Pythia Peay, with her books: American Icarus and America on the Couch
As a publisher, I’m often told by folks, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” My immediate (internal) reaction is often Why? It’s an enormous amount of work—research, writing, editing—and the rewards (little money, no reviews, few readers) are almost always incommensurate with the effort spent in creating the work. Sure, there is the satisfaction of a job completed, a story told, a mental and/or psychological itch scratched. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t expect more from their writing than these. And yet, sometimes there are occasions such as these. . . .
I first met Pythia Peay twenty years ago when she was the book editor for the now defunct magazine Common Boundary. I was the publicist for Continuum Publishing Company at the time and I’d send her our books on psychology and spirituality for review. Pythia told me that she was working on a book, entitled America on the Couch, and when I began my new company, Lantern Books, in 1999, Pythia’s manuscript was one of the first I considered. It was enormous: 600 pages of interviews with leading psychologists about what ails America. For all its worth as a book, America on the Couch intimidated the hell out of this neophyte publisher, and I turned it down.
I usually don’t like to reject manuscripts tout court, and I told Pythia that I’d been taken with a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction, in which she’d talked about her father. Joe Carroll was an aviator who embodied the aspirational, charismatic, can-do, and optimistic America that burst into the world’s consciousness after the end of the Great War. Yet he was also a depressive and a drunk, who put his family through hell because in his metaphorical flight from himself he always psychologically crashed to the ground. This American Icarus, I wrote to Pythia, was the heart of her story. She should lock Couch in a drawer and tell her father’s tale. I averred that what wisdom she’d gleaned from the psychologists would make its way, as necessary, into the telling of his life, as it charted the highs and lows of the American century.
Pythia embraced the idea of her father’s memoir wholeheartedly. For years, she researched the archives, talked to experts, and visited locations—uncovering a personal and social history, full of fascinating details and fruitful investigations, that gave body and, more significantly, soul to the story of America. When she sent American Icarus to me again, I was astonished and delighted. I now had in hand a book that, I felt, could command a larger publisher’s attention: one able to do unto this book what had been done to Women Who Run with the Wolves and other such titles that appealed to the children of the Greatest Generation, or men and women at midlife, or those who’d had to deal with alcoholism in their family.
I suggested to Pythia that she get an agent, which she did. And another. And then another. For three fruitless years, she followed their advice in revising her manuscript so that the publishers could politely but firmly reject it. She needed a bigger platform, the editors told the agents; they couldn’t market the book, the sales force told the editors; we no longer take such risks on mid-list authors, the executives told everyone. As Pythia relayed these responses to me, I feared that Icarus—expressive, romantic, and expansive—was passé, out of the conceptual reach of the 30-something editors for whom the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness problem and who wanted prose as polished and unscarred as the kitchen countertop in a new Brooklyn condo.
Eventually, Pythia came back to us, defeated as so many authors are by the timidity and rigidity of mainstream publishing, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the title. By way of a perk, and in the spirit of Why the hell not?, we threw in the original book idea, America on the Couch—this time updated, with 40 interviews organized into six parts, each introduced with a mini-essay by Pythia. Here, too, Pythia worked with her customary dedication, honesty, and moral seriousness, and eighteen months after the launch of the campaign, she yesterday found herself (as the picture above illustrates) sitting before a stack of both books, signing her name.
Neither Pythia nor myself know the future of these titles. They may, like many, disappear into silence; they may, like some, capture the imagination of their readers and through word of mouth pick up sales that will rebuke the agents and publishers who failed to see what I did: a rich, deeply felt, and very American story on family, land, and the ravages of time, and a remarkable collection of interviews over twenty years on these United States. Whatever happens, however, it’s vital that we acknowledge that what was only a dream or a hope twenty years ago has, through an enormous amount of work and dedication, as well as new technologies and the trust and commitment of friends and family in pre-ordering these books, come into being. While this is only the beginning, it is not just a beginning . . . and, for now, that should be a reward in itself.