The Troubles: John Conroy’s Adventures in Publishing

In 1979, John Conroy went to a literary agent with his idea about a book on Northern Ireland. In 1980 he moved to Belfast to write the book, his research supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

He’d been in Belfast only a few weeks when the agent returned his book proposal “with a letter saying he couldn’t represent it with any confidence,” Conroy recalls. “Not putting down the quality of it so much as people weren’t buying books on Northern Ireland. Right from the start he had told me it was going to be hard to sell the book.”

Conroy simply found another agent. He spent almost all of 1980 in Belfast, living in a house on a corner in the Catholic ghetto of Clonard–to which he returned in ’81, and again in ’82. Meanwhile the new agent negotiated a contract with a senior editor at Viking Press, Elisabeth Sifton. But in the autumn of 1983, when Conroy finally sent the manuscript her way, Sifton passed it on to an assistant, Altie Karper, who was young and green. Cut it by 25 or 30 percent, she wrote him, and Conroy went through his 450 typewritten pages line by line making deletions. Cut it again, wrote Karper.

“The manuscript was too long,” Conroy says now. “I thought they would be able to give me some guidance. I was mistaken. Sifton wasn’t playing much of a role, and Karper would say things like, ‘We think you’re the best one to cut this.'” Conroy wasn’t; he was too close to it. But neither was Karper; Conroy says her only previous book had been a collection of poetry.

Conroy combed out more words and sent it back, and Karper went to work on it. Weeks went by. Karper would drop him the occasional note saying “Almost finished” or “Getting there,” and by now it was the summer of 1985.

“I’m getting increasingly frustrated. Then, right at Thanksgiving, I got a letter from Karper saying ‘By the time you read this I will no longer be at Viking. I’ve decided to go to law school.’ So I started calling Elisabeth Sifton, and between November 25 and December 25 I must have left up to 15 messages, which were never returned. Finally I left a message with the secretary saying I was going to come to New York in January to get this straightened out.”

Conroy, not a man of means, flew to New York. Sifton handed him a memo written by another editor whom she’d asked to read the manuscript over the weekend. “I still have that memo,” Conroy recalls–“a real blow to my psyche. It said he could tell that Karper had done a lot of work on it and I’d done a lot of work on it, but in its current state it wasn’t a book and he didn’t see any potential for there ever being a book in it. . . .

“I could feel the ground slipping out from underneath me. At this point, the book was all I had in my life in a lot of ways. I had put too much of myself in the book. I didn’t have any relationship with anybody at the time. I was living up on Loyola in somebody else’s apartment. I don’t think I was even doing any Reader stories at the time. And to have this happen, where they were dumping the project and I was grasping at straws–

“I walked out of there–I remember Sifton gave me a book that some British journalist, some old Russian hand, had written about Russia. I had no interest in it, and in retrospect I see her giving it to me as sort of a good-bye present or something.

“When I came back to my hotel–which by the way I’m paying for so I can come to New York to be rejected because I couldn’t get this woman on the phone–so I got back to my hotel and I just cried.”

Not that it’s hard to publish a book. Anyone can do it. Here are some of the titles that came into this office just in the last few weeks: Cruisin’ With the Tooz, Parties With Panache, The Thanksgiving Book (“Introduction by Willard Scott”), In the Shadow of the Crown (“A sweeping novel of royal intrigue”), Your Maximum Mind (“Tapping your inner resources”) . . .

But when someone writes a serious book on a serious and unfashionable subject, difficulties apparently crop up.

“Oh, in the meantime,” John Conroy continues, “I forgot to mention that my agent had gone out of business. So one of the reasons I was having so much difficulty dealing with Viking was that this was just John Conroy in Chicago calling, not a woman who has a stable of authors and a reputation in New York who could blacken your name if you didn’t return her phone calls. He’s just some insignificant guy typing on an IBM Selectric.”

