THR Web Features   /   June 8, 2023


A writer’s dream not quite fulfilled.

James Conaway

( THR illustration.)

The letter, dated May 5, 1969, was from Houghton Mifflin, in response to an early and incomplete draft of the novel I had recently submitted:

I was tougher on you than anybody. The novel has since been praised for its “exceptional ability to evoke a sense of place,” and the writer has been called “a natural.” So I will more or less shut up.

Anyway, there is interest in the book here. The doubts seem to rest on where it is headed—not on Comiski’s character.… The next thing is to send some new chapters. I’m sorry this is not coming with an offer of money to make that idea more appealing. So if you’d rather try it someplace else I will return this section. But I hope you’ll send in some more. 

Richard Todd


It was the sort of letter all aspiring writers hope for, typed on tissue-thin paper bearing the logo of a good house at the top and an editor’s scrawled signature at the bottom. I was overjoyed, even if uncompensated. By now the novel was an engine seemingly of its own devising, running smoothly toward a conclusion still only dimly formed in my conscious mind. I was immensely grateful to Dick also for passing the chapters along to his colleagues, and to them for reading them. That was what editors did then, before making careful, measured judgments. I was eager for them to read more.

Within a few weeks I finished the first half of the novel, writing in the front room with the window shade drawn and the neighbors thinking that someone in the family had died. At the same time, I was writing profiles of actors for United Artists productions in London for money—and, I should acknowledge, for an additional form of material support. Unused stationery from former productions was stacked along one wall at UA, and no one cared if I carted some off and fed it into my Remington. What would become the first draft of The Big Easy was written on the backs of pages emblazoned with the logo for If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.

I mailed the half-novel to Boston. Our son, Brennan, was done with nursery school, and all of us were sick of London’s gray. We sublet our place, having decided to spend the summer in the sun, packed our camping gear into the Deux Chevaux, crossed the Channel, and dropped south toward a place known as the Costa del Sol lapped by warm clear Mediterranean waves. Seven weeks later, I received another letter from Dick Todd, this one addressed to me at the Lista de Correos, Nerja (Malaga), Spain, the equivalent of general delivery in what was little more than a village. We had come to rest in a near-dilapidated stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Nerja, surrounded by fields of what looked like kale, with two tall trees nearby that provided shade for federales who sat on their mounts out of the ferocious sun.

I wrote at a little table under the screenless window overlooking a nineteenth-century agricultural seascape. Dick reported that the book had received another enthusiastic reading, on the strength of which Houghton was offering a $300 option for the right to see the whole book when it was finished. If they all liked it, the option would convert to a contract. “I think you are on the way to something extraordinary. The idea of introducing other points of view makes sense to me.”

The last editor to read it, Anne Barrett, had described one chapter, about a riot, as “a masterpiece. I don’t see how it could be bettered.” She added, “I have no idea how to advise this author. I have the feeling he is in the process of working it out in his own way and that it will have to be his way.”

I left our house and walked straight across a field and down toward little Nerja, which sat like an afterthought above shimmering, blue-green water. Penny and Brennan sat on the town beach with another American who was drinking champagne from a bottle. Apollo 11 had just landed on the moon. I had my own news to celebrate, but that had to wait until we got back to the farmhouse. I thought of Dick’s letter as a validation, if not a real contract, and I remember the relief I felt in the soft assurance of the cool, gathering darkness.

July proved an even more momentous month for us. Penny was pregnant again and could no longer go to the open-air meat market where beef shoulders and pig carcasses arrived uncovered on the tops of trucks and were piled on big tables for butchering. The smells and the flies were daunting to most people, but, until then, not to Penny. In nine months, we would be new parents again.

I finished the first draft quickly, but it still arrived after Dick Todd had left to be an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, directly across Boston’s Copley Square from Houghton Mifflin. I learned that I was now the ward of Anne Barrett, the elegant woman who had written encouragingly of me. I asked her for a contract and to be excused from having to write the customary outline of what was left of the book because by now it had been put down on paper in Nerja. “It would be a silly thing to do,” she agreed, “when you have already finished the first draft.… We shall be looking forward to getting the last hundred pages in a month or so.” The contract would have to wait until they evaluated the whole manuscript.

Back in London, the final rewrite took precedence over everything else. I sent it to Anne Barrett in September. “I am bothered by the neatness of the ending…” she wrote back. “I saw it coming but couldn’t believe it. The manuscript is now being read by others, who may not agree with me at all.” She added, “It seemed only right to give you my reaction. My admiration of the novel as a whole is unshaken.”

