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Wanted: Readers for a good book

Valerie Martin's 'Trespass' is the latest of 12 books by the author. So why haven't readers noticed despite the favorable reviews?

January 02, 2008|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- This is what it's come to, folks: A distinguished editor and a widely respected writer are talking about getting naked and jumping off cliffs.

The setting is lunch at a Washington restaurant. The editor is Doubleday's Nan Talese, who has taken the train down from New York for the occasion. The writer is Valerie Martin, whose latest novel is "Trespass."

The topic at hand: What will it take to get the American public to pay attention to Martin's book?

"I remember thinking a number of years ago," says Talese, that "pretty soon we're going to have to have in our contracts: 'And the author promises to tour across the United States with no clothes on.' "

"I'm too old for that," Martin says.

"No clothes!" Talese repeats.

" 'And the author will perform death-defying feats,' " Martin adds.

"Death-defying feats!"

"Jumping off cliffs and wires!"

There is a brief pause, during which a listener tries to imagine Martin, who's in town for a reading and who appears not to have an exhibitionistic bone in her 59-year-old body, impersonating Lady Godiva or launching herself across the Snake River Canyon.

How should we think of a writing career like Valerie Martin's? One way -- call it the glass-half-full scenario -- would be to start by pointing out that most writers would kill for her career.

She has published 12 books: 11 works of fiction and a biography of St. Francis. Her 1990 novel, "Mary Reilly," was made into a major motion picture. Her 2003 novel, "Property," won the Orange Prize, awarded to the year's best novel by a woman writing in English. She lives comfortably in upstate New York with her longtime partner, translator John Cullen.

The other way to look at Martin's career, for all you glass-half-empty types, might start with the first sentence of Sue Halpern's otherwise laudatory review of "Trespass" in the Sept. 16 New York Times Book Review:

"Over the past 30 years," Halpern wrote, "Valerie Martin's novels and stories, although well received by critics, have made little dent in the public consciousness." The reviewer, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, noted that the library of this prestigious institution seemed not to own any of Martin's books.

Ouch.

Consider that if it hadn't been for the intervention of Margaret Atwood, much of Martin's work might never have seen the light of day.

Martin grew up in New Orleans. She took writing courses at the University of New Orleans ("I wasn't good at much else"), then took more at the University of Massachusetts, which had one of the nation's earliest master of fine arts programs. Degree in hand, she went home, got a job at the welfare department and settled in to write.

She published a book of stories with a tiny press owned by friends. She wrote a novel, sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, wrote another, sold it, too. The novels got good reviews, she says, and she was especially pleased when Anatole Broyard praised the first, "Set in Motion," in the New York Times. But then her editor left Farrar, Straus, and she was suddenly out on the literary street.

Her agent sent her third novel out to "I don't know, it must have been 20 editors."

No one bought it. Eight years passed. Martin kept writing.

By then she'd married, had a daughter, divorced and was teaching college. In the mid-'80s, she spent a year at the University of Alabama. Atwood was there as well, with a daughter about the same age as Martin's. Daughters and mothers became friends. The Canadian poet and novelist was then finishing "The Handmaid's Tale," her horrifying evocation of a misogynistic theocracy, which would make literary and commercial waves when it was published in 1986.

Martin was the first to read the manuscript.

"We have two versions of this story," Martin says. "She says that when I read it and she said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I think there's something in it.' " But Martin remembers saying simply, "You're going to be rich."

"That sounds like something she might say and I might forget," says Atwood, laughing, when asked to clear up this crucial discrepancy.

After Martin gave Atwood her own manuscripts to read, Atwood marched into the office of her American editor -- Talese, then at Houghton Mifflin -- carrying three of them.

"She said, 'This is a writer you should publish,' " Talese recalls.

The third Martin book Talese published was "Mary Reilly," an imaginative and well-reviewed retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Hollywood snapped it up. Stephen Frears would direct. John Malkovich and Julia Roberts would star.

Glass half full: The money put Martin's daughter through college.

Glass half empty: The movie was dreadful.

Four books later came "Property." Set on a Louisiana plantation, told from the point of view of the plantation owner's wife.

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