everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Virginia Hamilton: Whiteout in PLAIN CITY

Plain City was conceived in a whiteout, a moment in a blizzard on a highway in Ohio when Virginia was driving and couldn’t see a thing. I wasn’t there, but I’m telling you this because all writers are different, and Virginia’s process of writing this novel was as unique as her voice, from the very start.

She told me about the scene on the highway. The story began growing in her head, and as it grew, she wrote pieces of it and sent them to me. She did not send me a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She sent me fragments. Scenes. They were disconnected. Some of the scenes I could see fitting together, and other scenes did not seem to belong in the same book. She kept writing, and I kept reading. Slowly, as in a darkroom, when you watch a blank sheet of photographic paper reveal gray shapes, then blurry images, then a sharp picture, the scenes in Plain City began to fit together. She wrote the scene about the frogs almost independently, and that was the one scene that concerned her in terms of the fit. But as if by magic, the quilting mechanism in her mind almost unconsciously created the fiction around that scene that made it fit perfectly into the rest of the book. And after that happened, she told me she had finally discovered why she had written the scene. It was as much a puzzle to her as it would have been to anyone else.

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I need to say that my editorial work with Virginia was intensely private. She asked me to keep our conversations to myself, and I respected that. What she said about them, if anything, to others, is something I do not know. But I do know that the process of working with Virginia was very intense, and it was also very calculated on both sides. I carefully devised methods of presenting information to her in ways that might maximize my ability to persuade her to my opinion. In turn, she had an arsenal of persuasive tactics herself. She could be charming, flattering, white-hot brilliant, pensive, irritated, angry, enraged–whatever it took to do what she wanted to do with her book. Our editorial relationship ranged from fun games of mental ping pong to very uncomfortable, tense disagreement. It became clear to me, when I first began working with her, that it was dangerous to call her right after I’d sent her editorial suggestions about anything. I learned to wait three days. On the third day, she would no longer want to rip me to pieces. She had taken in the information and processed it. Sometimes she agreed with me, and sometimes she did not agree with me. At no time, during our two decades working together, did she ever agree to make a change she did not wholeheartedly want to make.

At her memorial services, I told funny stories about the goofy things we did because when we were alone she dropped what I teasingly called The Mighty Hamilton and became a silly playmate who was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. In public she was almost always “distinguished,” and educators, teachers, and librarians were afraid of her. In private she was a stitch. I guess at the memorials I wanted people to know Virginia my pal. The funny one. The sneaky, wily, irreverent girlfriend who would silently slip out the back door of a party given in her honor because we wanted to go see Aaron Neville sing instead. Bad, bad, bad. Our behavior could be terrible. And what grand time we had being terrible. I am laughing out loud as I write this.

In Fall 1993 I launched the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic with four books, and one of them was Plain City. Virginia had been the first writer to call me when I changed my employment from Harcourt to Scholastic. In fact, it was Jean Feiwel’s question about Virginia’s husband/agent, Arnold Adoff, that made me think of changing companies for the very first time since I’d started working with Virginia–many years earlier. Jean wasn’t offering me a job, but she asked me if I would ever consider leaving Harcourt. I immediately said no. I could not leave, I told her, because I had recently signed up a second multiple-book contract, this one for nine books. I was finishing up Drylongso, with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, the first book in that contract. Leaving Virginia behind at Harcourt was out of the question. Jean, ever direct, gave me a hard look and said, “Do you really think Arnold Adoff is going to allow Virginia to stay at any publishing company where she is not happy?”

This had not occurred to me.

But Jean was right. If Virginia was unhappy at a publishing house, I was certain that Arnold would solve the problem for her. No question about it. It was inconceivable that Virginia would be made to stay anywhere she didn’t want to be. Arnold was her agent, and in that role he was tough as nails. There was no better agent in the business.

So Virginia called me one hour after I gave her the news about leaving, and she said, “Can I come, too?” And I don’t even know what to say about that. Maybe just that the atmosphere at Harcourt had become uncomfortable for both of us. She and Arnold broke that multiple-book contract at Harcourt, and she signed up a new multiple-book contract at Blue Sky to replace it. And the first book in that contract was Plain City.

The worst thing that happened with Plain City was that I was new at Scholastic and had hired an incompetent assistant who truly seemed to have come from Jupiter. I joked to myself that Janet Schulman at Random House must be secretly paying my assistant to undermine everything I was doing, and you probably can’t really imagine just how bad it was. My best example of the woman’s incompetence was the morning I came into the office and couldn’t find my MASTER copy of the Plain City manuscript that was going to the printer that day. Now this was 1992, and I only had one master. ALL my editorial corrections were on that one set. It did not leave my desk. I don’t even think I had a computer. If I did, I certainly didn’t edit anything on it.

“Have you seen my master of Plain City?” I asked. “I’m really confused, because I left it right here, in the middle of my desk. And now I can’t find it.”

“Oh, I have it,” the woman told me cheerfully. “I was fixing it.”

“You were what?”

“I was fixing it. Making it nicer for the printer.”

What she had done was use White Out to erase all my editorial changes. ALL OF THEM. The manuscript was clean as a whistle, without a single mark. My assistant had cleaned all the marks off it so it would be easier for the printer to read. I held the pages up to my lamp to see if I could at least see my corrections through the paper. I would have to reconstruct every single re-written sentence and all the punctuation and spelling and everything else. I’m guessing it was at least a year’s worth of work. And no, the White Out had done its business. NOTHING could be seen.

Fortunately I had a young brain, and fortunately I am a maniac. I go over and over and over and over everything I edit. I actually did reconstruct my edits on that manuscript, and I did them immediately. I do not know where the White Out version is–in some filing cabinet, probably. But if you go to Virginia Hamilton’s archive at Kent State, that is one edited manuscript you are not going to find.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I’ll look for it one of these days. I never told Virginia, and thankfully I did not have to share that news. I did help the gal get a new job. She went to work for an agent. I am a softy and have only fired one person in my entire career, and it absolutely could not have been avoided. Plain City came out to rave reviews, and we successfully launched the Blue Sky Press. Virginia began making frog jokes, and all the pieces fell into place. It was a very good time for us, and many, many extraordinary books were made with great support and enthusiasm.

In the end, I suppose Virginia might have found humor in knowing Plain City began with a whiteout and almost ended with White Out; she loved to play with double meanings of words. But I can’t be certain she would think it was funny. That is something I will never know….

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