Home » belles-lettres

On Finding That My Novel Can Be Bought on Amazon.com for $0.01

Am I pleased or horrified? Or am I happy there are even a few copies left…or what? “One cent” seems somehow archaic. People toss pennies away now, rather than adding their weight to their pockets or purses. If not for the $3.99 shipping charge, it would probably be more bother than it’s worth for the bookseller to engage in a one-cent transaction. But, of course, he does clear his shelves.

I do have a few copies of The Common Garden on hand, bought when its going price at Amazon was $1.75. There’s a story there. I once came across a book dealer who had two copies, so I ordered both. Before I got to Check-Out, I had a message that one copy was no longer available. What? After all these years, there’s someone besides me looking for my book? At the same time? But I let it go, content that another reader existed somewhere. A few days later, when I tried again, that same dealer had listed a single copy of my book – but now it cost $27! All by myself, I had created a new demand – and driven the price up!

Since that one-time spike, my novel’s price has leveled out at a consistent $0.01. I do have a soft spot for my first novel, an erotic tale that seemed sexy in 1977 but seems quite tame today. I wrote it when I still lived in Manhattan.

My friends in The City were like me, all from somewhere else. Many of us had come to New York to be writers, painters, actors, musicians and the rest. We were just a wave, possibly a wave and a half, ahead of the Youth Revolution of the ’60s. We were already in regular jobs and pushing regular children in regular strollers when the younger people with their own music and styles came rolling through. When I first saw Bob Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City, for example, it was my first night out after giving birth to my second child.

I longed to be a writer, but nothing I was doing was leading me that way until pornography came to my rescue. I had occasionally read porn, whenever it fell into my hands. But for pornography, I might never have known about the possibilities of sex, although I must have guessed that those possibilities existed. Sex was never discussed in my family, and neither my schools nor my teachers ever brought up the subject. I grew up isolated, in an Appalachian hamlet, riding the bus to school and back each day, with no society of girlfriends to enlighten me, either. Nowadays, my many feminist friends often call on me to condemn pornography and sign petitions and complaints and so forth, but instead I look with some benevolence on The Lustful Turk and The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe – these were textbooks to me.

 

In New York City, I worked as a copyeditor and proofreader, for publications ranging from Gentleman’s Quarterly to The Weekly People, an old-time Socialist rag. I sometimes worked on staff, but always picked up freelance assignments whenever I could. I wanted to write, to be a writer, but while I was sure of my style and voice, I realized I had no story to tell. In my voracious reading as a child, I never anticipated the ending of a story because I always wanted to be surprised. Somehow, this singular penchant kept me from inventing my own stories. If I knew how the story turned out, how could I be surprised? How could I write a novel if I could not even think up a plot?

Maurice Girodias

  At a publishing party, I met Maurice Girodias, owner of Olympia Press and publisher of the famed olive-green Traveller’s Companion erotic books. I had heard that he recently lost his copyeditor, so I went up to him and proposed doing the work freelance, saving him a staff salary with benefits. He agreed, and I began to read the entire upcoming list of Olympia Press productions.

As I copyedited and proofed the work of Marco Vassi, Frank Newman, Tor Kung, and other writers, I had a revelation. Pornographic novels had no plots. They all jumped from simple to complex, and only the growing complexity of each story’s sexual activities served as plot. Every story had this sensation of movement, of progress, of development that almost fooled the readers into thinking they were reading a story. For example, the first chapter might be a man and a woman having sex, Chapter Two might be a woman and two men, Chapter Three might be a houseparty or an orgy, and on and on. Well, I can do that, too, I thought, so I proceeded to write my first novel.

I already knew what the setting would be. While wheeling my first child to the park, I walked along a block on the upper East Side where, sometime in the past, the wooden fences dividing the back lots into long, narrow backyards had been taken down and the householders had created a community garden. They had installed play equipment in one area, flowerbeds in another, several trees – mostly plane trees, but also one well-shaped pear tree that bloomed during its season.

I used to peer inside from the end of the block, and I envied the inhabitants their green and private space in the middle of the city. I also began to see that this common garden provided a means of connection among all the families on that block – every back door, literally, opened into every other back door, and by extension, into every bedroom. My characters would have no problem finding each other. I decided to title my book The Common Garden.

Another problem I had was too little time to write. I had a full-time job that paid very little; I did all the shopping, cooking, laundry, and so forth for my family, and I also had a constant supply of freelance work, because I never turned down a job. In a flash of inspiration I decided to give up my bike, which I rode to my office in midtown, and took the subway instead, creating two forty-minute blocks of time that were unavailable before. I would miss my ride – I came down through Central Park, sometimes on the Promenade, sometimes through the Sheep Meadow, on certain mornings with the full moon hanging on my right and the sun rising on my left, a magical scene that meant a lot to me. I would miss shooting out of the park at 59th Street, competently changing lanes, heading east toward my waiting desk. But I simply I had no other time to call my own.

I bought a notebook, an old-fashioned one with the marbled black and white covers, and a reliable pen. My first few days were a struggle. I had to shake off our family’s morning rush to get us fed and dressed and out of the house. Soon, however, I began to be able to enter an intense, more productive state of mind. Once I had put in a few days on my new schedule, I reached a plateau where entering the subway car triggered my writing; I could always begin immediately, just where I’d left off the day before. I didn’t have a plan; if I got a seat, I wrote with my notebook on my lap. If not, I wrote while swinging on a strap. Quite by chance, I found out that my method was working when some of my neighbors began to tell me that they sometimes spoke to me on the subway, saying “Good morning” or asking me a question, or even touching me or tapping my shoulder. Regardless, I was oblivious. They wondered if I was mad at them. I was just writing my novel.

My heroine, a naïf from the Midwest subletting for the summer, began to realize that her block association was not a merely a civic but a sexual organization. The characters in my novel who shared the common garden were finding themselves in more and more complicated circumstances. It was all building up to something. But what? My writing felt like a novel. I could see a bad end ahead for my heroine, poor girl, even as I learned something else about writing a novel: a surprise ending can surprise the writer, too.

A year later my book (the one selling for $0.01 on Amazon.com) was published, not by Olympia Press, it was not their cup of tea, but by Berkley, who bestowed on it the label “a novel of suspense.” I went on to write other books, even some with plots. Several friends followed my lead, writing about sexual subjects for the first time, in plays and poems and novels.

That’s why now I’m compelled to give credit where credit is due. Not that I’m saying, “Let pornography flourish,” nor that it’s an ideal template or springboard for writing your first novel, nor that it will work for everybody.

I’m only saying it worked for me.

___
Martha Moffett has written the novels The Common Garden and Keepaway, the children’s book A Flower Pot is Not a Hat, and numerous short stories and essays.

Return to the Main Page