Stuart Lutz's Blog

April 16, 2010

Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.



I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.



In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.



April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…



I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.



I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…



I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.



This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.



I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.



While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.



I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.



On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.



I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:

Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.



It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.
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Published on April 16, 2010 17:34 • 106 views