The Red Cardboard Box

Young adult author Lila Perl on rejection, ‘Peyton Place,’ and growing as a writer


This December, prolific young-adult author Lila Perl, the writer responsible for the beloved “Fat Glenda” quartet, numerous works for children and adults, and a forthcoming novel and its sequel, Isabel’s War and Lilli’s Quest, passed away. The author of over fifty works, she wrote the last two books shortly before she died—as well as this essay on early rejection for the books’ publisher, Lizzie Skurnick Books, which is also edited by the owner of this collection.

A large woman wearing a hat in the shape of a double-boiler loomed over our freshman class in English composition. By way of introduction, our professor told us that it was unlikely any one of us would ever become a professional writer.

As a result of this dour prognosis, I went into literary paralysis for ten years. I got married and had children, read voraciously, yet was terrified of putting anything down on paper. I wanted to write; I had always wanted to write. But I was just this young woman from Brooklyn, the first in my family to go to college, which — it turned out — hadn’t been very encouraging .

I fell into the rejection-letter trap soon after I began writing short stories, which I would describe as aimed at The New Yorker. Postal rates kept going up and, if you wanted your precious white cover-copy back, you had to include a stamped, return envelope.

Writing and rejection slips go hand in hand, as writers know; many of us are capable of papering a good-size room. But a printed rejection slip is curt, at least. It manages to say, “Don’t bother us anymore” in four words. But a letter, after telling you politely, “This isn’t really right for us,” teases, “But we’d love to see anything else you have.” Worst of all is the letter about a 300-page novel that reads, “Would you consider revising? Here are a few suggestions.”

The physical aspect of writing was not so easy in those days. A duplicate copy had to be obtained by inserting a sheet of carbon paper between the white cover page and a yellow manila second-sheet, which had the blurring quality of blotting paper. Soon after moving into a small Cape Cod bungalow in Queens with my husband and two young children, I sat most evenings in a semi-finished attic room, tapping away at a small, portable typewriter, so lightweight that it tended to bounce around on my improvised desk. On my flimsy portable, I turned out a total of seventeen short stories, which went back and forth to the likely publications for what seemed like an eternity.

Where did I get my ideas for these short stories? I took them from my own life and the everyday world around me. In other words, I wrote about what I knew. And even though what I did know wasn’t much, I felt pressed to tell my stories: about Brooklyn home life, first dates, summer camps, young marriages, the anxieties of a lonely new mother wheeling her baby carriage through the frost-bitten streets of an indifferent Manhattan.

After a few timid but successful attempts at getting nonfiction pieces published, I made the giant leap forward and sat down to write the great American novel. Doesn’t everyone? I did not approach this 384-page undertaking lightly. If I didn’t know much about writing, at least, I knew exactly what I was going to write about.

Following a short but blissful stint living in Manhattan, my husband and I had been forced to retreat with our growing babies to the raw, newly built garden-apartment development in Queens. The brand-new “efficient” apartments, set out on newly-seeded lawns planted with shrubs and saplings—all was not well in this young Eden. Here were my perfect subjects…kitchen sinks, baby carriages, Mah Jong games, unhappy young wives, ambitious young husbands.

We lived for three and a half years in this Peyton Place setting, with its lusty young families, its dangerous liaisons, its gossips, intrigues, and vendettas. The Garden Dwellers, as my completed novel was titled, was taken up by a prominent New York agent, Paul Reynolds. He believed in the book and he struggled for a year-and-a-half to sell it. Doubleday took a significant nibble. But, in the end, there was no sale. The manuscript sits in my study to this day in a big red cardboard box.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d had an early success with my first novel. I always especially liked realistic fiction and memoirs that had an ethnic aspect…Henry Roth, Pietro di Donato, Philip Roth, Frank McCourt, and — ethnic or not — Richard Yates. I was awfully young and hadn’t been anywhere much. Could I have kept up the pace? My earliest impressions of people, places, and human responses were important and valuable to me. But life experience, travel, and a wider view have since, of course, continue to open up numerous new world.

A few years ago I gave my seventeen rejects a tough re-reading and threw out eight of them. I couldn’t bear to part with the other nine. They still mean a lot to me. They were full of truth, and they were me then.