First Book Contract

My first book contract comes with three surprises.

I had to leave a book mecca, New York City, and come to Missouri in order to find a publisher.

Second, Holland House Books is in another country, England.

Third, the editor likes a short book of mine I’d almost forgotten.  It was the first thing I wrote, a mystery novella that I’ve always considered, if not a failure, at least insignificant.  It was a beginner’s effort to write fiction.

“Wow!  I love it!” he wrote.  (He is an exuberant editor.)  I wondered why.  The subject matter is loathsome.  I agreed with my stepmother who, after she read it, said, “So what?”  I had no answer.

But after reading it again, I think I know why he likes it.  It is unselfconscious.  Simple.  The characters and action are not labored.  There’s lots of interesting weather.  The language is clear.  The little book reminds me of Georges Simenon.

Soon after it was done, I began to write serious literary things.  Serious, mannered, literary things.  I was trying pretty hard to be a writer.  But in the mystery novella, I was merely telling a story.

“You explain yourself too much,” my editor says about later, more earnest books.

Now that he wants two more novellas to fill out the mystery collection, can I go back to my earlier simplicity?  Can I drop off years and layers of effort?  Can I be a female Simenon?

Simenon, I’ve read, wrote his short books in less than a week, going through six or seven shirts in one day.  He wrote out of town and maintained an unvarying routine, walking to the same restaurant by the same route.  Same tobacco store.  Every morning and evening the same.

A new Missouri friend led me to Holland House Books.  I’d just moved from Manhattan and wandered into a Missouri Writers Guild meeting.  She’d recently moved from Minnesota.  We were displaced writers, both unpublished.  Refugees in the center of the country where the Midwest begins to blur into the South.

For years, I’d imagined an excited agent calling me.  “I’ve submitted your novel to _____, _____, and _____!  They’re all interested!”

Instead, I’m e-mailed by one editor whose voice and British speech I can’t know.  Good judgment, fair-dealing seem to permeate his messages, but again, I can’t know.  There is no hype.  He gives my work a quiet read.  He tells me he likes The Absent Woman and loves the mystery, Three Blind Mice.  For a while he does not mention a contract.  For a while he promises nothing while giving me a world of confidence.

I respond, send manuscripts, answer questions, and before long, sign a contract.

He’s taking a chance on me, too.



  1. Susan Finlay · ·

    I am so excited for you, Marlene. You deserve recognition for all your hard work and skill, and soon you’ll be a published author and get that recognition. Congratulations! I think you’ll enjoy working with your new editor/publisher, and will have great success.

    Your friend,

  2. I love hearing this story again in your “blog voice.” It adds to my memory of when you told it to me in person. Congratulations, patient aunt!

  3. Mary Sprague · ·

    congratulations! I am so happy for you.

  4. C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S!!
    I think the concept of “going back to beginning” is something many artists work to do; not so much to unlearn all they’ve learned since then, but — much like an actor prepping for a role — to set aside all the prep work and just “be.”

    Can’t wait to read your published book!

    And hmmm… maybe I need to get out of NYC to become more productive & successful too!

  5. Congratulations, Marlene!
    It finally happened.

  6. Congratulations, Marlene! Keep us updated when the book’s on the shelves.

Holland House Books

Literary Fiction

Marlene Lee

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