&!# went to the beach, I think*## said Trud!!! Y^^ mi%$t find he++ there.”
      So I had to handle the text, and in handling the text, I succumbed to the temptation to revise the text.
      I began these stories at seventeen, turned them into a novella in college, then expanded them into a novel, which became a literary novel. At the time, the novel was the only thing I took seriously in my whole life. I had worked on it diligently in college, where I was studying film production, sacrificing, as I had in high school, the rumored delights of a social life on many weekends in favor of work. I worked on it at my first job, where I was a receptionist at one of the “Big Three” television networks and coveted the elegant red IBM Selectric on my desk. I worked on it at night in my first New York apartment, thundering across the keyboard of my manual typewriter (to the chagrin of my three roommates) like Jerry Lee Lewis.
      “Too much dialogue, too many characters, too much description and too many events,” read the rejection note from one now-famous editor. Well! I thought. How can ALL of those things be true?
      Had I crafted the description above in the Cooder era of my writing, I would have blinked back the tears which filled my pale eyes, studied the ceiling, bit my lower lip, and released a slow sigh as I slid the rejection letter back into the envelope. Then I would have shaken my head in response to the unasked question of my roommate, her dark eyes full of sympathy, and she would have sighed in harmony.
      “Watch those slow sighs,” my editor’s assistant at the Major House wrote in the margin, in blue pencil. That’s how they used to do it. “They happen far too often.”
      Yes, I got to a Major House, without the help of an agent. A playwriting professor from film school attended a dinner party with an editor from the Major House, and put in a good word. I committed the first rookie mistake of carrying the novel over to the house myself (it was only a few blocks away) wrapped in brown paper like a good cut of beef. I laid it tenderly on the desk of the receptionist, my sister-in-underemployed arms. “I am a fragile, ignorant novice,” I may as well have announced. “Please exploit me to the best of your ability.”
      Every possible indignity that could befall a first-time novelist was visited upon me, a twenty-four year old who had published nothing else, with no money, connections, industry savvy, agent or lawyer. My novel was shoved back on the schedule to accommodate a “prima donna on our list.” (What list, I wondered? A to-do list?) My editor was a children’s book editor who slated the book as a young adult novel, since it dealt with rock and roll music. (Although she had great ambition for the young adult division, I doubt that even she could envision the cachet it carries now.) Deeply insulted, I insisted that the book be listed in the adult catalogue as well. The House agreed, but then subjected me to a juvenile-looking, brooding-boy-leaning-on-a-car-at-sunset cover.
       “It’s awful,” I wept into the phone to my editor’s assistant. “I hate it. I know a lot of authors probably say that, but I really hate it. No adult will touch this. I gave you clear ideas for a cover.” (A ’56 T-Bird, a Fender Stratocaster.) “Do I have any say in anything? Is [my editor] back yet? Can I talk to her?”
      “Our sales people say that books sell much better if there’s a person on the cover,” she soothed. “We know what we’re doing. You just focus on your next novel.”
      My editor was long gone on maternity leave. I didn’t hear from her for more than a year.
      When it reached the copy editing department, my manuscript was used as a test to train an eager junior copy editor. The manuscript was returned to me with two sets of copyedits from different colored pencils. (“Do kids today know about Beatlemania?” asked one note from the junior, because I had mentioned Ringo Starr. “Will they know who Richard Nixon was?”) The god-awful cover was just as awful on its back, where it had no mention of me or of the book, but advertised two other books in the publisher’s catalogue. My bio stated that I had “attended” college but not that I had graduated. I was asked to produce a list of people to whom galleys should be sent. Even though I knew almost no one, I was told that my list was too long: “Galleys are expensive.” Italics were also very expensive and my novel was full of them.
      My ideas for publicity were dismissed: “We never do that sort of thing,” smirked the publicist when I suggested an idea that is commonplace now (a Spotify playlist. Of course, there was no Spotify, because there was no internet, but I suggested sending mixed tapes of songs mentioned in the novel to rock radio stations.)
      The publication date was routinely pushed back. It will be in the summer catalogue. No, the fall catalogue. Did we say winter? We meant spring. And once more, summer. Not just summer, but August. "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August,” Bush’s Chief of Staff famously explained when asked why the invasion of Iraq had been planned for September, 2002. (Will kids today know who Bush is?)
      But at last it was published! There was a glowing Publisher’s Weekly review which made me happy for almost an hour: “. . . It is accomplished, fluidly written and portrays heartbreakingly real relationships. Particularly noteworthy are its elegiac descriptions that sing of bygone times and unfulfilled longings; the mood and characters Frank has created will linger long after the last refrain fades away.” (I would like to point out here that although I can recite from memory the rejection letters from agents and the comments from the editorial and publicity staff at Major House, I had to search my files for a copy of this review.) That review was followed by a more equivocal one in Kirkus, and then some mixed and finally some condemning reviews from the library journals, who found it on the whole too contemplative for its “intended audience of teenaged readers.”
      And then my novel died. There were no reviews in mainstream publications, not even my hometown newspapers. It never appeared in bookstores. It never went to paperback. There was no amazon, no bookreads, no book blogs, no Kindles, no Nooks. YA meant S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, or books assigned to what they now call “reluctant readers” in high school lit classes, the ones who can’t handle the classics. Young adult did not then mean billion-dollar franchises that become summer blockbusters.
      So why not give my novel a second chance? Why not take advantage of all this wonderful technology and send it out into the world again?

