The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner’s lauded new book, began as a group portrait of five octogenarian women—including Lerner’s mother, Roz—who have been convening weekly in greater New Haven, Connecticut, for more than 50 years to play cards. It ended up as a memoir that—in presenting the group portrait—peels back the curtain on Lerner’s difficult relationship with her mother, a relationship fraught with a lifetime of intergenerational tension and misunderstanding.
Traditional homemakers, the Bridge Ladies are reticent with personal information and personal feelings even among immediate family, which, in Roz’s case, has always driven Lerner nuts. Rebellious since adolescence, Lerner left home for the big city and an independent, self-supporting life.
Years later, a change of address and a post-surgery period for her mother reintroduced Lerner to the ritual of the Bridge Ladies. She started hanging out on Mondays to see what made them tick, thinking there might be a book in it. The resulting volume also tracks Lerner’s lessons in the nuts and bolts of a complex card game she had never played, and her experience putting those lessons to work, despite being a beginner, in actual competition as a substitute Bridge Lady herself.
During three decades in publishing, Lerner has amassed a dynamite triple-play resume. She is author of three books: The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Riverhead, 2000, and updated and revised in 2010), Food and Loathing: A Lament (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and The Bridge Ladies (Harper Wave, 2016). She is a partner in the Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. And prior to becoming an author’s rep, she worked as an editor for 16 years at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday, at the last as executive editor. Oh yes, there is fourth impressive component of Lerner’s cirriculum vitae: an MFA from Columbia in poetry, a genre in which she has won major prizes.
In late June, Lerner made an author appearance, to read from and speak about The Bridge Ladies, at the Fairfield Writer’s Blog’s home, the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library. She drew a standing-room-only audience, and Roz was seated in the first row, right in front of the podium. Lerner reiterated to us what she had written in her blog, that her husband (who is the Director of the Yale University Press), her agent and other early readers told her that her initial efforts on the project, “sucked. My husband kept saying, ‘You have to use your blog voice.’ . . .I kept resisting. I couldn’t see my ‘blog voice’ as having anything to do with the Bridge Ladies. But when I finally shifted to the first person, the pages started coming to life, my sense of humor got engaged, and most important, I was able to write more deeply than I had been.” When Lerner’s mother read the manuscript, she told her daughter, “You don’t have to change a word.”
A few weeks after her Library visit, Lerner did a 40-minute telephone interview with the FWB. The principal thrust of our conversation was having Lerner speak about her experience as the author of The Bridge Ladies in the context of the advice and wisdom she offered other writers in The Forest for the Trees.
The Forest for the Trees is neither a craft manual nor a memoir. Rather, it is an editor’s narrative guide for writers through their internal challenge of getting words on the page and their external challenge of working with the people and processes necessary to get those words into print and in front of the public. The first half of the book defines different types of writers and explores how their personalities influence their work. (As an aspiring writer, you will recognize yourself in one or more of those chapters; they are not mutually exclusive.) The second half covers the path to publication, with an emphasis on the writer-editor relationship. The FWB strongly recommends adding The Forest for the Trees to your books-about-writing to-read list.
Our interview below mimics the format followed during our conversation:
a direct quotation, in most cases, from enumerated chapters of the FWB’s 2000 edition of The Forest for the Trees (quotes that we read aloud to Lerner);
a question or more inspired by the quote or chapter; and
Lerner’s answers, edited for clarity.
Not surprisingly, the conversation occasionally veered into additional questions for aspiring writers. After all, how often do you get to talk to an intelligent, affable 30-year-veteran of the publishing business with experience in all of the key roles: agent, editor and writer?
Chapter 1—“The Ambivalent Writer”:
- “[T]he writer who can’t figure out what form to write in. . .is stalling for a reason. Perhaps he is dancing around a subject because he is not ready to handle it, psychologically or emotionally.” (page 20)
Q: Does that describe you with The Bridge Ladies?
BL: I wanted to write a group portrait in the third person, and in my fantasy it would be something that you would read in The New Yorker. Very elegant. Literary. Sort of finely observed at a distance. That’s what I was hoping for. . .but not capable of (laughs).
Q: Were you at all thinking, at that point, in terms of your relationship with your mother being part of that story?
