One Year to Launch–Process Begins

Over the past two weeks, a flurry of emails and a phone call from my editor and her assistant has signaled that the production process for my biography has begun. Incredibly, Norton had its “launch” meeting for next winter’s titles last week. It’s hard to believe that the long process has already begun, one year before the book will finally be released.

Decisions are starting to be made, such as what the title will be. In my proposal I had called the book The Portrait of a Lady Novelist: Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Daring Literary Life. I have long since realized how cumbersome a title it is. I also have been having second thoughts about it. For one, it ties the book closely to Henry James and his heroine Isabel Archer, whom I discuss in the prologue, arguing that Woolson was a kind of real-life Isabel with a significant difference: she possessed literary ambitions and thus had a direction in life Isabel lacked. In addition, “lady novelist” invokes a long history of snide attitudes toward women writers.My editor liked the title, however, as it also invokes James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist, so I proposed a shorter version. The book is now officially called:

Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Portrait of a Lady Novelist.

So it alludes to James and Isabel and the history of women writers, but it also puts Woolson first, which I like.

My editor also brought up the question of a portrait of Woolson for the cover. This is even more complicated. She wasn’t thrilled with the two photos I like best, thinking one too young and the other too plain. But Woolson was a rather plain person—pleasant-looking, but not particularly fashionable. [I can’t show the pictures here because I don’t have permission, yet.] Other photos have been used frequently before, such as this one:


She is turned away from the camera, however. I am hoping to find a less well-known photograph and one where you can actually see her face. But she was notoriously shy of the camera, which I have written about before.

For now, it seems a researcher may be employed to see if more photographs can be located. Unfortunately, the archive most likely to have some (the Western Reserve Historical Society) has also misidentified many of them. And even more unfortunately, I used one of them in my first book. I had written to them requesting a photograph of Woolson, and then I didn’t question their choice. I know better now. It looks nothing like her. So I warned my editor of the problem. I don’t want to be bitten again.

As I complete the revisions of the manuscript, I am also gathering the illustrations. How many will I include, my editor wanted to know. I conservatively guessed thirty. There are many I would like to include that I probably won’t because the archives where they are located require a permission fee of up to $200 apiece, which I am responsible for (not the publisher). I could easily spend thousands of dollars on the illustrations. Fortunately, I have found some archives that don’t charge for permissions, only for digital scanning, a much smaller fee. Houghton Library, at Harvard, is one of them. They have some wonderful photographs of James, his sister Alice, and James’s and Woolson’s friends Francis Boott and his daughter Lizze.

All of this is a wonderful distraction from completing the revisions. Another welcome distraction is the biennial Woolson Society conference, which will convene in Washington D.C. later this week. As the society’s president, I have been busy organizing the conference, which will have 23 attendees and a keynote speaker, Alison Booth, from the University of Virginia. I can’t wait to see everyone and hear their wonderful work on Woolson. I will be reading an extract from the biography, the first time I have shared the work with others, besides my editor, my mother, and a few scholars. I am anxious to see what they think. I’ll be sure to share my thoughts here about the conference and the reaction I receive to the biography sometime next week. Until then, it’s back to conference planning and revisions.

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