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BOOKS & AUTHORS

After 5 Years of Rejection, Novel Wins Prize, Raves

March 10, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a writer, Merrill Joan Gerber has an impressive track record.

Over the past three decades, she has had two collections of short stories, nine young-adult novels and four adult novels published. That's not to mention the more than 60 short stories she has written for magazines, including the Atlantic, the New Yorker and Redbook, where she has published more stories than any other writer in the history of the magazine: 41, as of the May issue.

And yet "King of the World," her critically acclaimed new novel about family violence and its underlying causes, was rejected 26 times over a five-year period.

Rejection is not something the Sierra Madre writer is used to.

"Certainly not when I thought this was my most powerful work to date and I had taken a lot of risks in writing it," said Gerber, 51. "I thought I was offering them something pretty significant. It was very discouraging, particularly because they were what you'd call 'rave' rejections. Most of the (rejection) letters said, 'This is dazzling and astounding, but we don't see a way that we can sell it.' "

The novel, she said, was deemed too depressing by most editors.

In fact, Gerber had already decided to retire her novel to a drawer when "King of the World" was nominated for the Pushcart Press Editors' Book Award, an annual award given to "overlooked manuscripts of enduring literary value."

Gerber was notified early last year that "King of the World" had won the prize, which includes publication by Pushcart Press, a New York publishing house.

The novel, which in the words of the dust jacket "convincingly details the allure of marriage to a deeply troubled and needy man and one woman's realization that to survive she has to cut herself off and start over," was published in January to rave reviews. Los Angeles Times book reviewer Carolyn See said it attempts "to get below the journalistic surface of a very bad social problem, and succeeds, memorably."

Gerber plans to discuss how "King of the World" ultimately survived five years of rejection at a daylong writers conference March 17 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. "People really love to hear that because it's instructive: You have to rely on an inward strength to go ahead" as a writer, she says.

The conference, "Writing for Love, Art and Money," will cover children's literature, fiction and nonfiction. The $75 fee includes a box lunch. To register, call (714) 582-4646.

Conference coordinator Shelba Robison, who teaches creative writing at the college, said the conference "is the first one of what I hope will be an annual event."

"The title of the conference reflects the philosophy I hope that our writing program has: writing for love, art and money. I maintain if you don't write for the first, the other two aren't going to come, for sure."

Robison said she had wanted to offer a writer's conference "for a long time, and I wanted it to be a quality experience: I wanted to get special people who reflect this sort of triple whammy."

The speakers roster includes Carolyn Arnold, author of more than 50 nonfiction books for young people; children's book authors Marilyn Gould and Leslie McGuire; Robert Howland, president of a publishing and communications company and co-author of "The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction and Nonfiction and Getting It Published"; and Yvonne Hubbs of the Yvonne Hubbs Literary Agency.

Also on the list are Greg Lee, West Coast managing editor of Carnival Enterprises, which produces more than 150 children's books a year; author Myron Roberts, the founding editor and publisher of L.A. magazine, which later became Los Angeles magazine; and journalist Robert Scheer, a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a frequent contributor to Harper's, Esquire, Interview and Premiere magazines.

The morning keynote speaker will be James N. Frey, author of "How to Write a Damn Good Novel." And, in the afternoon, Gerber will discuss "Crossing the Fine Line Between Literary and Commercial Fiction."

Gerber, who teaches writing at Caltech, UCLA and Pasadena College, said writers conferences "are wonderful because you realize that others are following the same endeavor, and it gives you a sense of confidence and community with these other people--and it tends to send you home to your typewriter."

Although she received $1,000 in prize money from Pushcart Press for "King of the World," Gerber said, "the real prize is the publication."

What made the long string of rejections for her novel especially hard to take, she said, was that in each publishing house the manuscript was sent to, "there were one or two people who wanted to publish it. But publishing now exists by committee, and there was always one editor who said, 'We'd better not.' "

Gerber said, however, that Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press "is a small, literary, fine publisher, and he doesn't have a committee he has to report to--which is how the old editors used to (operate) when publishing was a different animal."

"King of the World" is already in a second printing.

"The time has come for the subject to be talked about, I think," Gerber said, "because the public awareness now is very great about the kind of domestic violence that exists in this country."

Gerber said she first gained insight into the problem years ago when she worked on a crisis hot line and "became aware of the large number of frightened women--wives and mothers. I also have seen this phenomenon in many of the people I know. Every other woman who reads this book says, 'That was my first husband, or my father, or a man I almost married.' "

The lesson to be gained by her novel's long odyssey to publication, Gerber said, is this: "To follow your own vision. Because you can't possibly please everyone--especially since publishers don't really know what they're looking for. Publishers really can't second-guess what the public wants. Unfortunately, they often underestimate what the public is capable of understanding."

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