• Nancy K. Miller
  • Countdown to Publication: Rip Van Winkle Steps Out With Her Sandwich Board
Countdown to Publication: Rip Van Winkle Steps Out With Her Sandwich Board
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
July 2011
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
July 2011

I wish I could report that my anxiety level has moved down a notch since my first installment, but I’m starting to think that it’s asking too much of a writer to work on promoting her book by believing, or, if not believing, somehow pretending that making her book known is an integral part of publishing a book today, and not a unique, or at least, distinct form of torture. Everything seems to conspire against it. For instance, last week I received an email from a publicist offering the services of his firm, saying, among other things, that they have noticed that my book is being released soon, and that having reviewed the book description and my credentials they “believe there is some great work we can do on your behalf.” Now, of course I feel flattered, even though according to people in the know, any firm that solicits clients can’t be any good. Despite the warning, I’m tempted to find out what they would charge to remove this burden from my life. Tempted but also torn: even if I could afford their fees, which I doubt, should I spend more money on getting this book into the world? Truthfully, I’ve never added up the (oh, very small) sums I’ve spent along the way doing research on my own, hiring people to help me, traveling to various parts of the globe, having photographs taken (including my own, by the wonderful Marcia Ciriello) but while I could rationalize those expenses--I mean, I had to go to Eastern Europe didn’t I, if I was searching for my roots? -- paying someone to represent me in the literary marketplace, well, wasn’t that a luxury and an indulgence?  Is this the equivalent of vanity publishing?

But I haven’t said anything yet about the book I have written, the story of how I pieced together a narrative of my family’s odyssey from a handful of objects I found in my father’s dresser drawer after his death. Here will be the test of whether I have mastered my elevator speech. Almost until my book went into production, its title was “How I Found My Family in a Drawer.” I loved that title, as did all my friends, because it was both funny and true. Until I did the research for the book, I knew almost nothing about my father’s side of the family. I had never met my father’s only sibling, an older brother; I had never met his son, my only cousin on my father’s side. I did not know I had a great-grandfather who had emigrated from Russia before my grandparents; I did not know that my paternal grandfather had a brother and sister, who also emigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century and lived on the Lower East Side. As I saw it, I had almost quite literally found this family in a drawer—and most of its members, of course, were dead. But when it came time for the title to enter the catalogue, the editors at the Press were unanimous: I could not have that title. They thought it was too comical. After a large number of emails, we all agreed on the current title, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past. And after a period of adjustment, I came to feel that while the humor was lost, the title was equally true. If it hadn’t been for all the things saved by those who came before me—photographs, letters, cemetery receipts, locks of hair—I would never have been able to reconstruct this lost history.

Which brings me to the “elevator speech." A few short months ago, I had never heard of an elevator speech. In her Countdown column for She Writes, novelist Tayari Jones gave a great example of one for her new book Silver Sparrow, showing how she condensed the story of her new novel into a twenty-one second pitch.  Compared to Tayari’s mantra, my sentence isn’t bad; as a summary it’s literally true, but it isn’t crisp and it doesn’t suggest anything about the feel of the book, or why anyone would want to read it. In the consultation with Lauren Cerand that I mentioned in my previous blog,, Lauren nailed the project for me: “I have found out where I came from by what they left behind,” as she put it with elegant economy. Maybe I could combine the two sentences. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Why should it be so difficult to say what one’s book is about? Don’t we know? Haven’t we spent years on it? Are we afraid to say what we know?

Meanwhile, two narratives of related interest suddenly appeared simultaneously in my summer hiatus (or maybe it’s a reprieve, before the axe of publication falls): “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a documentary film biography of the writer Sholem Aleichem (think “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical derived from his short stories written in Yiddish and published from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries), and an article in Vogue magazine by Hadley Freeman titled “Picking up the Pieces.” The article describes the author’s reconstruction of her family’s lost history that sounds eerily similar to mine, not so much in the details, though, as in the project and its emotional implications: “For a family that never spoke about the past, we certainly hoarded it in secret.” Between an album of family photos and research of passenger records on the Internet, Hadley Freeman retrieves and reconnects with her grandmother’s life. Was this good or bad news for me? With all the differences that history makes---her family victims of the Holocaust, mine of an earlier generation, wounded by pogroms—there is a link between our stories: how do you remake family connections lost through trauma and misunderstanding, if only through writing after loss, belatedly? The friend who flagged the Vogue article for me, Vivian Liska (author most recently ofWhen Kafka Says We), thinks (against my fear that I’ve been scooped): “it’s good for your book, it’s in the air.” By that reckoning, also in the air, the biography of Sholem Aleichem, the writer who has through brilliant fiction documented the lives of Russian Jews who suffered under the Czars, emigrated, and reinvented themselves as Jewish Americans, aka New York Jews, also brings grist to my mill (terrible cliché, given my name). When I watched the movie, transfixed, I had the sensation of watching the guesses I made from my family research be validated by archival images and expert documentation.

Can we be original if we are also in…vogue (forgive the pun)?

