Lisa Gruenberg is a physician, medical educator and writer based in Boston. She has taught creative writing at the Karolinska Institute, the Asian University for Women, and Harvard Medical School. Her essays have been published in Ploughshares, Vital Signs, Hospital Drive, The Intima, a Journal of Narrative Medicine, and upcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Her short story, Keiskamma, won the 2012 Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her memoir, My City of Dreams, will be released by TidePool Press in 2019. An excerpt from the book published in Ploughshares can be read here.
The Long Road to Publication
by Lisa Gruenberg
I started writing Searching for Mia, then Finding Mia, and now My City of Dreams, in 2004 when my elderly father, a Viennese Holocaust survivor, began having flashbacks and nightmares about the past. I was suffering from severe depression and my dreams had disappeared. I would wake with a start as if someone were speaking through me. I got up and wrote what had come to me. These first bits of writing were in the voice of my father’s sister, Mia, who disappeared in 1941 at the age of fifteen, and whose name my father did not say out loud until the year before his death.
I’d always loved books, but I was never much of a writer. I only took one English class in college. These first scraps of writing felt like inspiration. But after a while, these midnight “flashes” stopped coming to me, and I came to realize that writing is a job like any other, often tedious and even painful. Inspiration, although wonderful, is rare. I started the Lesley University MFA Program in 2005 in order to write this particular book, but it got me into the habit of writing about other things as well. But it was many more years before my writing would be in any kind of shape for publication.
Back to my father’s story: It wasn’t only that we didn’t know that his was a sad story, that his parents were murdered and that his only sister disappeared into Germany, and that many of his relatives “perished,” a term I’d always found inadequate. It was more that my father always lived very much in the present, and always described his city and his childhood in the most joyous way, much like the first paragraph of his unfinished memoir, which begins with a song from that time:
“Wien, Wien, nur Du allein wirst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein! Vienna, Vienna, only you will always be the city of my dreams!” In spite of the hardships my family experienced and the times when there was not enough money for food, I feel I had a very happy childhood. And most of all—I was in love with Vienna!
The book went through endless drafts, workshops, hired editors, and friends. In the meantime, I published a few essays, received an MCC artists fellowship for a short story which was never published, although it received many glowing rejections. I am one hundred pages into a novel, still in progress.
I sent the book in its various formats to agents and publishers I connected with at conferences and through friends and acquaintances—no success—then after an excerpt was published in Ploughshares I heard from a couple of agents, and even got close to publication with a small publisher in New York City, who took me to lunch, asked me to rewrite the book substantially, and then went radio silent (something that I’ve gotten used to over the years). My sister-in-law and sometimes-agent agreed to send it around, and she managed to get about twenty readings from editors at the name presses—and more glowing rejections. I heard “too literary” and “not literary enough” in the same week, and always “although well-written, can’t use another Holocaust book.” I decided to self-publish.
I hired Jessamyn Hope, a novelist and former instructor at Grub Street, to edit. She cut through all my struggles with the different points of view and the time travel going on in my head, and she gave me a blueprint for keeping the reader oriented. Then, out of the blue, I heard from Frank Herron, the editor at TidePool Press, a small publisher in Cambridge, saying they wanted to publish the book. Frank had been a reporter on the newspaper where a childhood friend of mine was an editor. She’d introduced us two years earlier, and he’d loved the manuscript. But TidePool was a small outfit, and Frank was perpetually waiting for his partner to read it and decide, so I’d given up. The simple contract took several months more to materialize, so we’d already been working on the word document for weeks by the time we both signed.
I’d heard that publishing is a let-down, but so far that hasn’t been my experience. Frank is a talented editor, and he loves the rewritten manuscript I had after working with Jessamyn. Even my husband is involved in picking out typos that are inevitable with all the adjustments needed to prepare the book for publication. The designer at TidePool, Ingrid Mach, loves the writing and the photographs and original documents I’d pulled out to make the manuscript more palatable to a big publisher. She’s put them back in, imbedding them in the story. She’s designed a beautiful cover based on an old postcard of Vienna in the thirties. The book will be published in hard cover on high quality paper and is slated to be released in early 2019.
Working on the book is a much different experience now that I know it will actually see the light of day. But it does use up my energy and most of my spare time—I still work my day jobs. So, there isn’t a lot of time or mental space left over to get going on the novel, or to start any of the stories and essays I’d like to get to. And I’m going to need to promote the book almost entirely on my own, which is another time sink for the future. I’m downsizing my clinical and teaching commitments, but may need to pare them down further if the writing is going to become my main “thing” moving forward.