Part 4. A Sigh is Just a Sigh

      As I mentioned, in cleaning up the many problems from the scan (I may as well have retyped it), I was tempted, and mostly of the time failed to resist the temptation, to “tweak.” I was reminded of a favorite short story of mine, Julio Cortázar’s spooky “We Love Glenda So Much,” in which a group of cinema sophisticates devoted to the work of a retired actress conspire to steal the original prints of her films (technology again!) and re-edit them to their liking. Almost immediately in the process of “cleaning up,” I acted upon the urge to tinker, with the benefit of hindsight. Not only do the slow sighs in Cooder Cutlas occur far too often, but there is too much dramatic breathing altogether: a gasp, a huff, a slow exhale.
      The women have vapid ambitions which fall too easily to the desires of men. The men speak about women as men never speak about women unless they live in a pop song or in the third week of a relentless enemy siege when the last of the food and ammo has run out. All the characters feel too much, and spend too much time talking about their feelings, or thinking about their feelings, or recalling a time when they had similar feelings, and what it felt like then to feel those feelings. But that’s the work of the writer I was at the time.
      The question of whether I should be “allowed” to tinker with the original text—remove that wistful sigh, avert those glowing eyes, cut that page of dialogue, oh, what the hell, that whole conversation—became a dinner-party debate among my friends but for me, soon enough, it became an excursion through the sorrow of the past, when I wrote in first person from a man’s point of view about life inside a song because I wasn’t yet bold enough to speak for myself and set out on my own adventures.
      And Christ, I was a lonely young woman, so full of yearning, so bruised by my childhood that I cocooned myself into a fictitious life with only a tentative resemblance to anyone’s world, real or imagined. I spent my nights tapping out a new scenario, hoping it would deliver redemption in the form of acceptance.
      “There is no place in the contemporary marketplace,” read the rejection letter of one all-powerful agent. “For the story you have chosen to tell.”
      And if that was true back then—before the internet, premium cable, amazon, kindle, youtube, The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games trilogy—how much truer would be it now? Cooder Cutlas is about a group of beer-drinking, denim-wearing rock and roll kids who hang out on the Jersey Shore one summer, eventually leave to make their places in the world, and become disillusioned. The sex isn’t graphic and there are no drugs because it wasn’t a drug story (and how dull to read about drug use.) It’s a bit poetic, a bit melancholic, and even in today’s world, where so many adults read young adult books; it lacks sizzle and high stakes. For it to succeed as an e-book, it would have to be about a tribe of rock and roll vampires fighting a school of wizards to the death in an annual ritual until they join forces to defeat the zombie apocalypse. On the Jersey Shore. With lots of eyeliner, stabbing, biting and wand-waving. Cooder Cutlas had its time in the marketplace, and it wound up in Ikea.
      Many people know the phrase from Heraclitus, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” which I always took to mean, “You can’t go home again.” But the full aphorism is “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” I have another lifetime of experiences, of reading, of writing and even of some adventures to draw upon when I write now. I’m not the same man. No point in sighing about it.

Elizabeth Bales Frank is a novelist and essayist based in New York. You can reach her at, or visit her website, which discusses the literature of World War II, at

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