But that is not all. Even closer to home, last week, I listened to a message on my answering machine from a person with my family (my father’s) name, Kipnis. Unaware of my book’s imminent publication, the man who turned out to be my second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers) finally answered a letter I had written to him five years earlier! It turned out that he knew even less than I knew about our family—why did they not want to tell us what happened? —but he was eager to know what I had learned.

Is it only my family who didn’t tell? Or is not knowing the pattern for immigrant generations?

Maybe, I start to think, these are good omens for the reception of my book, a sign that my quest is in the air.  

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  • Nancy K. Miller

    The book is divided into three sections. The first is called: How I Found My Family In a Drawer...

    and I've kept the drawer as both the literal container of the "pieces," and the metaphor for the storage of memory and history...

    So some people will get it---eventually!

  • Nancy K. Miller

    I'm writing this comment--finally at a computer and not on my phone--from Alabama, where my husband's family is from. His mother is a (not sure how to say that) DAR, though doesn't talk about it........but it's always very strange (though I've been married for a long time) for me to observe a family who can go back many, many generations--where names are passed on, as well as objects. There's even a (very small) town with the family name, etc. I've wondered whether in families where there has been no rupture--of immigration, or other kinds of historical displacement, exile, etc.--the passion for roots is as strong. I'd love to know whether the question of handing down stories from the past has a different feeling to it--or purpose.

  • Sharon D. Dillon

    @Augie, I understand why they did it. Some immigrants came here to avoid trouble in the old country. Some were deported to avoid jail time. They didn't want to be found. Others came when prejudices against German, Irish, Jews, etc ran high so they tried to assimilate as quickly as possible. During WWI Germans were treated nearly as badly as the Japanese were in WWII. So they Anglicized their names and blended. Some families have mixed blood; Native American, African, Hispanic or Asian. Again they tried to blend. Times were different. Anything peculiar could cause ostracism. When Tiger Woods first became famous he proudly announced that he was white, black and Asian. We all thought that was so cool.

    What I'm trying to say is that even though I understand, I'm sad. It's very hard for some of us to find our roots. Those who've persevered like Nancy can make us all proud and perhaps motivate us to search. I'd like to search but the job seems so intimidating that I keep putting it off.

  • Nava Atlas

    Nancy, thanks for your honesty and insights. I would say be super-careful about hiring book publicists. It's not easy to get return on investment. And in an ironic twist, even if they do get you all the press they promise, it doesn't always translate to sales. 

    Rather than thinking of book marketing in an onerous way, I try to consider it as an extension of the message of whatever book I'm promoting—sharing my fascination with the book's subject in other forms of media as well as in person. If one thinks of promotion only in terms of "oh, if I do this event or radio show or whatever, how many books will I sell" it indeed becomes tedious and anxiety-provoking. Good luck with this book. I hope I can attend your launch in NYC.

  • Sue Ann Bowling

    As someone who's just self-published two science fiction novels (and I'm 70 now) I too was dismayed by the new task of book marketing. Especially as I've been a scientist (and occasional science popularizer) for most of my life.

  • Pamela Olson

    I've been reading a lot of immigrant literature lately, and what strikes me most is just how disconnected the generations tend to be. The older generations seem to simply want to forget the past and move forward, and the younger generations are too distracted or embarrassed to pry for information. As a result, the past is simply lost. I doubt I'll ever know more than the most cursory outline of the history of my family who moved to Oklahoma before statehood, or the Cherokee bride who is my great-great-grandmother. People should really write this stuff down and not make us hunt so much!

  • I want to wish you the very best of luck with your book. I admire people who are proud of their roots. One of the things that I did several years ago, before my paternal grandmother passed away, was to sit down with her and ask her to tell me as much as she could about her parents, grandparents, etc. I still have, and will always keep, my notes from our talk. I only wish that I had done the same with my paternal grandfather because details of his family are sketchy. At least, on my mother's side of the family, I have an aunt who has done a lot of the family's genealogy. Happy publishing!

  • Sharon D. Dillon

    Like you I'm terrified of promoting my work. My mind is stuck in the old days when publishers did the promoting.


    To answer your question, yours is not the only family. Whenever my mother or I asked questions we were told, "We're American. That's all that matters." Now all who knew anything are gone. So far I haven't taken the time to do research, but know that is a project I need to tackle since I'm not getting any younger.

  • Nancy K. Miller

    Well,I lost the title battle...so I try to mention the original wk
    I can,

    I lost the title battle so this is something of a compensation,

  • Eunice Boeve

    I too like the original title, but the other, the Pieces of the Past one gives it more of a depth as if you really studied your family to create this story and didn't just whimsically toss out the information as If doing a stand-up comedy routine.  Good luck! 

  • AngryCat

    Claire's got a point: "Family in a Drawer"'s funny and deep and simply wonderful! A drawer holds so much more than pieces...

  • Claire McAlpine

    Loved the first title, much more universal and what's wrong with a bit of humour in the title?

    Maybe you could still use it as a by-line.

    Good luck with publication, I'm sure it will be a success