As famous as she was from winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us, Rachel was averse to public speaking and aggrandizement, much to the chagrin of her agent. When The Edge of the Sea hit the New York Times Bestseller list in the fall of 1955, she had numerous requests to speak at public events and declined most of them.
She was a solid "NO" to the numerous requests from magazines to run a profile on her as well. Rachel didn't see her author life as a brand and didn't seek the attention. I'm not sure if she was afraid of the scrutiny she would receive by allowing the press into her personal life, or her natural shyness, but it doesn't mean she wasn't focused on the success of her work.
Indeed, The Edge of the Sea and another book about life at the sea, albeit, a non-scientific and philosophical take, Anne Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea exchanged places on the top ten list throughout 1955-56 on various news outlets. Rachel takes note of it in letters to her friend, Dorothy.
"...I truly-even now-don't expect The Edge (The Edge of the Sea) ever to reach #1 spot, but I'd be happy that it is Mrs. Lindbergh's book and not something sensational or trashy."
Trashy included the book about a woman who under hypnosis discovers she'd lived another life decades earlier. After years of being at the top ten, Rachel doesn't hold back on her disdain for losing rank to Bridey Murphy (1956) which hit #1 on Chicago Tribune in 1956. "I think this silly Bridey Murphy thing is going to scoot right up and crowd Mrs. Lindbergh...The Edge by the way is No. 6- up one." And then weeks later, "That wretched Bridey Murphy thing has displaced Mrs. Lindbergh! That is really a blow. "
Rachel didn't have to deal with today's social media spotlight that casts rays well beyond the reach of newspapers or magazines of her time. And she wasn't in a position to write anything with a pseudonym like Elena Ferrante, you don't get the chance to write a biography of the sea, and a scathing indictment against the chemical industry anonymously. Yet, her detachment from public scrutiny allowed her to write one of her most challenging work of all--Silent Spring (1962). And then all hell broke loose.
With that in mind, I've gotten to 7k words in this novel set in Maine that has Rachel as a 'macguffin' in the story. And I'm thinking with the holidays coming, this might be time to shut down my own social media, and detach myself from that public for a few weeks so I can keep writing.
Happy Holidays everyone! See you in the New Year.
Rachel had a best friend, Dorothy. They met in Southport, Maine, where both owned a summer cottage. They wrote to each other constantly while Rachel was working on her book The Edge of the Sea (1955). In fact, Rachel dedicated the book to Dorothy and her husband Stan Freeman. Their friendship provided Rachel with stability she needed while maintaining her household (her mother passed and she had to adopt her niece's son, Roger) and adapting to her fame after winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us.
In her letters, Rachel told Dorothy:
"All I am certain of is this: that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort."
It may sound glamorous, but being an author means spending a boat-load of time alone. Just you and your laptop at a cafe, desk, library. Whatever. Rachel spent a lot of time writing at her home in Maryland so she could spend her summers in Maine with Dorothy. They would watch the tides, collect specimens, and listen for veeries singing in the woods.
Rachel had other, less personal connections, scientists she relied on for data, editors, nature writers, and people of influence in the world of literature. Unassuming by nature, she was not shy about approaching people for assistance and guidance. That's a benefit in the world of writing. Writing, as Rachel says in another letter to Dorothy: "is hard and full of anguish and disappointments, but I also know it brings deep satisfactions and rewards that have nothing to do with best-sellerdom."
Many of those satisfactions are in making connections with librarians, archivists, authors, and the many people involved in the publishing process. And let's not forget the readers. It may only take one avid fan, as Dorothy was for Rachel, motivating an author to keep going. It helps having people believe in you.
Source: Always, Rachel. The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952-1964. Edited by Martha Freeman. 1995.
Rachel's first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941), was a flop, selling less than 2k copies. Carson chalked it up to timing - it came out on the eve of World War II - but also blamed her publisher, Simon and Schuster, for lack of marketing. Specifically, she was miffed that they hadn't taken her guidance on the target market - naturalists, nature lovers, sportsmen and women. Her only consolation was the rave reviews the book received from places like the New York Times, colleagues, and critics. Even so, she only netted 1k for her efforts. Rachel need for income beyond her government salary caused her to hesitate to pay $150.00 for the rights back from Simon and Schuster for Under the Sea Wind. But when they refused to issue a reprint, she found the money.
She knew she was on to something and her love of the sea and the general lack of knowledge about its secrets piqued her innate curiosity to discover more. But she was also a realist. She had mouths to feed. Her work with the Fish and Wildlife Service bar3ely paid the bills and Rachel sought wider recognition for her talents. Bored with writing technical documents on commercial fishery production reports, she sought out stories at that may interest the general public and spin a tale she could pitch to magazines. For example, a piece on bat echolocation skills landed her a paid gig with Reader's Digest magazine. The random $150-$200 for a piece must have kept her satisfied in the creative realm but Rachel knew she was capable of more.
I can relate to some of her disappointment at sales. I've spent my own money on research for the Durant Family Saga and The Truth of Who You Are. It was all worth it - staying curious is another blog post to watch for - however, there does come a time when, as a creative you have to consider how much of your time and money to put into something and realize a pay out. In Rachel's case, she was supporting a family. Same goes for me. At times I feel as if what I'm doing may be more frivolous than art. I know I have fans that enjoy my work, but like Rachel, I've had to deal with a lot of rejection. And not much monetary compensation for my time and effort.
I'd like to attribute Rachel's eventual success to 'grit' or stick-to-ed-ness. However, I'm inclined to think that perhaps her greatest talent (besides conveying complex scientific information in a form that is both creative and inspiring) was knowing when to move on. She kept up her oceanic research, taking notes on scientific discoveries and the latest sonar technologies. She even managed to get on a research vessel, rare for a woman in those days, observing a fish census for eight days conducted by scientists of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Feeling she had enough material to embark on a new project, she enlisted a literary agent to pitch it: The Sea Around Us - a biography of the sea that would appeal to the lay public. Oxford Press agreed to publish (1951). As was the custom in those days, she sent the first few chapters to several magazines for pre-publication and to entice an audience of potential readers. And was barraged with rejections. Readers Digest, The National Geographic, The Saturday Eventing Post - all said no.
It was an editor at the New Yorker who saw the potential of her work. And things started happening for Rachel.
Source: Brooks, Paul. 1989. Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.
Hi, I'm an author of contemporary and historical fiction. My next novel features a young protagonist from a lobstering family living on an island in Maine who pretends she's doing research for Rachel Carson to impress the people in her small town. Join me as I procrastinate writing the novel by blogging about Rachel.
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