BL: Well, she was one of the ladies. I thought she would be one-fifth of the story. I did not expect it to be about us, and I didn’t want to write about us. I think a lot of people around me thought that I was writing about my mother and our relationship, but I was in denial. I really did not see the forest for the trees (punctuated with jolly laughter).
You know, I haven’t read or thought about the specifics of The Forest for the Trees in a long time. So when you read that back to me, I blush. Because that’s exactly what was happening. I was fighting my own subject. That’s part of it. I also think that you are the writer you are, and I’m not a New Yorker writer. I haven’t honed my craft enough to write in whatever style I want. What comes naturally to me is first-person-voice-driven kind of writing. That’s not to say that I couldn’t do something else, but honestly it would just take years and years of practice.
Chapter 2—“The Natural”:
- “[T]he degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.” (page 33)
Q: Given that you spent a year on the book before you even got around to changing to the first person and finding your story, would you say that sentence applies to you?
BL: Definitely. I’m a very compulsive person. I don’t like abandoning things. I felt I really had something. That also conspired to keep me going. But I thought of quitting many times along the way. I felt the project had beaten me and I couldn’t get it. But I definitely believe in persevering.
The only way for things not to happen is to quit. It’s the simplest thing to say, but it’s so true. Everybody thinks that everyone who has a book published, voila, it just happened. People take years and years writing any number of failed novels before something sees the light of day. There are some people who write a book and it gets published [right away]. But we all thought that about Harper Lee. Well, as it turned out, there was a book before To Kill a Mockingbird. She was told to rewrite it from a different point of view. I mean, you tell a writer that today and they mostly don’t want to do it. And it’s a big thing to ask somebody to do that “on spec.”
People are really impatient now. You have a computer. You can spit out a manuscript. You can get an MFA. And you think you’re on your way. But you could hit 10 walls, and the question is, are you going to persevere?
Q: Did you have any books or other writing between Forest and Food and Loathing and this one that didn’t see the light of day?
BL: Four screenplays. Two TV pilots. And then my blog, which I wrote every day for four years. I was always writing, but again, I was failing. You could say I was failing, or you could say I was learning (hearty laughs).
- The chapter cites a Michael Cunningham quote that reads, “I think a certain fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude is a useful tool.” (page 43)
Q: When I read that, I thought, that’s not Betsy as a writer, that’s Betsy as a bridge player.
BL: I guess you’re right about that (a gentle laugh).
Q: Do you think you’ll ever feel like a natural in bridge?
BL: Oh my God, no. I still count on my fingers. I’ll never feel like a natural. But this is what sort of applies: I really enjoy it. And I also really enjoy writing. I’m frustrated when I can’t sell something. But I still really love writing. A lot of my writers complain that they hate writing and are tortured by writing. There’s always a little piece of me that thinks either a) you’re not really telling the truth or b) then really, why are you doing it? I think that, nobody’s asking you to write, so it must be fulfilling to do it, even when you can’t get published.
Chapter 3—“The Wicked Child”:
- “Let’s face it, if in your writing you lift the veil on your family, your community, or even just yourself, someone will take offense. . . .Writers tend to censor themselves for fear of what others people think, especially those at home. . . .Imagine. . .describing the inner thoughts of a character who felt that his mother was controlling and suffocating. Now imagine your mother reading it. You can fictionalize [which Lerner didn’t do], but you can’t hide.” (pages 50-51) And,
“Calling attention to yourself, especially within a family dynamic, may involve more scrutiny than a writer can bear.” (page 57)
Q: Your candor in The Bridge Ladies seems brave; how did you bear it?
BL: I’ve always had a really hard time with that term—brave. A lot of people have called me brave over the years and my brain always switches it to crazy. . . .I don’t think it takes bravery. I don’t think any writer goes into a project feeling brave so much as [having] a need.
. . .But then you also have to really examine your motive. If you are just writing to get back at somebody, I don’t think that’s good enough. I also think that’s why a lot of people write fiction. They think that they can disguise that stuff. But I would imagine that the loved ones pretty much know what they’re talking about.
In Food and Loathing, there was a lot that I could have said about my mother then that I didn’t. And I’m really glad I didn’t. Did I not go far enough? Was I not honest enough? I guess that’s for the reader to decide. I was always very careful there—and here [in The Bridge Ladies, too]—not to be writing a Mommie Dearest. . . .You have to find creative and subtle ways to address very complex emotions.
