Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

Her efforts to get the hardback cover scrapped were unsuccessful. Ace compromised with a "more literary" paperback cover whose illustration suggests a French Impressionist take on European cathedrals. But by then, Anthony had rejected Ace's in-house publicity machine and hired her own. Sales of God's Fires were poor compared with those of her previous titles.

Susan Allison, the head of Ace and Anthony's former editor, defends the hardback cover her art department created for God's Fires. This was, after all, the same team that whips up art for all Ace titles.

"The cover had already been designed when Patricia expressed her displeasure," she says. "We always take an author's feelings into consideration, but from a financial point of view, it would be very unusual for us to do a complete redesign. When it came time to create the paperback cover, Patricia was involved more in the process, and she liked the results."

This disagreement was a trickle compared with the flood that would follow.
Anthony's New York literary agent, Don Maas, had successfully negotiated a contract for two more books. Ace is Putnam Berkley's science-fiction and fantasy imprint; they publish no other kind of fiction. So what did Anthony deliver as the first half of the deal? Flanders, a novel about the earthbound horrors of World War I. Ace cooked up a cover that everyone liked, but slapped the label "science fiction" on the spine, because that's the business they're in.

"When we signed for two more books with Ace, they assumed the books would have at least some sci-fi in them," says Maas, who also represents British sci-fi writer Christopher Priest and mystery author Ann Perry. "I assumed the books would have some sci-fi in them. There had already been trouble with God's Fires: Everyone involved only reluctantly agreed to label that book science fiction. Patricia was very uncomfortable with that. Since I first met her back in 1994, she was telling me, 'I'm not a science-fiction writer.'"

Upon publication in April, Kirkus Reviews weighed in with a typical rave and a slap on the wrist to Ace. Flanders is "mesmerizing stuff, highly textured, and brimming with insight," the reviewer offered. "Why is it science fiction? Well, it isn't, and attempting to market it as such helps this frustratingly underappreciated author not at all. Science fiction's loss would be the literary mainstream's gain."

Allison says she had no problem with the book's literary quality, but admits the match is a little uncomfortable for her house.

"This book is not science fiction," she says. "Everyone knew that. There was probably discussion between Patricia and her agent that there might have been a more suitable place to take the book, but I'm not in that end of the business. We decided to put it out there. Sometimes you have to roll with what you're given."

Ace had considerably more trouble rolling with what Anthony submitted as the second half of her contract, Mercy's Children. Anthony describes it, oversimplistically, as a 700-page novel about the rise of Puritanism and the founding of America narrated entirely in Elizabethan English by an angel.

"It's the dirtiest thing I've written," Anthony says. "You have this angel, who transcends past, present, and future, taking you on a guided tour that includes a lot of sex. He'll stop the story to narrate a blow-by-blow account of a couple screwing in the straw. The Elizabethan English probably means it'll take the Religious Right longer to get mad."

Ace wanted the book cut in half and the graphic sex scenes soft-pedaled. This was an impasse more treacherous--and ultimately, more final--than a dispute over a cover illustration. Susan Allison says Ace and Anthony are "in negotiation" about whether Ace will publish Mercy's Children, but Anthony and Maas have seized their option to shop the manuscript around.

"I think Patricia Anthony is a genius," Allison says flatly. "And I sincerely hope she will find a more suitable home for her talents. What she's doing is a very brave and very difficult thing. She is, in some ways, a first novelist all over again."

Allison does have a point: Indeed, why should Ace, an imprint that specializes in science fiction and fantasy, be forced to promote outside its market for one author in the stable? Anthony and Maas knew from the get-go they were signing to a sci-fi label, and they knew the contract called for genre books.

Anthony, to a certain extent, misled the publisher when she became part of Ace's stable. And she knows it.

"It's not Ace's fault," she admits. "They were buying a pig in a poke when they signed that contract. I'm sort of unusual for an author, because I don't turn in pieces of my book as I finish them; I turn in a completed manuscript. And I don't work with outlines or any kind of plan. It's difficult enough for novelists to come up with simple descriptions to pitch their books. And when editors ask me, 'What's going to happen next?' I tell them I don't know."

These days, Anthony waits for news from New York on Mercy's Children and from Hollywood on Brother Termite. In the meantime, she tends her herb garden, plays with her cats, and does research on the next book she'll write, which concerns a psychic who may also be a killer.

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