Bill was a graduate student in English Literature at Rice University when we met in the fall of 1967. He was already writing and publishing poetry, but he had always been interested in history. Soon after Bill and I married in 1960, he focused his reading on Civil War history and began collecting a library of books about that era, especially Bruce Catton’s works. But it was Hodding Carter’s book The Angry Scar, which graphically narrates the suffering of the South during Reconstruction, that most influenced him. While not abandoning his work as a poet, Bill determined to write a novel, using the occupation of his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana as an exemplar. This, his first novel, he titled And Wait for the Night.
It was written in the period 1960-1963 and published in 1964, a period corresponding to the centennial observation of the Civil War. Since this was over fifty years ago, my personal recollections of the events are hazy, so I thought I would refresh my memory by consulting copies of correspondence from that time between Bill and his two Rice University friends Larry McMurtry and Thomas Bell. Larry is well known as an author, and needs no further introduction. Tom was a newspaper reporter and the eventual Chairman of Journalism at Loyola University in New Orleans. On reading through the existing correspondence (Bill kept Larry’s letters and Tom’s daughter, Julie Bell Margules, kindly provided me copies of correspondence Tom had saved after her father’s death), I found the history of the writing and publication of And Wait for the Night so interestingly told, that rather than paraphrase it, I decided to just quote excerpts from the letters. I begin with a one from Larry in which he offered to recommend Bill’s nascent novel to his publisher, Harper’s.
Larry McMurtry to JWC, Oct 9, 1960
I’ll ask [John] Leggett [editor at Harper’s] about the Civil War novel, he may leap. Everybody tells me to tell them where there is talent to be bought cheap, so I will give them the name and let you determine the price.
JWC to Thomas Bell, March 20, 1961
HARPER’S HAS OPTIONED MY NOVEL. Yes, yes, yes.
$100 to hold it for them til I complete it. And that on the strength of having seen only seventy pages of the original draft. If they like that portion that much, they’ll flip faced with the whole thing. So will I, when I’ve worked my guts into printer’s ink.
Lerry McMurtry to JWC, March 22, 1961
Well, of course, hurrah! I was wondering what had become of your civil war project and was meaning to ask Leggett about it. Advise you to hook them deep and hard. $100 will spend quick, but then it’s that much less to come out of your advance when you got to that stage.
Leggett is a good honest guy with a heart of granite—I will be curious to see how you react when he puts the editorial full-nelson on you. He and I like each other a lot, but don’t trust each other one bit.
Anyhow, I’m glad you’re moving with prose again. If you’re interested in epic or tragedy I think you have to work in prose these days.
JWC to Thomas Bell, July 7, 1961
The book creeps on. I got to accelerate my pace on this thing, or it’ll be out after the centennial years are over. But I think most of what I have is pretty good. I’ve come to the conclusion that a novel should be full of action, movement, and that introspection, et al, is for dookie. I never did like Henry James, and too much current writing seems to be laboring under her talkative wing.
JWC to Thomas Bell, July 27, 1961
Things go well here. First chapter of the novel has been accepted for separate publication in THE GEORGIA REVIEW. [“Union in the Rain,” The Georgia Review, Athens, Georgia, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 1962. 141ff]
JWC to Thomas Bell, October 31, 1961
As much as I hate it, the sea-change is coming. I feel prose getting into my bowels like somebody’s little lever pills. I think I bilked the public and fooled the editors with this poetry crap long enough. I feel no poems, want no poems, like no poems. I feel wads of meaty description, and the need to invent new actions. Leaps of uncanny length. Monumental thrusts. It will probably happen in bits and pieces, but I think the long-awaited transition is underway.
JWC to Thomas Bell, December 6, 1961
Here’s the last of the Vicksberg portion. Let me hear what you think of it. I have now the whole Vicksburg section complete, and it runs 185 pages. Fills a binder. Now for the Shreveport sections. This book will take forever. I only hope it’s publishable when I give up on it.
Thomas Bell to JWC, December 10, 1961
I’ve just finished reading the ms you sent. Maybe I should criticize it a bit, I guess you want that, but right now I’m thinking mostly about how good it is to sit and read something that puts down as it must have been. And the feelings each time something happens that that is the thing which would have happened and that is what a man would have said.
JWC to Thomas Bell, December 13, 1961
Thanks for the comments . . . I’ll send you the Shreveport sections as they get done. In ways, the Shreveport stuff will be harder, and in ways easier. Hardier because of the weaving between scenes and characters, the balance needed. Easier because the stage will be wider than the close constructed area of three men in a falling city.
