My first book "EARTH BELOW, HEAVEN ABOVE" was a novel based on my experiences as a midwife in India, published by Scribners in 1975. I had written it in the first person, for verisimilitude, but used the novel form, making up people and events as a way of illustrating the polarities: life and death; wet and dry; hot and cold; joy and despair, etc. using India as my canvas.
In fact, I had lived in India, and had worked with servant people as a midwife, and my experiences were fascinating and profound, but the book was pure fiction. Apparently, my editor had assumed that it was "reportage" and had categorized it as a non-fiction book, unbeknownst to me. When we finally met in the New York offices, we realized we had misunderstood each other, when he told me I ought to change something I had said about one of my characters. I had no idea what he was talking about. "Why?" I asked. "Because she could construe that as libelous, and we'd get sued," he replied. When I told my editor I had made her up, he just stared at me. "This is fiction?" he asked incredulously. "You mean you don't know this is a novel?" I cried. Then I began to weep, feeling an abject failure. The editor laughed, and told me that he was a hard-boiled old guy, not easily fooled, and if I had made him believe my book was true, and not a story, I was indeed an even better writer than he had thought.
He marched me around the office, telling the story to all the other editors, who assured me that this guy was not easily fooled and I must, indeed, be very good. (I was all of maybe 31 years old, and scared and flattered and confused.)
What happened then is what I'd have done differently. After all of that, they still insisted on publishing the book as non-fiction.
Either that, or not at all, I was told. The only change they agreed to make was to market it as "a remarkable document crossing and recrossing again and again the line between earth and heaven, life and death, fact and fiction..."
I fell for it, because I could not bear to give up this opportunity to be published at all, much less by Scribners. Years later, still smarting from that mis-representation, I republished the book with a local Berkeley small publisher, Heydey Press, changing the book's name to "THE MUSICIANS AND THE SERVANTS" and clearly identified it as a novel.
Causes Carolyn North Supports
Daily Bread Project, which I founded in 1982 - see...