Sunday, October 16, 2011

Frances and Me

When I received a call from Tom Southern at Boaz Publishing in the fall of 2009 to inform me that I had won the Frances Fabri Literary Prize, I had no idea who Frances Fabri was and no way of foreseeing the extraordinary journey ahead. This is the story of my soul-connection to Frances Fabri and how her legacy is changing my life.

Frances Fabri was born on September 22, 1929 in Bekes, Hungary. When the Nazis invaded Bekes in 1944, she (age 14) and her parents were transported to Auschwitz. She never saw her father again. She and her mother saved each other’s lives on many occasions and, miraculously, were both still alive when the war ended. Frances and her mother emigrated to the U.S. in 1956 along with Frances’s husband, Emery Fabri (whom she later divorced). Frances studied history and literature at Hofstra University in New York. In 1972, she moved to San Francisco. She spearheaded efforts in the U.S. to begin compiling oral histories of Holocaust survivors. She founded the Holocaust Center of Northern California and she designed the protocol for interviewing survivors that is used to this day. When she died in 2006, she left her estate to her friend Matthew McKay. Wishing to use the inheritance from Frances to honor her memory, Matt and his wife Judy, in collaboration with Tom at Boaz, established the Frances Fabri Literary Prize.

The Fabri Prize seeks to “discover deserving but underappreciated works of fiction and have them published.” I had spent over 15 years working on Memories from Cherry Harvest when it won the Prize in the fall of 2009. Tom informed me that the Prize Committee had decided to award the Prize to two novels that year, but that they felt the other novel was closer to being ready for publication than mine. They would award the Prize to the other novel in 2010 and to mine in 2011; and Tom and the McKays wanted to meet with me to discuss work they felt needed to be done on my novel. Not only would my novel be the first novel written by a woman to win the Fabri Prize, it would also be the first that had a Holocaust theme as a core element of the book. Part one of the four-part book is based on the true story of some of my family members who survived the Holocaust. When I was awarded the Prize, I read about Frances for the first time and was astonished to discover that it had been her deepest desire to preserve the stories of those who had survived the Holocaust so that their experience would be remembered. This impulse to remember was one of the reasons I wrote the book.

In March 2010, I met with Tom and the McKays to discuss the changes they felt needed to be made to my novel, which were considerable, but I was open to hearing their suggestions. I felt the revision was doable, and I was willing to do it. I spent the next six months rewriting the novel yet again. In the fall of 2010, I sent the new version to Tom and the McKays. They loved it. I thought we were good to go; but it turned out that more was in store for me. The McKays had decided (and Tom agreed) that they wanted to “up the ante” on the Fabri Prize by moving it from its home at Boaz (a tiny press) and placing it under the wing of a larger and more prestigious publishing company. They wanted to raise the visibility of the Prize and the books produced as a result of the award. For the next few months, Matt and Tom met with Charlie Winton at Counterpoint Press to hammer out the details of moving the Fabri Prize to Counterpoint. Every once in a while I received an email from Tom thanking me for my patience. I believed that this was a move engineered by the spirit of Frances. I researched Counterpoint Press and was overwhelmed by the list of authors under their imprint (including, among others, Donald Barthelme, Wendell Berry, Janet Frame, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Lamott, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Gary Snyder).

Forget patient, forget excited, I was now crossing over into the realm of terrified, awed, and overwhelmed. Not only was my lifelong dream of being published going to be realized, but I was going to be published by a publisher with the resources to help me reach a wide audience and perhaps experience commercial success. In July 2011, I signed a publishing contract with Counterpoint. I am stunned by how seriously Charlie and his staff are taking me, an unknown author, and my book, a first novel that I have been writing for 20 years. Charlie hired Anika Streitfeld, one of the best book editors in the business, to work with me on revising the book. I am now in the middle of that process and have never worked harder in my life as a writer. I am not being pressured to make any changes that I do not wish to make. Counterpoint is leaving all decisions about creative content up to me; but I trust Anika (I can see how she earned her reputation) and I am taking her editorial suggestions seriously and working to address them.

In a few weeks, the McKays, Tom, and Charlie will announce the move of the Fabri Prize to Counterpoint, and Memories from Cherry Harvest as the first Fabri Prize title to be published by Counterpoint. The book is scheduled to officially launch in June 2012. Look for it! Each morning, when I go for my walk, I sense the spirit of Frances Fabri walking beside me, cheering me on. Her life’s work was all about remembering the Holocaust through the stories that emerged from it. I hope my life’s work can help fulfill her vision.

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