JWC to Thomas Bell, December 31, 1961
I got about half a chapter done over the holidays so far. Not a long chapter, but something completely unlike anything I’ve done before. No war, no Homeric poses: just a poor-white girl figgering how to get up in the world, and falling in love with the ladder. It’s a pleasure to do some depth-probing, and to start feeling out the edges of the talent. I knew I could do action and such, but I don’t’ know yet whether I can move in on an unspectacular individual and make rich and communicative without a lot of verbal cosmetic crap.
JWC to Thomas Bell, January 22, 1962
The BIG News: Harper’s has offered me a contract for the book. $1,000 advance: $500 now, and the balance on delivery—and 10% on the first 5,000 sold. Now they’re hooked. They got to publish it or lose all that loot. What a break—and on top of that, the writing is going well. I’ll send you a carbon of the Don Juan Cleburne section soon. In a way, I expect it’s the most touching thing I ever wrote. I felt like an observer, and I was hurting for this man even as I wrote.
JWC to Thomas Bell, March 15, 1962
Did I tell you I got a letter from John Leggett at Harper’s? He called the Cleburne thing “great.” Felt too much exposition in Lodge, but liked it basically. No suggestion of change in the Cleburne. Looks like I’m ginning, so long as he doesn’t get the idea that I can make all the book come up to Cleburne. No chance.
JWC to Thomas Bell, April 29, 1962
I’m into chapter one, part two. It’s a general look at what the military occupation and reconstruction South looked like—as capsulated in Shreveport. I am being especially careful in this chapter so that, if attacked by some yankee liberal editor for overstating, I can document everything—including the amount stolen, and the people dispossessed or killed.
JWC to Thomas Bell, May, 1962
Chaz [poet Charles Bukowski with whom Bill corresponded at length] got Cleburne. His comments are too complimentary to repeat. Anyhow, it broke down his distaste for the novel. We had had quite a debate on whether a poem or a novel was the superior form. Of course this is a meaningless debate: a good poem is better than a bad novel, etc. But a great novel seem to be to me a larger achievement than a great poem. I would rather have done ULYSSES than THE WASTE LAND.
JWC to Thomas Bell, May 20, 1962
Glad you liked Amos and Rye—which is more than Leggett did. He feels it’s too expository for a novel, and that the material needs to be made dramatic or sifted into a tight narrative and structure . . . He liked the Mexican War bit. He says I never miss on action. Maybe I ought to write for TRUE magazine. . . . I’m supposed to go to New York in September to discuss final revisions.
JWC to Thomas Bell, November 18, 1962
The trip north was, as you might say, satisfactory. John Leggett is an intelligent and earnest young Yale grad (not too young), and we get along well. I think they’re pretty impressed with the book and want it to go well. They want me to thin it down, but only to make it tighter and more dramatic—they say it’s too talky in places, which is probably true. I think we’ll get along all right.
JWC to Thomas Bell, March 28, 1963
I finished it Sunday night about 10:30. It is about 925 pages and Joyce is typing up final chapter for Harper’s. It’s good to be through, but you feel kind of lost.
NOTE: On submitting the manuscript to Harper’s, Bill received a request from John Leggett to re-write the manuscript adding a female character for each male character since “80% of the book buying public are women.”
Larry McMurtry to JWC, April 3, 1963
I haven’t read the book, of course, and am just whistling in the dark. But I would advise give and take with Jack [John Leggett] as far as you can, until you get a contract. After you get one he will no doubt keep pushing to change this and change that but you can just say politely no. But get the contract.
He may ask for work that you are not enthusiastic about, for changes that bug you. Nobody, once they think a book is finished, likes to have to go back and reconceive characters, put in sexy heroines, etc. But it can be done, without making the book any less good as literature, and Jack does not want it to become less good as literature, 80% women readers or no.
But I don’t think you ought to let his ideas bug you into yanking the book back too soon. That would forfeit some good leverage, for this book and career-wise. You start sending a 900-plus page first novel around unsolicited and it is going to lie in slush-piles at one house or another for a year or two at least, unless you get an agent to do the sendin for you.
Not that you should toady to Jack. You should just distinguish between his desires and his demands. His demands you ought to try and concentrate on; they will be any other editor’s demands. His desires you can ignore or think about as you chose. But if you can get the contract without doing anything to the book that violates your vision of it, I would advise it. First novels that long are damn hard to publish.
