Once upon a time, a time literally before computers, Cleaning House was a nicely typed novella called The Last Raisinette. With a lot of help from my friends—listed below—this manuscript in a box became traditionally, gloriously, published. Here is the story of that box.
It was the summer of 1976 and a flotilla of Tall Ships clustered like exotic birds on the water to celebrate our nation’s 200th birthday. I was away from home for only the second time in my life, at a Woman’s Writing Conference at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. For the once and only time, writing would come first. I was able to write, to write, to write without pause or explanation. For six weeks I would only think, write, talk about writing, and write some more. I even met real writers! The celebrity author at the conference that year was Johanna Russ, author of The Female Man, among many other books.
It was a time when feminism was as white-hot as an incoming asteroid, and it could neither be avoided nor embraced by housewives like myself. Alice Walker might have made an appearance at one of the coffeehouses in town, and I believe Adrienne Rich gave the keynote, but memories are now as hazy as any exhalation in those smoky small college rooms.
There was at least one other woman at the conference who was also leaving her young children behind and as the dusk was gathering and the various cars were still ticking in the parking lot’s heat, her husband and kids crept up to the long porch windows and looked in as we were sitting around in a circle and getting to know each other. They appeared like wan ghosts behind the mom in question, and when she realized they were still there, she too turned into a ghost. She was insanely talented, and she went home early.
I wrote constantly in a marble notebook when I was out of my cinder-block room and pounded directly on a turquoise Smith Corona when I was at my desk, and the stories—a few are told in Cleaning House—were unleashed. They went into file folders and then became the basis for my creative thesis at Princeton, whose First Reader was a brand-new member of the faculty, Joyce Carol Oates.
At Princeton, I was lucky to have William Goyen as my first creative writing instructor, and his kindness was a blessing on top of that. Writers are used to getting criticized and put in their place, but sometimes they are met with joy and encouragement. Now is a chance to thank my advisors Reginald Gibbons and Noel Koch for their counsel during my thesis time and for the introduction to my gorgeous agent, the legendary Maxine Groffsky. A tall dark classmate in George Garrett’s writing course at Princeton was David Rieff, who became my thoughtful and kind editor at Farrar Straus.
Maxine’s assistant Patrick Merla thought up the new name for my book and the great Fred Marcellino designed the cover. It was the first in a series of women in boxes that he would famously create. My back-cover photograph was taken by Marc Brower, a lifetime friend. With a nice new name and face, Cleaning House was born and was extremely well-reviewed.
Thanks also to Swedish agent Lennart Sane, who co-agented my book at the Frankfurt book fair to great success, and to publisher Tom Doherty at Ace Books, who was my paperback publisher in 1982. Ace Books had become famous in science-fiction circles in 1952 for their Ace Doubles, known as tête-bêche or the two-books-in-one gimmick.
Ironically, when Cleaning House was published in hardcover, there was a bit of minor confusion and guffaws perhaps, at the coincidental launch of two similarly named first novels from the same publisher and the same time, give or take a month. My fateful doppleganger novel is the incredible and wonderful Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, but that is a story for another time, another box.