by Geroge McNeill
February, 1975. Hotel Chelsea, New York City.
There I was, poor as Job’s turkey, hunkered down and hiding out
in a small, shabby room in a hotel, wondering how I’d pay the
bill (much less eat) and waiting for a phone call that never
In short, I was a freelance writer, just living the dream.
I’d been writing for some 18 years, making a living, sometimes
living high on the hog, sometimes low on the hog, and sometimes
there was no hog at all. This was one of those hogless times.
I had sold some 35 novels and a few dozen magazine pieces. I’d
had my little moments in the sun, when I thought things were
finally turning in my favor. I was also no spring chicken and
felt like a damn fool to have believed it yet one more time.
Back to late summer, 1973...
A bar called Chicago, booze and a generous “free lunch” that
drew many a customer during cocktail hours. I was sitting at a
small table outside on some New York City midtown street with
the former editor-in-chief of Popular Library, one of the
publishers of my gothic novels.
He was now editor at a small hardback house. He was showing me
the manuscript of a novel that another publisher was coming out
with in a few months, titled Beulah Land and set in the
antebellum plantation south. It was expected to be a big
“Write us one like this, only different,” the editor said. He
handed me the manuscript.
Shortly after, I traveled to Rome, to write another gothic
mystery for which I had an advance and a contract. (An advance
from another even smaller publisher for half of what I had been
Running out of money but able to stretch it much further in
Italy, I spent September and October finishing the gothic and
used a chunk of my remaining money to mail it back to New York,
Next morning, I got up and began the old, familiar ritual of
somehow surviving until gothic mystery money arrived. Not only
was Rome cheap but, well, it wasn’t like I was penniless in,
I started work on the antebellum novel and, one more time, I
planned to exploit my heritage—a godsend in writing gothic
I set the book in the early 1830s, outside of Natchez. I wrote
the three chapters and outline, which a publisher expected back
in those days. If he liked it, he’d give you a contract and an
My gothic mystery check finally arrived and the antebellum
manuscript and I flew back to New York. I gave the manuscript
to the editor and started the familiar wait.
It was early December, 1974.
The editor and publisher liked the chapters but wanted me to
tweak the opening. I tweaked and the publisher said, “Sign him
I went uptown, signed what turned out to be a multi-book deal,
was given a check and was taken out to a celebratory lunch.
I was ecstatic. I was to be published in hardback and was
getting some three times the largest advance I’d ever received,
to be paid in four parts. I sublet an inexpensive apartment and
started work on the novel.
I worked steadily, week after week. Another payment was finally
due, a much larger one, but what I got was a pittance of what I
expected and a lot of stonewalling.
But, I continued researching and writing as I made call after
call and trip after trip uptown to the publisher’s office. As
the months passed, I was given one small payment after another
but I never
anything close to the sizable payments I had been promised. And
each time, I had to give them more of the manuscript.
There developed some ludicrous situations in which both the
editor and the publisher wanted changes, but not the same
changes, and I’d end up being the arbiter in these disputes.
The tenants from whom I was subletting decided to stay in Los
Angeles and sent for their furniture. I lived on there with
only a card table, a straight back chair and a mattress.
Summer ended. So did my patience. I told the publisher that
unless I could go on and finish the novel on my own and without
having to grub for pittances, I was walking.
He agreed. I got a decent payment, went home and finished the
novel by myself. I got a little more money but less than was
The publisher wanted me to start on a sequel and promised
regular monthly payments while I wrote it. I stalled until I
got the balance of the payment for the finished novel.
I wanted nothing more to do with them. I gave up the sublet and
wondered what I’d do with the rest of my life but swore that my
career as a freelance writer was over.
A friend heard on the publishing grapevine that my manuscript,
now titled The Plantation, was being shopped around to
paperback houses and that the bidding was up to some $75,000
(which, in today's money, would be worth far more).
The next day, it was up to $100,000. And I was, yet one more
time, being stonewalled by the publisher.
Through another friend, I met an agent and she set me up with a
renowned publishing lawyer, Nancy Wechsler. I saw Nancy late on
a freezing Friday afternoon. She looked over the contract I had
signed and pronounced it,“the worst publishing contract I’ve
She called Bantam, which had won the bidding war, and was put
through immediately to Victor Timken, head of their legal
department. She asked about his family, then said, “George
McNeill is in my office and we hope that Bantam will still be
able to publish his novel.”
Long silence. Timken said he’d call right back. A couple of
minutes later, there was a call from an obviously stunned
hardback publisher, who had assured Bantam he could sell them
Nancy, though, in glancing at my contract, had keyed on the
clause in which the publisher stated that the book would be
published, first, as a hardback book.
Upshot: I was sent “home,” which was the hotel, and told to wait
for Nancy’s call. I left the office understanding that, though
an agent only received 10 percent of what was sold, a lawyer—win
or lose—was paid by the hour.
The rest of Friday passed. And Saturday. And Sunday. And
Monday... And the phone didn’t ring.
Another couple of days passed and I was beyond depression and
inertia -- and then the phone rang. It was Nancy. Three-way
negotiations were underway. Every day, Nancy would call and
we’d talk about what had been discussed in the negations.
There was a sudden glitch in the negotiations—bitter, bitter
Another ringing phone: The deal was done.
We all met in Nancy’s office. Contracts were signed, checks
changed hands. I walked out of the office a successful writer
with a fat check.
was published in June and became a million-copy bestseller. The
sequel, Rafaella, sold 700,000 copies.
If what Mavis McIntosh, my first agent, told me when I was a
young man is true, that you become a real writer after writing
your first million words, then I had become a real writer.
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