Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Second Life for an Old Friend: posted on Red Room

In 1988 I wrote a novel about Mexico, Maximilian's Garden. My agent sold it to a publisher and shortly thereafter the acquiring editor left to go back to her old job as a journalist. The book, abandoned by its shepherd, became that most dreaded of objects, an orphan, passed from editor to editor in the publishing house until, like a game of musical chairs, it landed on some unwitting editor who already had plans for retirement. The book was published in 1990 - sort of - fell into a coma and died.

I thought about that novel often after that, wondered what I could have done to prevent its untimely death. Had no idea. None at all.

Let's back up a bit. If left to my own devices I'd still be writing books the way I wrote Maximilian's Garden, with ballpoint pen on yellow legal pad.

Now that that's out of the way, I can explain what happened to Maximilian's Garden.

"Check out this Lanier computer, honey," my husband said when the first monster home computers came out in the late eighties. "It's revolutionary, memorizes what you've written and prints it out."

He brought one home. I whimpered and whined. I told him I had my own way of doing things and what was I supposed to do with the thing, anyway.

Point of information: I've always been resistant to anything that involves understanding patent applications.

"Lanier offers classes in how to operate their machine," he said.

He's so reasonable.

I took a class. The Lanier wasn't revolutionary. Each page had a discrete, inviolable number of lines. Try to exceed them - such as when you edit and rewrite - and the maneuvering required to do so was so onerous it made my eyes cross.

I threw out the Lanier, the pen and legal pad and began using an electric typewriter, which had its own set of problems. But never mind.

The Lanier gave way to the personal computer. PC Magazine began arriving in the mail at our house.

"Look at this, honey," my husband said. "A personal computer is just the thing for you. You'll save time. You can rewrite to your heart's content."

A computer promptly arrived in my office. Bit by bit, arguing and complaining, I learned how to write on it. I had to admit, it did save time, and I could rewrite and rewrite and rewrite without destroying a single tree.

Then something called the internet turned up. A gimmick, I thought to myself. Who needs to e-mail someone when you can pick up a telephone?

Of course, in no time my husband had us hooked up to cyberspace.

"Look at this, honey, something called e-books," he said. "They put books on the internet."

I liked reading books with words on paper. My husband loves gadgets. He began reading e-books.

It wasn't until 2009 that I discovered that one of my books, The End of Marriage had been put on Amazon Kindle in 2002 by its publisher, who was one of the first to reserve electronic rights in book contracts. I had signed away electronic rights when I signed the book contract. Everyone did. No one thought there would ever be an advantage to owning electronic rights.

But I owned the electronic rights to Maximilian's Garden. It was a book about Mexico. Mexico was in the news.

I reread it. It was like meeting an old friend and picking up the conversation where you left off 20 years before. But 20 years ago I was still a baby writer; I didn't have the skills I have now. I decided to rewrite it, first page to last. I renamed it Children of Guerrero in honor of Gonzalo Guerrero, the first Spaniard to set foot on the Yucatan peninsula, the father of the mestizo.

So now Children of Guerrero is on the internet, an e-book that can orbit the world in a cometary flash of light. The business of delivering books to their readers is being reinvented as I write this. Who knows what magical discovery is on the horizon? All I know is that writers have been unshackled, their options expanded. Worthy books, long out of print, can be brought back and given second lives. With the internet nothing is lost. Books can't be orphaned or killed. They float through cyberspace, an unimpeded ghostly chorus of the reborn.