I just wanted to know my mother. I wanted her to accept me. I’ve always known she loves me. But it never gets expressed, so. . .we still don’t say, “I love you.” And sometimes at readings people say, “You must! You must!” I’m like, “Actually, we don’t have to. We don’t have to. We know it.” Knowing something is more important than saying it.
- “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened, written to keep the reader entertained, moved, sympathetic, horrified, whatever.” (page 67)
Q: Did you get any feedback from the Bridge Ladies accusing you of manipulating their stories?
BL: Not at all. I think that I wrote about each of them in the same even hand. And I wrote about each of them with the same amount of affection. And when I didn’t agree with their way, I’d put it on myself instead of on them. That was consistent. Some people have said that the [ladies] seem that they’re more one person than individuals. It feels like a bit of a slight when someone says that, that I didn’t portray them as unique as I could have. By the same token, I thought of them as a Greek chorus by the end. One Bridge Lady said, “Oh, you liked so-and-so better. You wrote about her the most.” And I said to her, “She gave me the most. I interviewed you just as many times and you didn’t say very much.” She laughed. She knew that was true. I felt I had to be very careful about their feelings. Did that compromise me as a “reporter”? Maybe. But in the end I wasn’t really a reporter. I was a memoirist. So it was more about my impressions, and trying to create a piece.
Chapter 5—“The Neurotic”:
- “Every time you put a provision on conditions under which you can work. . .you fail to grasp the essential truth of all great writing: it brooks no provisions.” (page 96)
Q: Do you have provisions that you fall victim to that keep you from getting to work?
BL: No. I always have a pencil and I always have a notebook. And I always write wherever I am. If I see something I want to write about or even just remember—a snippet of dialogue or an image—I [write it down]. I make my own provisions [to facilitate the working experience]. I get up at the crack of dawn. That’s when I get my writing done. . . before my head is filled with publishing and work stuff and husband stuff. It doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. I want five hours uninterrupted, and that’s the only way I can get it, so that’s what I do.
- “Every editor becomes a de facto therapist, whether or not he engages in the therapeutic as well as the editorial process.” p.110
Q: True in your case with The Bridge Ladies?
BL: Yeah. There were, I would say, four or five pivotal scenes in the book where [Karen Rinaldi, Lerner’s editor at Harper Wave] actually confronted me and said, “It’s almost like you’re not being completely honest here,” and, “what are you hiding,” and, “I want to know what your motives were,” and, “I want you to make me cry.” So she really pushed me very hard. And I’m grateful because I really didn’t see it myself. I couldn’t have gotten there myself. Those are all the scenes that people write to me about or mention to me as what really moved them.
Chapter 7—“Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication”:
Q: You’re an agent. You’ve been an editor. With The Bridge Ladies you are a writer. When you are working as a writer with your agent or your editor, how do you turn off that business side of your brain?
BL: Well, you don’t, entirely. I felt like I was my own editor for a lot of the book, figuring out the structure. I did that by myself. And it took months and months; it took a year, probably, to get it right. I [also] thought about what month should the book be published in, and what should the jacket look like, and what should the [jacket] copy should be like. I’m very sensitive to all that.
Except, when I was in the middle of writing, when I was deep in it, then I wasn’t thinking about all that stuff. I was just enjoying being a writer. I knew [that period] would be brief. I knew it would be over. Three years doesn’t sound brief, but for me, with 30 years in publishing, three years for a project is very brief and I really relished it. You don’t get the chance to get into something very deep very often.
I’ve represented publishing people. It definitely is hard, because [you as an author] know too much. In my case, I was trying so hard to be a good citizen. But I freaked out a few times. And I’m embarrassed about that. It’s so difficult when you put your work in someone else’s hands. I feel now that I’m being a much, much better agent for my clients, because I’m so much closer to what they’re going through.
• “The greatest compliment any writer can hear from a reader are the words Your book changed my life.” (page 173)
Q: Have you heard that about The Bridge Ladies?
BL: No. I haven’t heard that. I’ve just heard, “This is my life. This is my mother. You got us. I’m not Jewish. We don’t play bridge. But you totally got us.” To me that’s the greatest compliment of all. To me it means that whatever I wrote was universal.
