Jul 27

Talking With: Peter Leach, About His First Published Novel

Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the town’s black residents, ordered to be “gone by sundown.”

Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, “I don’t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than Igonebysundownforblog do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.”

Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? They’d be easier to publish.

A: It’s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily.  Many agents won’t touch fiction.  Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands.  Fiction is what I do.

Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thornton’s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.

Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.

Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novel’s “old French Colored” characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardy’s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.

I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.

The novel’s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.

But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests.  I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.

Q: What started you writing fiction?

A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising.  He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire.  He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end. 
Oct 09

'Tis the Season to Rip Off New Authors

Friend had her first novel accepted by a very small press (two owners, a couple, fighting) and excitedly signed a contract that said the press would edit her work for publication. But instead it referred her to an editor they knew who wanted $450. My friend, eager to see her book published, paid it. The edit/rewrite horrified her. She called me and added that she hated the book's new title, and had paid $250 for the cover image (what?!) and more for her own author photo (that's normal, paying for your own photo), and the press was pushing her to have the book out by November 1, "in time for the holidays," and expected her to do all her own marketing and sell 500 copies by Christmas. My friend asked the press how she could possibly do that, and they said, "Hire a hall and then invite everyone you know and and sell them the book."

The owners weren't speaking to one another and one was secretly trying to establish her own separate press, and secretly asked my friend to come and be HER author, although this entailed having the manuscript edited again by another editor, with my friend responsible for the cost.

What should she do, my friend asked.

I said, "Pull out, today. Call. Tell them you don't want to work with them. Send a registered letter. They broke contract when they made you pay for an edit. They sound too penny-ante to hire a lawyer and fight you, but if they did, they broke contract and they will lose."

But oh...they'd accepted her first novel! She so much wanted to see it in print. And she knew that if she pulled her book, ahead of her lay months of submitting her manuscript until someone else accepted it, and she didn't want to go through that again, and self-publishing, well, that was death; so what should she do?