Two Cousins for All Seasons
In the Acknowledgements at the end of Looking for Lydia; Looking for God, I have written this about my cousin, Jane Gentry, of Mansfield, Texas:
“My first cousin, Jane Riley Gentry, has been everything but co-author. Without her close reading and courageous criticisms it could not have been written.”
As I look back to the day I started this writing, I can’t retrieve the memory of when or how Jane became a second pair of eyes on the manuscript, a second mind–and that the mind of a serious reader–on those pages. I believe it began with my asking her what I had asked a couple of friends to do: take a look at Chapters One and Two and just tell me what they thought. I had gotten some discouraging responses. One acquaintance said she felt as if she were reading the start of several different books; a new friend and fellow book clubber just shook her head and said she hoped I wasn’t seriously considering trying to publish anything. A very old friend, a veteran teacher of writing, felt such pressure to proofread and correct line-by-line that our relationship suffered a near-fatal break that is only now beginning to heal.
Jane liked it but said I needed to include more detail about the women in the Bible study, that what she most wanted was to get to know them better.
At what point did my reticent, self-deprecating cousin become an acute and insightful editor, articulately and assertively insisting until I listened, considered, usually reframed a sentence or deleted whole paragraphs? It must have happened gradually, but suddenly one day Jane was almost as involved with the book as I was. We started many days at 8:00 in Virginia and 7:00 in the Lone Star State-and, with the pages in front of us on our respective computer screens, began reading aloud, taking turns, stopping when something didn’t sound quite right to one or both of us. We repeated this process at least twice before I even considered submitting it for publication. In fact, we repeated the process for the long book proposals I wrote. After I signed a contract with Koehler Books, we repeated it through two edits. When I was forced to make some major changes due to legal pressure, once again Jane and I got to work.
Dean and Jane:
As a matter of fact, during the writing of a-believe this or not-10,000 word book proposal, when I had run out of steam, Jane called to say she had read a book that she felt had important parallels with mine. That section of the proposal was called, “Competitive Titles.” I just didn’t have time to read it. She sent her notes; I wrote; we edited and rewrote together. Here is the review co-authored by Jane Gentry and Dean Robertson:
House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West. Michael Gross
This is the story of two brothers, sons of immigrant parents, who become developers with a vision for a building in the heart of New York City. Like Looking for Lydia, this book explores and reveals a building from every possible angle. There is the history of the building itself—its financing, construction, and completion. There are the stories of the men who dreamed and built it and of the people who eventually live in it. We learn that what the brothers had in mind was an icon, a building like no other, a ticket to fame; so far it continues to be just that. The whole tale is brought home by carefully selected photographs of the building’s exterior and of the builders. Like the Lydia Roper Home, Fifteen Central Park West is unique; there just isn’t anything quite like either of them.
Unlike Looking for Lydia, this is the story of a building erected entirely for monetary gain; it has no social mission or impact. Also different is the fact that the residents of Fifteen Central Park West forge no relationships, have, in fact, nothing in common except the incredible wealth that has allowed them to purchase apartments there. This is perceptive reporting by a fine journalist, and it tells a fascinating tale. But at the end of the day, the reader is intrigued but has not become involved with any of the book’s characters. It is a book about very lonely people.
Looking for Lydia presents model after model of people and events in relation to each other: the women in the Bible Study to each other and to the author; the Roper Home in relation to its history; this generation of the Ropers in relation to their own family saga. It is, finally, a book about the bonds we forge that bring us, sometimes against our will, out of loneliness.
Sometimes the most surprising and life changing experiences are wonderful and unexpected. This happened to me in March, 2014. My cousin Dean decided to write a book; or I should say the “Holy Spirit” showed up. She asked me to help with a little editing by long distance, as I am in Texas and she is in Virginia. We started reading the manuscript. My daily mantra was “I am not a writer.”
We went through it chapter by chapter, and soon we were reading line by line. I wanted to know more about the ladies in the Bible Study, their personalities and what meeting every Wednesday morning talking about the Bible meant to each of them. An hour on the phone each day became the norm.
Since retiring from public libraries I had not been so challenged. In the investigation of Lydia’s family we talked more about our own, and we wished we had asked more history questions of previous generations before they were gone. My cousin encouraged me to speak out and voice my opinions. It was great to be listened to and taken seriously. I have not had much confidence in the past. The joke between us now is that perhaps I’ve gotten a little too confident. Dean even occasionally suggests I’m a little pushy. I wear that banner proudly. A real bond has been reestablished between us that was missing for several years.
Looking for Lydia; Looking for God is now not only written but published and on the market.
Dean is already planning a sequel, which she has outlined in the last chapter of Looking for Lydia. When she is done with promotional travel for this book, she looks forward to continuing her research and writing about Lydia Roper. I intend to contribute my two cents worth on the next book, and am already reminding her of my indispensable skills as a research librarian and editor.