This is why freelancing sucks, and why I rarely do it.
On November 1st, I pitched this article to the features editor of the Globe and Mail:
I am writing to suggest a feature/Q&A on Canadian author Nancy Huston, who yesterday won a prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Femina, for her latest novel, Lignes de Faille.
Born in Calgary, Alberta, Huston has lived in Paris for over twenty years, and maintains an "aller-retour" writing technique since 1993, which consists of writing two versions of each of her books—one in French and one in English.
The twist is, although the book is an enormous success in France, where it has also been nominated for the Prix Goncourt, it will not be published in North America anytime soon. Huston's Canadian publisher, MacArthur, deemed the subject matter of the first chapter too risqué, too potentially anti-American, to publish without serious changes—i.e. deleting most of the first quarter—and Huston refused. It has been turned down by several American publishers as well, and to my knowledge the book does not have a publisher in English at all. I haven't seen any articles on this in the press (Anglophone or French) so this could be quite a scoop.
Lignes de faille chronicles the story of an average American family over four generations, in reverse chronological order, each chapter narrated by a child of six: Sol, Sol's father Randall, Randall's mother Sadie, and Sadie's mother Kristina. Each of the four chapters is set against a larger political context—the Iraq war, the Sabra and Chatila massacre, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Second World War—and the tension between what a child hears and what a child understands is a key source of resonance in the text. It is the first chaper, and Sol's obsession with the Iraq War, George W. Bush, and the Abu Ghraib photographs, that MacArthur considers so scandalous.
[edited out: the place where I pitch myself as the journalist]
Thank you for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
On November 2nd, they ran this story:
English edition of Prix Femina winner delayed
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
A French-language novel by Calgary-born Nancy Huston that was awarded France's prestigious Prix Femina this week was expected to be published in English first -- but the novelist's Canadian publisher and New York agent held off doing that this year because they wanted Huston to change portions of her text to avoid offending U.S. readers.
Talks are reportedly under way to have McArthur & Co. issue Lignes de faille in English next spring.
But Huston, who has called Paris home for more than 30 years, was close-mouthed about the matter when contacted this week by e-mail. "I'd rather not make any public comments on these sensitive issues just now, until some sort of decision has been reached," she said.
At issue, it seems, is the extent of the changes her North American representatives want. Kim McArthur, who published Huston's previous two novels in English, said yesterday that the author "has promised us some slight revisions; it's very tiny . . . maybe four sentences" to permit Lignes de faille to be published in 2007 in Canada and, possibly, the United States with a new English title, Birth Marks. However, no contract has been signed as yet, and "it's all just sort of very dicey," McArthur acknowledged at the same time as she praised Lignes as "fantastic . . . It's just riveting . . . She's just so famous in France."
In an interview in September in Paris with Montreal's La Presse, Huston, 53, said that "they want me to remove [enlève] half the pages concerning Sol, all of the material that revolves around Jesus, the war in Iraq, George Bush, the pornography, etc." The French version of the novel has been a bestseller in Quebec.
In that same interview, Huston said she believes that "contemporary America is reproducing the worst traits of Nazi Germany. I believe we are in a pretotalitarian state."
Lignes de faille -- nominated this year to the long list for France's most famous literary award, the Prix Goncourt -- is a four-part, 500-page novel, each part of which moves backward in time, from 2004 to 1982 to 1962 and, finally, to 1944-45. In each instance, Huston uses the viewpoint of a six-year-old child to tell the history of a Jewish family, starting in present-day California and working "toward" Holocaust-era Europe.
It's the first part, named after the young narrator, Sol, that prompted McArthur's concern and that of her North American agent, Rosalie Siegel. Sol, as described in La Presse, is a precocious, haughtily nasty American boy who, over the course of 128 pages, "gets turned on [carbure] by Internet pornography and images of the tortures at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison."
At one point, Sol declares: "I love to click on [images of] the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers in the sand; it's a total slide-show." In another passage he says: "God gave this body and this spirit . . . I know that He has great plans for me, which is why he saw to it that I was born in the richest state in the richest country in the world . . . Happily, God and President Bush are good friends. I think of Heaven as being like a big state of Texas in the sky, with God wandering around his ranch in a Stetson and cowboy boots . . ."
"There's a bit of a schism between the war in Iraq [as seen in France] . . . versus the point of view from America," McArthur says. "You may remember 'freedom fries.' " Given that Huston has lived more than half her life in France, her "view is completely credible there," but "we [McArthur and Siegel] were taking the long view."
Fluently bilingual, Huston has published at least eight novels in the past 25 years and has become famous -- and controversial -- for self-translating them, usually from French into English. This was the case for her 1999 novel The Mark of the Angel, which was nominated for the Giller Prize for excellence in English-language fiction after being published a year earlier in French as L'Empreinte de l'ange. In the early nineties, she reversed the practice -- self-translating her fourth novel, Plainsong, from English to French (Cantiques des plaines), for which she won the Governor-General's Award for French fiction.
I got the story directly from Huston herself at a reading. Given that Huston didn't even want to talk to the journalist, I find it hard to believe that she would have alerted the press. And since no other news source has picked this up, with the exception of the Montreal paper, the only source I can imagine they would have for it is my pitch. And the information about her writing and her translating is just too similar for my comfort.
For crying out loud. I emailed my agent to find out if there's anything that I can do; I don't suppose there is, though. Good lord, how I hate freelancing.