Since Mary and I have already published two books with major publishers, some of our friends have wondered why we are doing it differently now. Easy. Done that, been there—twice—and we didn’t like it!
In 1970, we were offered a sabbatical leave year from our teaching jobs in the Panama Canal Zone and were soon en route to Indiana University to enroll in graduate school for the second time. While there, we wrote a paper about children’s folklore. The project required a lot of fieldwork with kids and was a lot of fun.
Back in the Zone, I suggested we turn our paper into a book. “We’d get to talk to a lot more kids.” Mary was dubious, but she went along, and four years later, the book was finished.
Our agent was not enthusiastic, and several publishers turned it down. So we were happy when W.W. Norton agreed to publish it.. Our editor told us the company’s readers didn’t much like it because it fell “between two stools.” (Publishers like books that fit into a definite category. They are easier to market.) However, the president of the company liked it, so they didn’t have much choice. Today, 40 years later, it is still on the backlist and available for purchase on Amazon, which must be some kind of a record.
When the book came out, Mary happened to be on leave (unpaid this time). She was in New York, there to put our youngest daughter in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
As was customary, the publisher sent copies of all their newly published books to the Today Show, hoping that they’d pick one to feature. Much to their surprise and undisguised dismay, the Today Show suggested they might be interested in our book! Norton had their hopes set on a book of photographs of Picasso’s studio by David Douglas Duncan.
The next step was for Mary to audition. She went through a practice interview with the Today’s Show screeners, which she passed with flying colors. On her way back to the hotel, she stopped off at our agent’s office to assure her the interview went well. The agent was too busy to see her and fobbed her off on an assistant. This puzzled us. How many of her clients appeared on The Today Show? And why did the woman handling serial rights always meet her in the lobby? Didn’t she have an office?
The Today Show called. They wanted her. Eight minutes. Suddenly she was besieged with requests for interviews. NPR interviewed her by phone on All Things Considered. She went to Boston to be on the local segment of Good Morning, America. Since she was going to stop off in Kansas City on her way back home, she tried to get Norton to set up publicity events there. “We don’t have authors from Kansas City so we don’t set up events there.” “But David Douglas Duncan is from Kansas City; we went to the same high school.” Didn’t matter.
In the green room at NBC, Mary discovered she was the only “guest” not accompanied by a PR person. But the show went very well. The PR representatives present complimented her on her performance. “Where else are they sending you?” Norton’s PR rep called to say she was “so relieved” (a real supporter). Here are four sound bites from that interview with Jane Pauley. Mary wants me to say it is not her real voice. Apparently the tape has been sped up a bit. However, she says that as unlikely as it may seem, it is definitely her real hair.
She had booked a flight back to Panama the next day, but as one last effort to feel good about publishing our book, she went to the famous Scribner’s book store on Fifth Avenue, now home to Sephora Cosmetics. She had hoped to see One Potato displayed along with other new books. But it wasn’t. With the help of a clerk, she finally found it on a shelf with the cookbooks.