Picador signs lost MacArthur winner Bette Howland

Rights - Fiction Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Three-book deal for Saul Bellow's lover Bette Howland, who faded into obscurity after winning a MacArthur Genius award in 1984 and becoming paralysed by performance anxiety

Kishani Widyaratna at Picador has acquired UK & Commonwealth rights for 'a remarkable trio of works by Bette Howland in a heated four-way auction.' The rights to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, W-3 and Things to Come and Go were acquired from Caspian Dennis at Abner Stein, in association with Renée Zuckerbrot at Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents.

According to the acquisition statement: 'Bette Howland was a celebrated writer and working-class single mother of two boys who lived in Chicago. Lauded in her time, the New York Times went so far as to say: "Her sheer gifts as a writer . . . place her in a lonely league of achievement." She was a protégée and sometime lover of Saul Bellow, who described her writing as: "The work of a woman who has invested her life in her art, and who will, I think, be remembered as one of the significant writers of her generation."

'Howland wrote stories, novellas and a memoir; she won a MacArthur Genius award in 1984 and then, paralysed by performance anxiety, she never published again and faded into obscurity. In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor of literary magazine A Public Space, came across a copy of W-3, her memoir of a nervous breakdown, in a second-hand book box at a bookstore in New York and was shocked to never have heard of this once-fêted writer. Hughes undertook a mission to track down Howland, unfortunately only making contact with Howland’s son Jacob at the end of Howland’s life when she was suffering from dementia. Howland passed away in 2017.

'Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage collects all of Bette Howland’s short stories into one volume and will publish in North America on May 7th, 2019, as the inaugural title at Hughes’ new imprint, A Public Space Books. Picador intends to rally people to "Discover Bette" in a year-long campaign building up to Bette Howland’s first ever publication in the UK in May 2020 with Calm Sea. The memoir W-3 will follow the year after, and Things to Come and Go, a book of three novellas, will follow in 2022.'

Widyaratna said: "I had been waiting to read Bette Howland’s writing ever since reading AN Dever’s fantastic LitHub piece on her mysterious and tragic story. When the manuscript arrived it exceeded all possible expectations. Howland’s writing is sharp and distinctive and her teeming stories of working-class Chicago life are full of mercurial vitality, melancholy desires and emotional honesty, imparting a holy grace on the most every day. Shockingly, she published for only ten short years – her struggles to find both the resources and confidence to do creative work speak to the experience of so many less privileged writers. To partner with Brigid Hughes and A Public Space in championing Bette’s work back into the world is just the icing on the cake."

Hughes said: "When I first encountered Bette Howland's work, it was a thrilling discovery; it's been a mission since then to see her writing restored to the literary canon. I'm delighted that Bette Howland will join Picador's superb list of authors, with the talented Kishani Widyaratna overseeing the publication of her books, and that readers in the UK will now have the chance to discover this extraordinary writer as well.’

Zuckerbrot said: "A new generation of readers have recently discovered the timeless and timely work of Lucia Berlin and Kathleen Collins. Delighted that Picador will introduce British readers to another groundbreaking female voice, a writer whose prescient take on urban life feels essential to our present moment."

The first book, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, will publish in hardback in May 2020.

Pictured: Bette Howland, photographed by her son Jacob

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