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August 27, 2006

The Mystery of the Missing Novel


This summer, Harperís Magazine has been serializing a novel for the first time in 50 years. A plot-driven satire about a manipulative doll-company millionairess who buys and renovates much of a small college town in upstate New York, John Robert Lennonís ìHappylandî lends itself to publication in installments. But why itís appearing in Harperís ó and not in book form ó is one of the more intriguing publishing stories of the season.

The novel was originally under contract to W.W. Norton, but the publisher and author parted ways at the 11th hour, Lennon says, after Norton got cold feet about potential legal trouble. In outline, but not detail, the novelís protagonist, Happy Masters, is strikingly similar to a real woman: Pleasant Rowland, the founder of the American Girl line of dolls, who has been financing the renovation of properties owned by her alma mater, Wells College, in Aurora, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. Since 2001, Rowland has converted two 19th-century houses into inns and opened three restaurants in the heart of the lakeside town, stirring up contention: some residents have been resistant to her zealous and unsolicited attention, others have welcomed the spruce-up. In Lennonís zany, entertaining novel, the megalomaniacal Happy Masters goes even further, strong-arming the town mayor and the beleaguered president of the local all-female college, buying up businesses and even hiring someone to drop bricks off the roof of the college library, injuring two students, to prove she needs to build another.

Novels are frequently based on real people, but itís extremely rare for a publisher to drop one because of libel concerns. ìIíve never heard of a novel being pulled for fear of defamation claims,î said Paul Aiken, the executive director of the Authors Guild. He said a novelist could be sued if ìthe character is clearly based on a real person and the person is identifiable and people would believe that itís factual.î But itís difficult to prove libel in fiction, especially if the character in question is modeled on someone who could be considered a public figure, for whom the standards of defamation are higher. (For example, no libel lawsuits were filed over ìThe Devil Wears Prada,î Lauren Weisbergerís best-selling roman à clef about the Vogue editor Anna Wintour.) Itís also rare for a non-public figure to win a case involving defamation in fiction. In 2003, for instance, a court dismissed a suit filed against Random House and Joe Klein by a woman who claimed she might be identifiable in ìPrimary Colors,î Kleinís 1996 novel inspired by Bill Clintonís first presidential campaign.

As for ìHappyland,î Lennon insisted that all the characters, including Happy Masters, are entirely fictional, though he added that ìthereís no question it is inspired by the basic outline of some real events.î Lennon, who is 36 and lives in Ithaca, N.Y., said he became interested in Pleasant Rowlandís interventions in Aurora after he taught creative writing at Wells College for a semester in 2000. ìThe town was cute and dilapidated,î he said in a phone interview. ìShe was very aggressive in seeking to buy up property. Some got mad, others were willingly selling. Some friends said, ëOh, you should write a novel about this.í I usually fly solo. I like making stuff up. But the basic concept seemed really appealing to me, making up my own people enmeshed in a similar situation.î

Norton declined to specify why it dropped ìHappyland.î But Lennon said the editing process had been going smoothly, and that legal questions emerged only after he submitted the final of multiple drafts. Since signing a contract with the publisher in June 2004, Lennon had been working with Robert Weil, a veteran editor known for line-editing as aggressively as he tries to drum up attention for his authors. ìIíd worked with Bob before on ëMailmaníî ó Lennonís well-received 2003 novel, also published by Norton ó ìand we had a really good editorial relationship,î he said. It was Weil, Lennon said, who suggested he cut a lot of subordinate characters and bring Happy Masters to the fore. ìHe wanted there to be more drama and a stronger narrative through line,î Lennon said. ìIíd send them pages, heíd send them back for more tweaking. The whole issue of legal questions never came up.î (Weil declined to comment.)

When Lennon handed in the final draft in mid-January 2005, ìI wasnít in touch with my editor anymore, I was in touch with a lawyer,î he said. ìThey were asking me to remove any reference to dolls or a doll company. I basically refused.î According to Lisa Bankoff, Lennonís literary agent at International Creative Management, the publisher was worried that Pleasant Rowland ìwould possibly be litigious.î A spokeswoman for Norton, Louise Brockett, said only that ìwe resolved our differences with the author amicably, we wish him well, and it would be inappropriate for us to discuss our publishing decisions.î (After Norton backed out, Lennonís British publisher, Granta, also dropped the book, Bankoff said. Libel law is much stricter in Britain than in the United States.)

Lennon tends to ride the line between literary and commercial fiction. His first novel, ìThe Light of Falling Starsî (1997), is about the aftermath of a plane crash in Montana. In ìThe Funniesî (1999), the son of a cartoonist takes over his fatherís comic strip after his death. Lennon revisited Montana in ìOn the Night Plainî (2001), about a sheep-rancher, and turned to upstate New York for ìMailman,î about a postal carrier in what appear to be the last 10 days of his life. Lennonís most recent book, ìPieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes,î was published by Granta in Britain last year, but hasnít found an American publisher yet. One of the bookís 100 vignettes is about a novelist who writes a lengthy local history, only to be told by publishers to cut it in half. Hooked on editing, she keeps removing passages from her book until finally only a haiku remains: ìTiny Upstate town/Undergoes many changes/Nonetheless endures.î

Lennon cut 30,000 words and one character to fit ìHappylandî in Harperís. (The third of four installments appears in the September issue.) Roger Hodge, the editor of Harperís, said the magazine had been looking to serialize a novel when he heard from a friend of Lennonís about ìHappylandî being dropped by Norton. ìIt seemed to me to be a perfect novel to serialize,î Hodge said. But the magazine hasnít been playing up the novelís history. ìJust because some other publisher had decided not to do it, thatís not a good reason to read a novel,î he said. Harperís wasnít concerned about lawsuits, Hodge said. ìItís fiction, itís a satire, thereís no legal concern whatsoever. ... Our lawyers thought that they couldnít imagine that there would be any problem and were puzzled even that they were asked about it.î

Katie Waller, the executive director of the Aurora Foundation, which Pleasant Rowland founded in 2001 to oversee renovations in Aurora, said Rowland was traveling and unavailable for comment. Waller said sheíd informed Rowland about Lennonís novel in May, when The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., wrote about the Harperís serialization. Rowland, who sold American Girl to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million, lives in Madison. ìI do know about Harperís doing ëHappylandí and I told Pleasant about it,î Waller said. ìI know she hasnít read it and doesnít intend to. I havenít read it and I donít intend to.î Waller said Rowland had not been in touch with Norton or Harperís and had no intention of suing. ìOh, absolutely not,î she said. She mentioned an interview Lennon gave The Ithaca Times earlier this month, in which ìhe said itís all fictional.î

Waller said the foundation had helped make Aurora a tourist destination. ìWe did the restoration of these beautiful buildings, then hired the staff to get them up and running,î she said. ìI just turned over the five properties back to the college as of June 1. My work is completed.î

Lennonís agent is still trying to sell ìHappylandî to a publisher, along with a new literary crime novel he has written. In the meantime, Lennon said he was pleased to have ìHappylandî serialized in Harperís, with its circulation of more than 200,000. ìI wonder if it would have gotten half the attention that it has if it were just a normal book. Given my experience in the literary publishing world, I doubt it,î he said. ìNothing is less momentous in the world than the publication of another literary novel.î

Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.