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The Golden Gamble : Victor Villasenor Returned Big Advance, Hocked Home to Publish His Book His Way

August 16, 1992|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In most rags-to-riches stories about writers, the author toils for years on a "big" book, goes into debt, finally gets a contract from a top publisher, then enjoys huge success. But, in the case of Victor Villasenor, a hard-working, well-regarded writer from Oceanside, it didn't quite work out that way.

The key elements of the story were there--the hard work, the debts and the big payoff.

It's just that when Villasenor was poised at the brink of success, with a contract for his book, "Rain of Gold," from a major publisher, the advance in the bank and a book club deal in the works, he decided to reverse the process.

His publisher, G. P. Putnam, wanted to shorten his 500-page family history, change the title and call it fiction.

Villasenor didn't. So he hocked his family home and agreed to pay back the $75,000 he'd received from the publisher, G. P. Putnam & Sons, for the book about three generations of his family and his parents' immigration to California from Mexico. He and Putnam parted amicably. A spokeswoman for the publisher had no comment on "Rain of Gold."

After months of looking, Villasenor found a small ethnic publisher in Texas that had never marketed a hardcover book and could come up with only a $1,500 advance.

Still, there is a happy ending.

Villasenor got "Rain of Gold" published to highly favorable reviews. Some critics have called the book a Mexican-American version of "Roots."

And now, a year after publication, he is reaping financial rewards. After the book was brought out by Arte Publico Press in Houston, Villasenor signed a six-figure contract with Dell/Dellacorte for the paperback rights. Negotiations are under way for a sequel, and NBC has hired him to create a television series about a family of Mexican immigrants.

"We had gambled everything on the book, and we were at the end of our ropes financially," Villasenor said recently.

Villasenor was a moderately successful writer. He had published a novel, "Macho!" in 1973, and three years later wrote "Jury," an account of the Juan Corona murder trial. In the early 1980s he wrote a screenplay, "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," that was made into a public television movie.

But his successes had been spread out over a period of years, and Villasenor said he was broke when he finally sold "Rain of Gold" the first time. He'd spent 12 years writing his family's saga and had gone $65,000 in debt by the time he finished, he said.

"When we sold to Putnam and got the initial $75,000, we were so happy. I already owed all the money, so the Putnam check was gone instantly," he said.

Soon, the joy at seeing his book published under the imprint of a major publishing house was gone, too.

Villasenor said Putnam, worried about small sales orders, wanted to shorten the book by 150 pages, change the title and call it fiction. Even though the book reads like fiction, Villasenor said it is based on the experiences of his family.

"They wanted to call my parents fiction. They wanted to call it 'Rio Grande,' like an old John Wayne movie," said Villasenor, 52, recounting problems that developed during 1989 and 1990.

The author was adamant about keeping "Rain of Gold" as his title, since that is the English translation of the name of his mother's village in Mexico. And he said he didn't want anyone to think he was making up the real-life struggles his family faced in leaving Mexico.

"If a little girl reads this book and it's called fiction, what's she going to think, 'Oh, it's just fiction.' But when she reads it and sees a picture of my mother, then this little girl is going to say, 'Oh, my God, if a woman can do that, I can do that,' " he said.

Since Villasenor had already spent the money advanced to him by Putnam, in order to buy the book back he had to borrow his mother's life savings and get a second mortgage on his home.

"When I bought the book back, I was in absolute terror. I ended up in the hospital twice. At one point I couldn't eat, and I couldn't drink water. All I could do was suck on ice for about three days, because I was just so tense," Villasenor said.

He said it took him seven months to find Arte Publico Press, a small publisher that specializes in Latino writers and is affiliated with the University of Houston.

Then his fear was that his book would be lost without a major publisher's promotional machine. "This was their first hardback. We had to start from scratch to build up a sales force, a publicity department," Villasenor said.

Arte Publico Press has gone on to sell more than 20,000 hardcover copies of the book, a modest number by bestseller standards, but enough to satisfy Villasenor and his publisher, which has used the experience with "Rain of Gold" to publish additional hardcover books by Latino writers.

Dell/Dellacorte will publish the quality paperback edition of the book in October.

The head of Arte Publico Press, Nicolas Kanellos, said that in publishing Villasenor's book "we developed a great deal in a short period of time because of what we had to do to market Victor's book."

For many writers, signing books is a burdensome chore, something done to satisfy fans, publishers and bookstore owners. But not Villasenor. Villasenor doesn't just sign books. He uses an elaborate scroll to draw a picture, then insists on hugging everyone who gets a copy.

"In each book, I draw a long-stemmed flower and plant it in a sea of love. My grandmother always said we are like flowers and if we're planted in love, no matter what catastrophes happen--financial, loss of children, divorce, job--we'll never break, we'll never get bitter," he said.

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