When Dreams Die

Rejected author buries her novel and keeps the dream alive anyway.

The pews were packed last Saturday afternoon at Chapel of the Chimes, and people who couldn’t find seats had to linger on the terrace, dangling cameras and video recorders. At 4 p.m. piano chords wafted into the room. Six pallbearers in black suits lugged a heavy casket up the aisle while at the pulpit, a man sang “The Impossible Dream” in a luxuriant tenor. Behind the large casket trudged several small children carrying something in a wagon — the “something” turned out to be three manuscripts, a copy of The Secret, a “vision board” inspired by The Secret with pictures of Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres cut out of magazines, the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, several rejection letters, and a diploma for an MFA in creative writing. Behind them came a woman in dark glasses and a black cowl, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex. People in the audience snickered. Perhaps this amount of pomp and circumstance was a bit much for a writer mourning her rejected novel. But in a way, her grief seemed understandable.

The author, Mary Patrick Kavanaugh, had been working on her book Family Plots: Love, Death & Tax Evasion for roughly seven years. She began the first draft upon entering an MFA program at University of San Francisco in 2001. By then her husband had been dead for two years and then-forty-year-old Kavanaugh lived with her teenage daughter Ashley on the border of Oakland and Piedmont, just a stone’s throw from the Mountain View Cemetery. For two years Kavanaugh went to school full time, and emerged with a six-hundred-page manuscript. “When you’re dealing with your own life you don’t know when to shut the hell up,” the author explained. “Or I should say I don’t know when to shut the hell up.” Kavanaugh took another two years off to whittle the first draft down. She refinanced her house twice. In 2005 she began shopping for an agent, and last fall she pitched Family Plots to eight publishers. None of them bit. In the spring she courted eight more. No dice. Kavanaugh was flummoxed. “By late July it was fifteen ‘nos,’ and the last one was just ignoring me,” she said.

It wasn’t that Kavanaugh had written a crappy book. Quite the contrary, said people who read her rough drafts. In fact, Kavanaugh appended “praise from the rejecters” to the book jacket of what ultimately became a self-published novel. “Ms. Kavanaugh is a laugh-out-loud hilarious writer, one who uses cutting humor to get at the heart of a situation,” wrote someone from Riverhead Books. “Great comic timing,” said another from Penguin. “I found the narrative voice to be engaging, and the mystery pleasantly quirky,” added a rep from St. Martin’s Press. It wasn’t hard to write a gushing encomium about Kavanaugh, who has a dark sense of humor and a way of manhandling her readers. Offering her a book deal was another story.

Several factors contributed to what was ultimately a wholesale rejection of Family Plots. Kavanaugh is an unknown novelist. She emerged at a time when book sales were down across the board, and few publishers were willing to take risks. (“It’s a fear-based economy everywhere,” said the author.) Moreover, the book defied categorization. It’s a loosely autobiographical mystery novel inspired by Kavanaugh’s relationship with her husband, a lawyer who dodged the IRS and always felt “like he’d been done wrong.” (Kavanaugh describes him as a “pretty alternative,” but not criminally-minded type of guy.) Kavanaugh coined a cute term for the genre she had created: She called it “autobiographical faction.” The term was catchy, the story had juice, and the author knew how to create drama — editors took note. But they all came to the same conclusion: In this market, quirky and cute just won’t cut it anymore.

By the time Kavanaugh received her fifteenth rejection letter, Family Plots looked like a pipe dream. “I listened to that author of Juno on NPR,” Kavanaugh recalled. “She was saying it’s so hard to crack publishing. … You need to build a platform on the web.” But it seemed impossible to create a viable Internet identity if Kavanaugh didn’t already have name recognition. She had put all her faith in the top publishers in New York, planning every last detail from the book cover to the interview with Oprah. She wanted to hold a book launch at Chapel of the Chimes because the cemetery fit into her book’s theme (she refers to it as “a character in the book”). “After the rejection I was walking through the cemetery and thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t get to do my book launch here.'” Then something clicked. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll have a funeral for my book here! I’ll build a platform in the ‘online dead dream cemetery.'” The resulting web site is riddled with hooky taglines.

Whether or not Kavanaugh wrote a commercially viable novel remains to be seen (she did manage to sell 91 copies at the book’s funeral, and fifty prior to that). But there’s no debating that she can throw a damn good funeral. Presented in a joyously over-the-top style that recalled the funeral in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Kavanaugh’s event featured a eulogy from Pastor Rai Jordon, who had been her spiritual advisor through the whole process of writing Family Plots. Performances from fellow attendees of Kavanaugh’s church, the East Bay Church of Religious Science, included a peppy rendition of the Monty Python tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” an original rap from emcee Vivacious V, and the ever-inspiring Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, “Climb Every Mountain.” Ashley and her best friend came up to the pulpit twice with “a message from our sponsor,” urging everyone to purchase a copy of Family Plots on the way out, for $21.75.

At the climax, Kavanaugh rushed to the coffin and threw in all the remnants of her dead dream — the manuscripts, the books, and the vision board (“I really wanted Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres to bolt into the chapel and say ‘Nooooooo!‘” she confessed in a subsequent interview). Jordon convinced her to keep the MFA degree, assuming it might come in handy some day. Guests were invited to approach the casket and toss in their own dead dreams, using two notes of “dead dream currency” that Kavanaugh provided in the program bills. One marked the death of Proposition 8. The other provided a list of suggested “dead dreams” for guests to choose from: failed relationships; bad marriages; abortive careers; the quixotic dream of finding a soul mate. (People were also invited to write in their own.) The idea, which is replicated on Kavanaugh’s web site (MyDreamIsDeadButImNot.com), went over well. After all, most people know what it’s like to get turned down.

Kavanaugh also sent invitations to her rejectors in New York City, asking them to be pallbearers. She provided three optional replies: 1) Unfortunately, I have to reject you again. 2) Absolutely, I’d love to help kill this project. 3) For the love of god, would you leave me alone? None of them came, but she did get a couple encouraging responses from people who thought it was an excellent marketing gimmick. One editor wasn’t so kind, said Kavanaugh: She checked the first box.


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