Q: Was the manuscript rejected by other publishing houses?
BL: There were about five or six people interested in it, which seems to me like a lot. Whoever passed on it didn’t really upset me at all. I had enough interest to counteract any rejection.
I feel rejection more as an agent. I’ll send something out to 20 people and sometimes at the end of the day you’ll get two offers. Which means your author sustained 18 rejections. Some of the rejections are smart. Some of them even make you wince they are so smart. And many of them are just ridiculous, not considered, and sometimes even nasty. So you take a lot of body blows. That just comes with the [agent] territory.
But for the writer, it’s shocking. As the agent, you’re trying to help the writer understand they should not worry about it, and we’re moving on. Some writers use those rejections as whips their whole lives. There’s a book called Getting to Yes. It’s a book I’ve never read, but I’ve always loved the title. And I’ve always said to people, it’s about getting to yes. It only takes one, so let’s roll the dice and see what happens.
Chapter 10—“What Authors Want”:
• “The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering.” (page 221)
Q: Did you run into that challenge a lot with this book?
BL: Yeah, I rewrote it at least half a dozen times. Fixing up the structure. Trying to hold it all in my head. I had index cards everywhere. I once just put it all out as a screenplay on “Final Draft Notes.” I was pretty desperate. I knew it was something that nobody could help me with. It was just too massive. I had the through line of the story, [from] when I started the project to when it ended. That was in linear, chronological time. So that was always in place. Then [the question] was, how do I dip in and out of the lives of the ladies, how do I merge in the bridge basics, and how do I merge in the bridge games. So those were the four plates I had spinning at all times. I think I managed it pretty well.
Every book, though, has its own set of challenges in terms of keeping the reader hooked. There are so many different kinds of books [that require sustaining structure]. I just edited a book of 12 essays. All stand-alone essays. But as a book you want it to feel like there is some flow. How do you accomplish that? In this case we went from the most basic ideas to the most complex ideas. So you were building that way. Another way was to add some connective tissue between the essays, so that you felt like you were building something between the chapters and not [having] just static chapters. Then there was an introduction to add, which basically set the reader up for how it was going to work. None of that is particularly complicated, but it matters. It makes a difference. Even a book of stand-alone essays can have a sense of continuity and momentum.
Chapter 11—“The Book”:
- “One doesn’t have to work in publishing for very long to know that a great deal of time is spent letting people down gently.” (page 234)
Q: Could you comment on the reception and success of The Bridge Ladies, and how they compare to your expectations?
BL: I’ve been thrilled. The reviews have been really wonderful. The fan letters I’ve been getting have been wonderful. The ladies love the book. My hometown celebrated the book, and I didn’t get laughed out of town. So I’m really happy with it (laughing).
. . .When I made that decision [to use her first-person blogger’s voice] that everybody pushed me toward, I still wasn’t really happy about it. I thought a lot of the reviews would say that the book was all about me and not about the ladies. I was very anxious that I would get a lot of criticism. That hasn’t happened. I’m still waiting for it to happen. Actually, some of the Amazon comments have said that, but nothing in print has. Some of the Amazon comments are really nasty. I relish those, honestly.
A Final Question on behalf of all as-yet-unpublished authors
Q: We aspiring writers work under this notion that before we submit something to an agent or a publisher it has to be absolutely perfect. When would you advise a writer to think that their book is ready to start shopping?
BL: Well, it should be complete. If you are not published and you are not a New York Times reporter or a New Yorker writer, if you don’t have amazing credentials, it should be complete. So many people approach me as first time writers with partials. That’s not a great idea. Anything can work. There are no absolutes. But generally your book should be complete.
Generally you should have it read and workshopped.
If you have any doubts about your spelling and your grammar and all that, maybe even get it professionally copyedited. You do not want to look like an amateur.
Finally, you should have a great title. So many people say, “Oh, I know the title is going to change anyway.” But the title is a very selling thing. When I get six or seven query letters in my inbox every day, the one that I gravitate toward is the one that has a great title. Something that just catches my eye.
It just happened, actually. I started to read the material. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. But I liked the title so much that I said, please send me some more. That’s how selling I think that title is.
“Perfect” is the wrong word. Your book should be as evolved as you can possibly get it.