Conroy found a new agent, Wendy Weil (his third), and she sent the book to Ned Chase, a sort of editor emeritus at Macmillan (and Chevy Chase’s father). What your book needs, Chase later said over lunch, is to end on a note of hope. Another round of unreturned phone calls lay in Conroy’s future; and eventually the head of the Macmillan division that would have published the book told Conroy there is no public in America for a serious book on Ireland and that he had asked Chase not to bother showing it to him.

And now it was the spring of 1986. That June, Conroy married Colette Davison, a psychologist he had met in Belfast. He wondered if it wasn’t time to forget about the book and get on with his life.

“I gave I’d say 30 percent serious thought to burning the manuscript. I really thought the time is right to leave it on the shelf. And at that point, my agent gave it to a woman at Beacon.”

Next Saturday evening, November 14, at Guild Books, John Conroy–no doubt in a much better mood than the one in which you find him here–will be signing copies of Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, just published by Beacon Press of Boston, cover price $18.95. It is a measured, intimate, compassionate accounting of the “troubles,” which have persisted for three centuries and which, pace Ned Chase, Conroy believes can persist for generations more. Those of us at the Reader who have read his book feel honored that he sometimes hangs his hat in our pages.

Since 1980, Belfast Diary has earned Conroy some $17,500 in advances, minus agents’ fees. If the book sells out its first printing, he will receive some $4,400 more. In light of his expenses, travel costs in particular, he supposes the book has cost him money.

“It’s a miserable way to make a living,” says Conroy. “It’s soul destroying and ego destroying. When Viking dumped me I thought, maybe they’re right, maybe I’m not the writer I thought I was, any dream I had of a larger audience is just that–a dream–and not commensurate with my talents. These are people in New York who know what they’re doing.”

But he is and it was, and sometimes they don’t.

CrossCurrents Going Under

For the past seven years, Thom Goodman has mixed off-the-wall entertainment and bohemian bonhomie with an elegant touch at CrossCurrents. It’s a pity he wasn’t half that artful as a businessman.

Last Saturday at midnight the liquor license expired. By then they were buying their hooch retail anyway, the distributors having cut off the supply. The building was in foreclosure, wildly delinquent in all its taxes, and the heat was back on only because the remaining tenants–ImprovOlympic, Metraform, and Cardiff Giant–had started paying the utilities directly in lieu of rent. Chicago Cooperative Productions Inc., which owns CrossCurrents, found itself about half a million dollars in the hole.

The problem, Goodman told us, was that while the bar and cabaret downstairs paid their own way, the various upstairs rooms did not. In one of those drab upstairs rooms we found Thom Graham, the bookkeeper, who was sticking to his post even though no one gave him any wages now but the bartenders.

“They pay themselves out of the receipts,” Graham explained. “And if anything is left, I get it.”

He went on, “It gets lonesome up here with no phones, no one to talk to”–and the books absolutely hopeless, we thought. The office phones had long since been disconnected; and Akasha, the dance company that had rented space upstairs, moved out when the heat went off.

The final straw came last Monday. The insurance lapsed and Goodman locked the doors. His partner Rick Darby, a Wheaton attorney who for the past several months has held the controlling interest in CrossCurrents, said he was hopeful he could scrounge up a short-term policy at a price the tenants could afford. ImprovOlympic’s Charna Halpern, furious that she’d just paid $900 for utilities the week before, told us she’d heard it all before.

Darby said brisk negotiations are under way to sell CrossCurrents, most likely to someone who’ll turn it into some sort of bar/restaurant operation. Meanwhile, Darby and Goodman want to open a sort of super-CrossCurrents in a seven-story building Darby owns at 422 S. Wabash, where he used to have a restaurant. But they don’t have the financing yet, and given how people who have watched them operate talk about them, we have to wonder if they’ll ever get it.

“How many clubs stay open seven years?” said Goodman in his own defense. Fair enough. And the show rooms may reopen yet. But if you’re thinking of checking out, say, Metraform’s Splatter Theater, latest of the weird, wonderful shows that made CrossCurrents inimitable, better call ahead. You can still call 549-8440–that’s the pay phone by the door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.