JWC to Thomas Bell, April 26, 1963
It’s going sour at Harper’s. They want revisions of a kind and extent I can’t and won’t go along with. I’m getting an agent in N.Y. to deal with Leggett—or to take the mss to another publisher. Too much work and heart in that book to fool with it the way Leggett feels I should.
Larry McMurtry, May 4, 1963
I am sorry, of course, for the abyss of difficulties that’s opened between you and Jack. Judging from Jack’s letter and yours, I would say it was unbridgeable, and that you probably ought to arm yourself with a good agent and go elsewhere.
Jack has his limitations, clearly. But one thing he’s seldom guilty of is beating around the bush. What he says plain out is that if you’re willing to throw away half of what you’ve written and to dramatize the half you keep he’ll talk about where and how. That’s what he thinks it needs—and as he says, he’s only right half the time or less. Obviously you don’t think he’s right about your book, so there’s not too much more to say.
Keep in mind though that the world of publishing is cold and nobody alive or recently dead, not even Mr. Faulkner, gets through it without some frostbite and amputation. The hardy only lose toes and fingers.
Larry McMurtry to JWC, May 8, 1963
Good deal. If you’re in with Elizabeth McKee [a literary agent] you’re in with one of the best. She’s as good as anybody, without being as prickish as most. She handles two other friends of mine. Took one novel that had been rejected all over town and sold it in two weeks. I think your fame and fortune are assured, and you can get your mind off the business and keep it on the writing.
JWC to Thomas Bell, May 25, 1963
You’ll be glad to hear that all things have worked well for the sake of justice and The Southern Cause. Putnam’s has just bought the novel right out from under Harper’s nose. Yes. The chief editor, Peter Israel, is big for it. Putnam’s publishes Norman Mailer, among others. That’s good company. The only kind of revision they want is cutting and stylistic, etc. The kind of thing which I would want to do—have to do—in any case. So we’re back on the rails. Honest men are thus vindicated and the Yankees suffer another defeat.
I have to go to New York in early June to talk over revisions, etc. Will let you know how it goes. This time, we publish a book. Enough crapping around.
JWC to Thomas Bell, June 13, 1963
We’re into the revisions. Rented this IBM typewriter to get it rushed. The Putnam’s editor is, so far, a real great guy. We’ve disputed four or five points: I’ve won all encounters. Looks to me like the book may well be better after revisions than before. Much fat sliced away. Points become barbs.
The re-write is mostly cutting out stuff you love, but which you know you can do without. Then you have to patch and bridge the deleted sections, and the result is some pretty flat and indifferent writing. But the old writing still has flair, and I guess there is some pretty uninspired stuff in every novel.
They plan on [publishing in] February or March if we can hurry. Latest would be June of 1964. My agent says the large advance they paid will tend to make em advertise and promote. I got a feeling that all they’ll have to do is send copies to the liberal reviewers, and they’ll get all the publicity they want.
We’ll be in English, though. [Bill had been accepted into the University of Sussex Graduate Program as a D.Phil. candidate.] Since we have the $2,600 advance coming, we’ve taken the chance and ordered the Morgan sports car. Know anybody who wants to buy a Tr-3?
JWC to Thomas Bell, November 8, 1963
Met the Putnam’s editor-in-chief in London two weekends ago and took last look at book’s prologue. Now at the printer’s getting estimated and proofs will be ready in December. Getting closer all the time. You better get some of your friends and cohorts to review it. I need to sell a lot of copies in order to get home.
JWC to Thomas Bell, January 31, 1964
They sold AND WAIT to an English publisher, Anthony Blond, who has paid £500 advance for it. This is a hell of a big advance in England, and runs up our pre-publication earnings on the book to a point where one more chunk of cash will make it more than a year’s salary at LSU. Wow. There remains the paperback right to peddle, and of course the movie thing. This last seems unlikely, I’m afraid. It’d be awful tough. But there are the book clubs, and AND WAIT is on the A list of the Book of the Month, I understand. Means it’s a high prospect. Here again I expect no dice. Book’s language is too rough. They say the book is leading all others in advance sales on the Putnam’s spring list. This is a good omen. If successful, shit, I’d never work again as long as I live. Only write.
JWC to Thomas Bell, April 25, 1964
I’m sorry the review copy was so late, but it’s a beautiful book, isn’t it? The release date is now 22 May, and Putnam’s is hoping for good things. I’m just holding tight.