What's In Your Teeth
I have a bias against acknowledgements in works of fiction, even if they're palced in the back of the book where they're supposed to be less distracting. The real-world intrusion of acknowledgments pages at the end of a transporting reading experience is jarring to me—like someone accidentally leaning up against the overhead light switch at a party and everything seems suddenly too bright and oh my god our foreheads are really shiny and what’s that in your teeth?
But thanks are also really important. I take them seriously, and I want everyone to know that this book would not be what it is without a number of people other than me. Instead of listing those names in a way that won’t mean a whole lot to you, I thought I’d tell a story instead--the story of how The Beast Is an Animal came to be. As time goes on, these acknowledgments are going to grow, and I’m going to start thanking people who didn’t help the book itself, but helped the book reach its audience. So think of this as The Beast Is an Animal’s ongoing journal of thanks. The Beast thanks you for your interest, and so do I.
Years ago, my family and I lived in an apartment one floor below Simon Lipskar and his family. Simon and I have sons the same age, and although I was a book editor and he was a literary agent, we met first as neighbors. I think (I know) I was in my pajamas at the time. When I wrote a middle grade novel that I should have shown to no other human being on the planet, I nonetheless showed it to Simon, and he handled it with way more delicacy and seriousness than it deserved. I will never forget the kindness and complete sincerity with which he simultaneously convinced me I should put it in a drawer and also that I should keep writing and he’d read whatever I wrote. It took me a few years to be inspired again, and then I wrote another middle grade novel that was a fantasy set in contemporary New York City. He said it wasn’t for him, but he wanted me to be at Writers House (his agency), and he made me feel like family. Again, something I will never forget. So he passed that novel along to a lovely agent named Steven Malk who read it many times and couldn’t ultimately see it working for him. Along the way he had some questions about the villains in that novel, so I decided to write a prologue to help fill out their backstory. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. It flowed out of me like magic. I loved that prologue. I secretly loved that prologue more than I loved the novel that it was meant to introduce.
When Steven passed on The Manuscript-That-Shall-Not-Ne-Named, Simon said, okay, let’s think about who else at Writers House we should show it to. He described Rebecca Sherman to me, and I said, yes, please: her. Rebecca read it while I held every cell in my body in suspense, because at that point I was genuinely despairing that I would—that I could—ever write anything that anyone would want to read. Rebecca replied almost exactly this way: “Please tell Peternelle that I loved the prologue and would she consider dumping everything else and writing a novel like that?”
Simon forwarded that email to me, and said, “This is what Rebecca says, and I’m sure you’re not going to want to do this.” Remember, by this point I’d been through multiple drafts with this novel, and she was asking me to press delete on a 250 page novel that I’d worked very hard on.
I said (essentially), “Simon, she loves 12 pages that I wrote? I have zero problem deleting 250 pages. I relish the thought of deleting 250 pages.” Because she was absolutely right. The novel I wanted to write all along—the novel I needed to write, the novel I would myself want to read—was the novel that would eventually flow directly out of those 12 pages. Not the one I’d written. Something else. Something dark and fairytale.
This began a process that (to me) took ages longer than it should have, but seemed never to daunt or discourage Rebecca and her associate agent, Andrea Morrison. Between them, they read multiple drafts, versions, partials…I couldn’t even tell you how many. And through it all, they kept the faith that the writer who wrote those twelve pages could write a novel that would match them.
I didn’t always have that faith. There came a point in 2015 when I got very close, but still it wasn’t there. Rebecca and Andrea knew it wasn’t quite good enough, but they were finally at a loss for what to tell me to do. They even had an intern read it, and among them they gave me a set of edits that threw me a bit for a loop. Not because they were wrong, but because I could no longer see the novel for the cloud of anxiety and fear of failure that hung over it. Mostly, I think I was tired. I knew the novel wasn’t right. I knew that in my gut. But I wished it were otherwise.
