Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Sam Houston's 'Bride' Revisited
The Author Whose Novel Triumphed Over Rejection
by Sarah Booth Conroy
It isn't enough to write an 800-page novel about the long-suppressed sex scandal of Texas hero Sam Houston and his first wife, Eliza Allen -- or to look as though you should star in the miniseries based on the book. While helpful, neither will elicit a contract from a New York book publisher -- as Elizabeth Crook found out.
Today the first edition of her first novel, "The Raven's Bride," is already sold out and the second printing on its way. Liz Carpenter, author and legendary press secretary for Lyndon Johnson -- and the one who gave the book its title -- is handling the promotion for the book in all of Texas and half of Tennessee. (Both states were once governed by Houston, a friend of Carpenter's great-grandfather.) Television personality and author Bill Moyers gave a book-signing party for Crook in New York. Jacqueline Onassis came -- though she rarely goes to parties.
But then Onassis was the editor who bought the book -- after three other Doubleday editors had turned it down (in three different drafts with three different titles from two agents). Not only that -- Onassis has given Crook a Doubleday contract for her second novel.
But before the cheers and the happy ending, Crook spent seven years on the edge of the jumping-off place. In the Southern storytelling tradition, she makes a hilarious epic of the perils of publication -- all acted out, complete with gestures, "he said" and "she said" in different voices, and self-deprecating remarks.
The other day, she talked over coffee before flying off to Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Nashville for the next stop on her book tour, which had included two parties in Washington and finished up in Austin, where she now lives.
"I'd always wanted to write a book about a real woman who was overlooked by history," said Crook. "Always" isn't that long ago -- she is 31. "Seven years ago, my father was reading a book about Houston, and he said 'Why don't you consider Eliza Houston? Nobody knows anything about her. She's an enigma.'"
"That's a good word," said Crook.
Of Eliza, Crook learned that she was "remote" and not "one to wear her heart on her sleeve for daws to peck at." In 1829, at age 20, Eliza married the 36-year-old Tennessee governor, known to his Cherokee friends as Ka'lanu, the Raven. Eleven weeks later, she left him -- and neither ever said why. The scandal that followed forced Houston to resign his office, set him on the path to Texas and glory, and left Andrew Jackson to remark, "My god, is the man mad." Eight years of separation later, Houston divorced her and both remarried.
Crook began by thinking she could solve the mystery of the Houston marriage. "I ended by being protective of Eliza's history. I was relieved that no explanation actually came to light," she said. Not that Crook let the lack of facts get in the way of telling a good story.
"The Raven's Bride" is not only Crook's first novel -- "I've never had anything published before," she says. "But I've always wanted to write, it's the only thing I'm good at." She studied short-story writing at Rice University. After graduation, she worked in a bookstore and in her former husband's electronics business.
Crook found writing a "refuge. Nothing is as compelling or satisfying." Unlike some people who have to discipline themselves to write, Crook said, she needs "discipline to stop writing." Not that the writing all went in a whoosh. She didn't know how to type and wrote at first with no. 2 pencils. When she finally got a computer, her life was transformed.
But in the beginning, Crook started by putting much time into research. "I read very slowly," she says.
Houston, the former Tennessee congressman and governor, won Texas's independence from Mexico in the battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and became the new republic's first president. He left "copious writings," Crook says, enabling her to portray him, she wrote, with "his egotism and eccentricities, his great wit, and his fears."
Eliza Allen, however, left hardly a scrap of paper. Only a few bits and pieces of her story survive. She said on the morning after her marriage to Houston that she wished "they would kill him." Before her death from cancer on March 3, 1861, at age 51, she had two wishes -- that all her papers and her portraits be burned, and that she be buried in an unmarked grave. Though she and her second husband had four children, no direct descendants survive.
Crook did at last find, in her own home town of San Marcos, Tex., a watercolor almost certainly of Eliza, but she and its owner, who had inherited the painting from a descendant of Eliza's second husband, finally agreed not to show or publish it, in observance of Eliza's wishes. The real Eliza, Crook said, "didn't look a bit like I'd pretended she did."
