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A story about a story

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, August 23, 2009

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Chapel Hill, NC - There is the story, and then there is the story of the story.

Both make for good telling.

First, the story of the story, which is about how a North Carolina author got her first book published by a major national publisher.

It’s got a fairy tale quality. Think Cinderella. Or think American Idol’s Clay Aiken or Anoop Desai.

The heroine of the story of the story is Erica Eisdorfer, the long-time manager of the Bulls Head Bookshop at UNC-Chapel Hill. From her childhood days in Durham she has devoured books and loved their authors. So, to a certain degree, she has a dream job, working in a world of books and having for her clientele an eclectic group of serious readers—students, faculty, and campus visitors.

As a part of her work, she reads countless books, hosts numerous authors for readings at the Bulls Head, and regularly comments on books for the media.

But something was missing: Her own book.

So, she wrote it.

It took years. Because her book is set in 19th century England, she spent hours upon hours in research in order to make sure her characters dressed, ate, worked and lived the way real British people did in those years. How would they travel from their hometown to London? Was there railroad service? How long would the trip take? How much would it cost?

Then, there was the theme of her novel, titled “The Wet Nurse’s Tale.” The role of a wet nurse, someone who breastfeeds another person’s child, might have been well understood by everyone 150 years ago. But, getting it right meant a lot more research for Eisdorfer.

She was fortunate, she says, since the campus graduate library and its incredible storehouse of reference resources is only a few steps from the Bulls Head.

At last the book was finished. Eisdorfer sent copies to agents, hoping to persuade one of them to take on the book to sell to a publisher. In return, she got rejection after rejection. A few were nice, she says. Most were simple form letters. Some were on one-third normal size scraps of paper. But all were rejections. No agent thought a novel about a 19th century English wet nurse would sell in today’s America.

Eisdorfer put the book aside until she read about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, a contest for unpublished novels. First prize would be publication by Penguin Group, one of the contest’s sponsors

She entered. So did 5000 others. Then she made the cut when the field was narrowed to 1000, then 100, and then 10.

Think again about Clay and Anoop. She came close, but her book did not get the prize.

But, in the end, she got what she most wanted. As a part of the contest, the finalists posted part of their books on the web so that the public could read them and then vote for their favorite. Also reading the books on-line were literary agents, who were looking for books and authors to sell to publishers. These were some of the same folks who sent all those rejection letters to Eisdorfer. Now their letters soliciting to represent her filled her mailbox.

She signed on with the first letter to reach her. Her new agent quickly found a buyer. This month, Putnam released “The Wet Nurse’s Tale.”

Now, just a hint about the story itself. This tale of a simple, study, rural English girl who goes into the homes of upper class families and finds a way to save for herself the things she most treasures. Read it, and I will bet you will agree with me that “the story” itself is even better than the “story of the story.”

A real prizewinner.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries,” a guide to family owned homecooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways

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