First Draft

Her name is Ivonne Lamazares. You've probably never heard of her. Cuban immigrant, good student, dedicated teacher, devoted wife and mother. Oh, and something else. She just might be the world's next big thing in literary fiction.

Five years ago Ivonne Lamazares decided to learn how to ride a bicycle. As a girl growing up in Cuba, she didn't have a bike, and the couple of times she'd had a chance to ride didn't go well. "I've felt inadequate about physical things all my life," she says. "I was told I wasn't very good, and that I was clumsy. So I was scared of it."

As an adult in Miami, Lamazares thought about bicycles again whenever friends would suggest that she and her husband Steve Kronen join them for a spin around the neighborhood. She would have to say no. She was embarrassed. So one day she and Steve went to Toys R Us and spent about $100 on a kid-size bicycle -- an Alpine girl's twenty-inch model, painted a preteen purple and pink.

On the sidewalk in front of their apartment, Ivonne gripped the Alpine's handlebars in a death lock while Steve grabbed the back of the seat and ran along, holding her upright. She toppled off the curb a few times but never really crashed, and after about three days and several miles of practice, she had it.

Steve recalls how determined she was. "She would just concentrate and do it," he says, gritting his teeth in imitation of his wife's resolve. "That's her modus operandi in life. Once she gets something in her head, she just goes for it all out."

Laughing at the impersonation, Ivonne says, "But it was such a terrible fear for me. Everyone else seemed able to ride a bike. It was a challenge. And Steve, you helped me. You knew how scared I was, and you didn't laugh. But I'm screaming the whole time."

"That's true. She does that with writing, too. She says, 'This is terrible, I have no talent.' But she will do it. And her writing is beautiful, subtle, rich. There is so much going on. But she bitches about it the whole time."

Says Ivonne: "I always feel a little scared."
Says Steve: "She is a better writer than she is a rider."

A delicate-looking woman of 35 with fair skin and light-blue eyes, Ivonne Lamazares could be the next big thing. Last year, after looking at just 40 pages of manuscript, Houghton Mifflin got into a bidding war with Simon & Schuster over the rights to publish her first novel and finally signed Lamazares to a contract that includes an advance of $30,000. She has written a little more than 100 pages of her book, a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in Cuba just before and just after the revolution. She has a working title, Storm Captains, a reference to a popular, late-1960s Cuban television show. And she has a deadline: March 1, 1998.

What Lamazares is riding now is even scarier than that little-used two-wheeler sitting in the garage of the couple's South Miami home. What she is riding now is a wave of expectation. She has taken a leave of absence from her job as associate professor of English at Miami-Dade Community College, where she has taught for twelve years. She and Kronen -- a poet who makes a living as a massage therapist -- are using the first installment of the advance to pay a baby sitter to watch their two-year-old daughter Sophie several hours each day so she can write.

"Sophie knows I'm in here," Ivonne says while sitting at a desk in the bedroom-turned-study where she writes first drafts in longhand on a lined tablet. "There are times when she'll knock on the door, and if I hear her crying, I think, 'Oh, God, what's going on? I should go out there.' But she understands. I went out the other day to see about something, and she took me by the hand and led me back in here, like, 'Get back to work.'"

Even in the best of times, the book business is a crap shoot. Each year some 60,000 new titles are published in the United States. Some get reviewed, a few are read by more than a handful of people, and fewer still sell enough copies to earn back the author's advance and turn a profit for the publisher. But this is not the best of times for books. The theme of a recent New York conference attended by booksellers and authors was spelled out under a banner over the speakers' table: "Book Publishing: Dead or Alive?" Owing to the growth of superstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, individual book titles have a harder time breaking out of the pack; returns from booksellers to publishers reached record levels last year. As a result, profits are shrinking, advances are down, authors' contracts have been canceled, and reputable houses with glorious publishing pasts are being offered up for sale in a marketplace that shows little interest.

Thus pulling down an impressive advance for a first novel that is not yet written is even more remarkable. Lamazares's work in progress does not have what Hollywood calls a "high concept" -- that is, an easily grasped story line readily transferable to the screen as a big-budget vehicle for a rogue shark or Mel Gibson. No, the novel Lamazares is agonizing over is literary fiction, a midlist book that inspires an excitement that is more aesthetic than financial. "Publishing is not a science," says Houghton Mifflin editorial director Janet Silver from her Boston office. "You pick your shots, and acquire books for which you have a passion. I'm very excited about Ivonne. She has a wonderfully strong and unique voice that is at once childlike and unsentimental."

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