Tantalizingly, along with the portrait, the owner had inherited a letter from his aunt saying she had gotten the picture from "my grandparents, who told me all I know about Eliza's marriage." Period.
Crook's first go at the book produced 750 pages of it -- "I was burdened with all my knowledge. I didn't know what to do with too much history. I didn't realize that it wasn't any good." Unlike most aspiring but unpublished writers, she actually got herself a New York agent. He sent her the rejection letters as he received them, which made Crook go through frenzies of rewriting to answer objections. She says some writers are "flattered when an editor takes the time to spell out in such erudite terms why the piece is being rejected. I was personally never very grateful."
In one envelope from her agent were these three judgments on the same draft:
To one editor, Eliza Allen was "a sensuous presence" but Sam Houston was "a huge wreck of a character." Another wrote that Houston's "towering eccentricity" kept him "reading long after I was disappointed," but Eliza's "fairly vague character" was what "derailed the story." The third found Eliza Allen "compelling" and "gutsy" but Houston "dull."
One harsh letter to her agent said, "I didn't like this manuscript. Why did you send it to me?" A different editor wrote: "That second chapter is one of the most awkward scenes one could ever despair of in fiction."
Finally -- and understandably -- Crook was rejected by her agent, who said he had "exhausted the places to send your book in New York." He suggested she try the Texas Monthly Press on her own. Crook didn't tell the agent she'd already tried there, and the editors weren't interested.
Through all her troubles, Crook likes to point out, her own family was a big help, unlike Eliza's. Eliza was the oldest of 10 with a chronically ill mother and a cold, disapproving father. "My father isn't anything like Eliza's but he worries people might think he is," Crook says. Perhaps to forestall such thoughts, Crook thanks him for lifting her to a "bird's-eye view" of her characters. William H. Crook was once head of VISTA before going to Australia as ambassador. When her book tour brought her here she was honored at parties given by friends of her parents -- Elizabeth Hutchinson, trustee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Rep. Jake Pickle (D-Tex); his wife, Beryl Pickle; and former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson Robert Louis Hardesty and his wife, Mary Adelaide.
Crook had what she calls a "grant" from her uncle Charles Butt to hire researchers in Tennessee and to go there herself. Eleanor Butt Crook, her mother, a former English teacher, copy-edited multiple drafts, a task only love could sustain. And Crook's grandmother "accepted the vulgarities" in the book "with good grace."
Anyway, after the New York agent gave up, Crook rewrote the book, cutting almost 500 pages. She found a new agent and changed the title (though some New York houses mentioned that the manuscript looked familiar). Finally, her Washington agent, Lisa DiMona, called to say that Texas Monthly wanted it -- "JUST AS IT IS!" At that, Crook panicked and demanded the help of an editor first.
Crook rewrote the whole book in two months -- for the seventh time.
So, you think, with that all Crook's troubles were over. Not so. Texas Monthly Press had money woes and gave her manuscript back. DiMona submitted it again to Doubleday, whose editors read it, said they thought they'd make an offer -- and then returned it "in a pathetic, dogeared condition, shopworn, with a nebulous rejection letter."
Texas Monthly found more money, did the production work, commissioned the cover. Then the press was sold to Gulf Publishing, which doesn't publish fiction.
Crook heard about the press's demise by phone from a friend who read about it in the Houston Chronicle. She said she went out to a 7-Eleven, bought the newspaper, "sat on the curb and read it and cried." After the sale, Crook marched into a meeting of the Gulf staff -- without an appointment -- and demanded her publication rights back. Crook remembered that Gulf said, "Sure, take them, and you can have the production work, the cover -- and keep the advance."
That was when Bill Moyers, a friend who'd read an early draft, asked for Crook's bound galleys from Texas Monthly. "It looked awful -- beat-up -- after all, I'd slept with it! I got my eraser out and worked on it, and made it look worse!"
Back when she thought the book was being published, Crook had bought herself a celebratory ticket to London, and she went anyway when she couldn't get a fare refund.
A month later in England, when Crook was reduced to "eating pork and beans out of a can," the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, "This is Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday, and I have read your book. It's very good. We'd like to make an offer."