She was right. My ending was also maudlin. So I changed it unsparingly, allowing the protagonist to meet the only fate that he could meet. I also hewed to the severe, unsparing tone of of the larger narrative. I had pulled it from some dark place inside me that probably predated my years working for a newspaper in New Orleans. The black characters were more like those I had grown up around in Memphis, and I realized I knew more about their lives than I had imagined. I also found that I cared about them in a way I had never thought about. It was proxy involvement, granted, but what had come out felt real.

A month went by with no response, and I worried. Then in late November I received a long letter from Anne Barrett. “None of us found Comiski’s death hard to accept. He had lived on the edge of violence all through the book and it seemed entirely credible that he should die by violence.”

There were similarities to Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors, but my novel was as much about black experience as white, maybe more so. Yes, I realize that in these highly censorious time such traipsing across identity boundaries, racial or otherwise, is called “appropriation” and is sternly frowned upon by the custodians of culture. But those were more permissive times. I had even used a quote from James Baldwin at the beginning of the book—“Do I want to be integrated into a burning house?”—to suggest that for many black people the prospect of possible inclusion in white society was anything but inviting.

All the characters in Stone’s novel were outsiders, whereas mine were uniquely Southern and Comiski was very much a part of the hideous system, a witness to unthinking degradation that most people didn’t realize still existed. Anne quoted a Houghton editor familiar with Stone’s novel and with mine: “‘Conaway’s riot is engineered by a black, a black with no organization. Stone’s riot was engineered by a white with an enormous rightwing organization.… I do not believe that Conaway’s book will suffer in such a comparison. As a novel it is good.… His Negro characters are really fine. His sense of their lives and dreams is, I think, exquisite.”

Anne concluded with a qualified offer: “If you are willing to strengthen the narrative line in the early chapters, I think we will have a book we can all be proud of.” Then, in early December, she made a real one, approved by Houghton’s editor-in-chief: an advance of $2,500, less the $300 I had already been paid. Half would come on my signing the contract and the rest on approval of the final manuscript, which I was still polishing.

The titles I had in mind weren’t very good, Anne and I agreed. So what should it be? The unanswered question became an annoying distraction. Then one afternoon I remembered the conversation between two black musicians in New Orleans, and I said aloud, “The Big Easy.” Anne loved it, and three days before Christmas the contract arrived, and I sent it back the same day.

The novel was done in late January, and Houghton decided on a September publication date. So in the fall of 1970, at age 29, I would be assured of my future as a novelist, because how could any reviewer not like The Big Easy? All I had to do now was await galleys from Houghton and then settle in to what I imagined would be the delectable job of correcting them.

In the meanwhile, I tried to get writing assignments from British papers I admired, particularly the Observer, but without success. There were plenty of good British journalists looking for work, and British editors, not surprisingly, found their approach to the craft far more suitable than that of American practitioners.

For one thing, the language was different in small but maddening ways, with heavy use of exclusively British references and idiom. The accepted convention was to jump straight into a story without explaining what had gone before, the writer assuming that readers followed the news every day and knew whatever political, social, artistic, and sportive particulars beforehand.

Fast, jargon-filled prose was larded into profiles, quite different from what I was accustomed to reading in Harper’sEsquire, and the Atlantic. One British editor told me he admired Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic but objected to reading a long account of a Manhattan party hosted by Leonard Bernstein. Journalism, like much else in Britain, was socially complicated and often impenetrable to an outsider. The pay for ink-stained wretches like me was still relatively low, seemingly unchanged for centuries, whereas salaries and even freelance rates in the States were rising.

Penny was now very pregnant and we prepared for the birth, paying our five dollars to the National Health to cover all expenses and buying a beautiful second-hand English pram at a jumble sale for five shillings, or about sixty cents. It had a black bonnet and overlapping wheels to cushion bumps and took up half the hallway at 33 Bedford Gardens. Brennan would soon have a roommate, and life generally was about to acquire new challenges.

Jess was born at 9 pm on March 1, 1970, in St. George’s Hospital, a big baby and a ruddy screamer who clearly was to be denied nothing in life. Penny slept in the women’s ward that night and for several thereafter, listening to the horses at dawn coming from Buckingham Palace next door, their hooves clopping resonantly on the cobblestones as they filed into Hyde Park.

A week later, I received a letter from Andre Deutsch, the London publisher, saying he had been in New York, heard about The Big Easy, and would like to see a copy of the manuscript. He passed on publishing it, however, and I thought my problems with British journalism were to be repeated in the realm of literature. Then I learned that Houghton had also shown my novel to Faber and Faber, the famous London publisher, and I got a letter from the editor in chief, Matthew Evans, who declared the novel a “marvelous book” that he was “delighted” to publish “over here.” He even asked me to meet him for lunch. I was thrilled. Faber and Faber had published T.S. Eliot and many other famous British writers, and I felt it was an affirmation of the novel and a sign, as foolish as it seems in retrospect, that the book could not fail.

