David Schmahmann’s Empire Settings

Empire Settings (White Pine Press, October), by David Schmahmann, is an interracial love story told against the backdrop of South African apartheid. Schmahmann was born in Durban, South Africa, and is a trial lawyer in Boston. A portion of Empire Settings appeared as a short story in The Yale Review in 1988.

It’s a simple question really, yet it’s one that has David Schmahmann “totally perplexed”: “How can something be so unwanted on one hand, and then&#151just overnight&#151be the hottest commodity in New York?”

That “something” is Schmahmann’s novel Empire Settings, and by “unwanted” the author is referring to the more than 100 literary agents, editors and publishers in New York who rejected his manuscript (some on more than one occasion).

Schmahmann began the “very soul-destroying process” of trying to get published in 1994, when he sent his manuscript to 40 different agents before finding a taker. His agent then spent the next two years submitting Settings to different publishing houses&#151with each one taking a pass.

“If any of those people had sort of told me to keep my day job and go and boil my head, I would have actually known that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree, but they never did that,” he says. “In fact, all of the rejections were filled with very flattering descriptions.”

Finally, Schmahmann&#151submitting sans agent&#151found White Pine Press, a small and well-regarded literary press in Buffalo, N.Y. But, while White Pine was interested in publishing the book, it would take a “year or two” for the funding to become available. So Schmahmann decided to hire Florence Tambone, a publicist who would be able to help with promotion once the book finally was released. But it was Tambone’s involvement prior to publication that changed the work’s fate.

Soon after taking Schmahmann as a client, Tambone showed the manuscript to Danny Wilson&#151the producer behind the film version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale&#151who, in turn, optioned the movie rights for the book and showed it to several agents, including Robert Gottlieb. As the founder of the Trident Media Group and Schmahmann’s eventual agent, Gottlieb took the book back to the major houses for one last shot.

And this time&#151for reasons still unclear to Schmahmann&#151they all took notice.

“There was a bloody bidding war (for softcover rights) between the same idiot publishers who said no twice,” he says. “They could have had it for 50 cents, and there they were bidding in astronomical numbers to get it back. It makes no sense to me.”

It may not make any sense, but in the fall of 2002&#151one year after its hardcover debut from White Pine&#151Penguin Putnam’s Plume imprint will release a paperback edition of the very novel several sister imprints rejected.

“I think, if it does well, it will be a case study in what it is about the commercial publishing industry in New York that makes it tick and that makes it catch things and miss things,” he says. “This may be a success story, but there’s blood in it I tell you.”

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