The One That Got Away
by Kate Kennedy
I have been told that there are only two kinds of stories: a person leaves home, and a stranger comes to town. But as any true book lover knows, this overlooks the “I was stuck in a dirty Parisian hostel, and this was the only thing between me and the bed bugs” story, the “I just re-discovered this, and it’s even better the second time” story, the “I’ll turn out the light after just one more page” story, the “I don’t ever want this to end” story.
For an editor, there is also the “if I don’t work on this book, I will die” story, a particularly rare breed that, like many things, you know only when you see it.
We are all looking for the book that we can press hotly into our friends’ hands, telling them that this truly is the very best book, and if they do not love it as ardently as we do, we may not know them as well as we thought we did. In short, we are all looking for love.
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It is impossible to know when love – real, true love – will come for you. It could happen in the opening line – “Last night, I dreamt of Manderley again” – or perhaps it will come, as planned, at the climax, when Almanzo professes his love to Laura Ingalls, or Elizabeth Bennett finally lets down her guard.
But the thing is, while love has no pride, there is pride, quite a lot in fact, in a break up. So just as you give your phone to your friends during the first three days after that jerk dumped you – you can’t be trusted not to make a teary call at 3 a.m. – editors will rarely tell you of the books they loved and lost.
In 2008, I was reading a submission late at night, in bed. The writing was very good, but so much of what I read is quite good. I was looking for that elusive quality that made this book stand out from the rest. I was looking for the zing.
And then I read a line about a tiger, a beast which had roamed the snowy mountains after escaping a bombed-out city and had made its way into a small rural village, wooed by the smell of meat clasped in the desperate hands of the butcher’s deaf wife.
I sat up. My face flushed and my heart started to pound. I gripped the pages tightly and threw off the sheets so I could walk around. I liked this. I really liked this. I maybe even loved it.
I returned to work the next day hopped up on adrenaline. I hadn’t slept much the night before (I had to finish!), and the butterflies in my stomach were overactive. Zing. All I had to do was win over my publisher – how could she not fall head over heels? – and then win the auction. Easy! This was, after all, TRUE LOVE.
Long story short, I won over my publisher and my marketing and publicity teams. I expressed my ardent love to the agent, who encouraged me to show my devotion with a really strong offer. I entered the auction with high hopes, but of course, I was not alone.
This novel was the literary equivalent of the hottie foreign exchange student. You believe that somehow, you are the only one who sees his sweet smile and finds his jumbly English endearing, but truly, every girl in school is passing him notes.
So, after many conversations with the agent, I ended up losing the novel to another editor who was even more passionate about the book and its prospects, and who has gone on to do a truly exemplary job in publishing this book. Since then, I’ve watched from afar as the author has won honor after honor, enchanted booksellers across the country, and published her debut novel to universal acclaim.
I would be lying if I said that there weren’t still moments when I felt the sting of unrequited love (it’s surprisingly similar to running into that old boyfriend and not only has he not gotten fat, he’s better than ever!).
But I also know that Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the “I’ll turn out the light after just one more page” and the “I don’t ever want this to end” story of the year. I urge you to run to your nearest bookstore a buy a copy of this brilliant debut.
As for me, as trite as it sounds, I know that I will fall in love again and again and again. That is, after all, the whole point.
Kate is an editor in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @kate_editor
RIFers: What’s the last book that gave you that “zing,” that made you fall in love? We want to know! Leave a comment below.