Hoary old Simpson’s restaurant where we met was as traditional as it got: a man in a white apron to the ankles pushing a trolley bearing a huge slab of beef to your table and expertly assaulting it with a two-foot blade steeled to razor-sharpness before your eyes. Matthew Evans tipped him with a handful of heavy, beautifully minted British coins that I loved.

Matthew helped me find a British agent, who also represented Robert Stone. She told me Stone was going to Vietnam to gather material for what would become Dog Soldiers. I was impressed by the drive and courage of the man.

Anne sent me the Publishers Weekly review of The Big Easy: “The scene is unglamorous New Orleans—decay, dirt, garbage, excrement, smell, every kind of filth, human and animal—in a brief, well-written novel of homeless degradation, that has a unique impact.”

Finished copies would be available in September, a month before official publication. An advance copy would go out to John Updike with a personal note from Anne, since Houghton was also publishing Updike’s mother in the spring. Advance sales of The Big Easy mounted to 1,325 and were expected to pick up when reviews started to appear.

As the pub date grew closer, Anne wrote, saying, “I just saw an advance copy of the N.Y. Times Book Review and regret to report that they have not yet reviewed The Big Easy. I hope it makes the following Sunday’s issue.”

Houghton was trying to sell the film rights with a Hollywood agent, who reported that the book was having “a tough time mostly because producers seem to be reacting to the racial aspects of the story.” Anne added, “The book is obviously an absolute natural for the movies and they are crazy if they don’t snap it up.”

The official publication day—October 9—came and went. I felt weirdly out of it, sitting in London waiting for something I had anticipated for half my life and worked toward unremittingly. The Book of the Month Club News ran a favorable review by David McCullough, author of The Path Between the Seas and on his way to huge success writing popular history. “These plot elements could have been turned into a routine, rough novel of detection. In Mr. Conaway’s hands, however, the story has been so charged with emotion and so graphically illustrated with savage descriptions…that no amount of cops-and-robbers huggermugger can make it seem routine.… Surely one of the strongest first novels of the season.”

A week later I got another letter from Anne Barrett. “I have delayed writing in hopes that I might have some reviews to send you, but alas no. The review situation is very bad. We feel singularly helpless in this situation and can only hope for the best.”

A doleful resignation set in. I fought it, lurking outside the newsvendor’s on Bayswater Road and surreptitiously checking the review section of Time and Newsweek but finding nothing. Other than family I had one interest in life, and that was to have my book officially recognized and the story judged by those qualified to do so. I knew the writing was good and so clung to the belief that it was bound to be evaluated in a traditional way I had long believed in.

But in truth there was no system. My long-anticipated appearance turned out to be not on the front page but a slot in the middle of a New York Times Book Review and about as far down the list of positions as one could get: the crime round-up. It had never occurred to me that this was even possible. The Big Easy wasn’t about crime, the reviewer admitted, but about oppression and race. He seemed annoyed by the “crushing” reality of the novel, which in his eyes overshadowed what he at least judged good writing.

You have to live through an experience like that to appreciate what it is like. The pain is real, if all in the head, when, in a moment, years of experience and craft are casually dismissed with a few peevish sentences, in this instance by a devotee of proper police procedurals. I had been a fool—and worse, someone who staked his continuing existence on a glorified notion of literary accomplishment and its power to redeem one’s life. The only way I knew how to handle such a blow was through real and difficult work, and apparently I could get none of that in London.

I decided to scrape the bottom, a masochistic impulse that took me to a well-known advertising agency in Mayfair. A job turning out ads would be proper penance, I thought, and provide ready cash while I decided if real writing held any future at all for me. But the middle-aged executive in his dark Savile Row pinstripes and his Players in a silver cigarette holder was offended by the fact that I supported my family in such an unorthodox way. He said he was unconvinced I could write at all, a typically British put-down of my impertinence in attempting to enter his world. “I want you to go back to your flat,” he said, “and write a three-paragraph description for me of how a bicycle works.”

I went back to our flat and told Penny we were leaving London. We had both come to love the city, the only one we had ever envisioned as a possible home, but this was clearly not to be. I wrote letters to my few contacts in New York and flew home to look for a job. Penny packed the big white trunk once more. She sold our paperbacks to the secondhand bookshop on Kensington Church Street and our beloved blue Deux Chevaux to a young woman who didn’t know how to shift the gears of the car as it went bucking up Bedford Gardens like something deranged.