Guernica Editions is going to publish my new novel, now called Cardinal Divide, in 2020. The contract is signed, the manuscript in the hands of their editor.
I don’t know a lot about Guernica Editions except that they’ve been around for forty years, have an interesting list and I like their covers.
Last winter I did a bit more rewriting, had no luck interesting agents in the book, then settled down to research Canadian publishers of literary fiction willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts. Turns out there are a lot of interesting small Canadian presses out there. Mostly they encourage you to read some of the books they’ve already published. Our local library was able to search by publishers so I could borrow some. Others I bought. It felt a bit random, deciding which to read, but the process did help me narrow down the list of presses. Plus I read some good writing.
I’d love to have an agent again, someone who really knows the publishing world. By the sort of serendipity that happens more often when you live in New York City (as I did once) than in rural Nova Scotia, my first novel, Where Bones Dance, caught the attention of a wonderful agent who numbered Jamaica Kincaid among her authors. She sent it to a few places, got some nibbles but no takers and told me to get on with a new book. We’d get that published first. But then she died, much too young. The novel languished in a drawer for years. Finally I set myself a goal of fifty new rejections. As I recall, I only made it to twenty-three.
My goal for Cardinal Divide was to send it to ten presses. This required cover letters tailored to each press, an exquisite form of torture. It helped to read other people’s so, for what it’s worth, here’s one version of mine:
Please find attached my new novel, Cardinal Divide, a work of literary fiction set in Alberta in the year 2000.
A father comes out to his daughter as a woman. Or at least, he was once a woman. It’s complicated. Funny. Painful. Eventually joyful. Meanwhile the daughter, who was adopted, has her own identity issues. At the Aboriginal addictions treatment centre where she works, everyone assumes she is indigenous. But is she? How can she find out? Her need to know leads her down dangerous roads.
Cardinal Divide is full of voices rarely heard in fiction. It explores the hunger for certainty and the mutability of identity, whether of gender, race or sexuality. Authenticity isn’t simple. Acting as somebody else is simultaneously a way to deceive and to explore the world. Characters who pass as male, as white, as straight, straddle the cardinal divides. And then, sometimes, passing is becoming.
This book grew out of my experiences as a new immigrant to Canada, to Edmonton specifically. I was intrigued by the number of people I met who discovered their indigenous heritage as adults, and was startled by the level of ‘drunken Indian’ racism I heard from white Canadians. I began working at an addictions treatment center created by indigenous people. Later I was hired by the Alberta Native Friendship Centre to write a paper on the situation of two spirit youth. The fluidity and sophistication of traditional indigenous concepts of gender and sexual orientation stirred my imagination.
About myself: I’m English originally, white and queer. I was born in Hong Kong and lived in Germany, Israel and Nigeria. I read English at Cambridge, won a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, was about to go back to England to do a PhD. Instead I became a carpenter, a writer and an illegal alien. After twenty years of living under the radar in the US, I came to the attention of the authorities. When the government did not recognise our marriage, my American partner and I decided to move to Canada.
My first novel, Where Bones Dance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), came out a few months after I arrived here. It won the Writers’ Guild of Alberta 2008 prize for novel. A review in the Times Literary Supplement described the book as ‘an engaging and moving story of loss and discovery, revealed through dreamlike and delicate vignettes. Newington is an observer who retains the purity, the incomprehension and the sometimes powerful insight of a child, and this is what makes her book so memorable.’ (Lola Aragon, August 10th, 2007).
I hope you enjoy Cardinal Divide. I have submitted it to other publishers. I will let you know promptly if it is accepted elsewhere.
Looking at the letter now, I can’t imagine why composing it took so much time and gnashing of teeth, but it did. Whatever pep talks I give myself, submitting work feels like exposing my belly to a boot.
That being the case, it’s worth trying to improve the odds whatever way I can. Seeing that Guernica was running a prize competition when I was ready to submit the manuscript, I decided to cough up the $50 fee. In theory they would have looked at my work anyway but I figured somebody would have to read at least the first few pages of every prize entry. As it turned out, my book was long-listed but didn’t make the short-list. A couple of days after I’d stopped muttering and whimpering, I got an email saying they’d been impressed enough by the book to want to publish it. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face for several days.