At that point I decided it was time to stop being so private about my writing. I hadn’t shown my novel to anyone, not even to my immediate family, and many close friends and family members didn’t know I was writing a novel—largely because I dreaded being asked “so. . . . how’s the novel coming along?” every time I ran into someone. The answer would have been “It’s not,” followed by me bursting into tears. Not what I wanted. Plus, as an editor, I felt I should have been able to do it myself. Of course that’s ridiculous.
So, once I got desperate enough, I turned to two friends, both of whom I met on Twitter, which is why I’m going to link to their Twitter accounts when I mention them here. Bless Twitter. It has brought some truly dear people into my life, not the least of all these. Catherine Nichols and Tim Walker both read it and had advice that sometimes dovetailed, sometimes mirrored, and sometimes contradicted what Rebecca and Andrea said. Catherine had tremendous insight into a central relationship in the novel that really changed the course of things for me. And Tim gave me some of the best editorial advice I’ve ever received. He said, take all the notes you have from everyone, put them in a new word document, take away all the formatting, and forget who said what. Then decide what feels right.
As with all great editing, the point was not to tell me how to fix the problems or what to write. The point was to tell me where the readers were tripping and slowing down. Sometimes I followed their advice, sometimes I didn’t, but most important, I knew where the problems were, and what they were, and I was newly inspired to come up with my own ways to fix them. By the time I came back to it, I was ready. I wrote whole new chapters. I deepened relationships. I answered questions I’d refused (stubbornly) to answer before.
I sent the novel back to Rebecca and Andrea in January of 2016. I waited about a week. I was in suspense, but I was also calm, because I felt I’d done everything I could.
This was the moment when I also sent the novel to another friend, Pamela Milam. I’d only let her read the prologue and first chapter before. Now I let her read the rest. Let’s just say her response made me feel like I hadn’t completely embarrassed myself. Okay, she raved. She said I’d done something special. And of course all any of us has ever wanted is to do something special. So that meant a lot to me.
I was standing in a knitting store on West 79th Street when I got an email from Rebecca saying that I’d done it. The novel was ready to be submitted to publishers. Cue happy tears while clinging to skeins of yarn.
Then Rebecca masterfully chose who to send my novel to and how to describe it to those editors and publishers. The person who responded most enthusiastically and immediately and in a way that said she really got it was Karen Wojtyla, editorial director at Margaret K. McElderry Books. She and publisher Justin Chanda made it clear that they also thought I’d done something special. Again, that’s really all any writer—anyone—wants to feel.
Once they’d agreed to acquire two novels (The Beast Is an Animal and another novel I didn’t even have the idea for yet)…well. If I had more space and less natural reserve and decorum I could tell you all the ways in which this changed my life and answered a lingering question that had hung over me for years.
Karen then edited the novel—because now I had an editor! And she pushed me so carefully and strategically that I felt neither over-edited nor under-edited. This, my friends, is an art. And she got me (perhaps most important) to finally, finally, tackle a few problematic sections that I just hadn’t been able to fix until that final go-round.
After that, Simon & Schuster’s managing editor and the copy editor, Beth Edelman, also took cracks at it, and found yet more. There was one mistake in particular they caught that still causes me to shudder. Thank you. Thank you.
Now I must pause to recognize the as-yet-unsung in all of this—Karen’s associate editor, Annie Nyobo. Annie, I feel your pain. I’ve been there. It’s hard to be an editor and an assistant at the same time. It often feels thankless. I hope I never give you reason to feel that way. Thank you.
And what was the satin bow on all this wonderfulness? THE MOST GORGEOUS COVER THAT EVER COVERED A BOOK. Sonia Chaghatzbanian designed the cover I would have dreamed up if I could have dreamed that well. And this, to me, is a life lesson. Because if you’d asked me what I wanted to see on the cover, I would have said, “Whatever you do, please: Don’t put a girl on the cover. That’s been done to death and it would be all wrong for this book.” And I would have been incorrect. Because this cover…I sigh when I look at it. I want to fall into it. It gives me joy.
And that is how The Beast Is an Animal became a book. Stay tuned for further adventures.