Marijane Meaker's literary success took ingenuity and pen names

Author Marijane Meaker with a bookcase full of Author Marijane Meaker with a bookcase full of her books at her home in East Hampton on May 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

advertisement | advertise on newsday

As a student at the University of Missouri, Marijane Meaker refused to learn shorthand, the one skill she knew could help her land a better job after graduating in 1949.

"I always wanted to be a writer," says Meaker, who is now 87 and lives in Springs, on the East End. "I grew up in a house full of books. My father told me, 'If you want to be a writer, get a job that's attached to writing.' "

With a degree in English, Meaker was hired as an assistant file clerk at Dutton Publishing in Manhattan, making $32 a week. "I could have made more if I learned shorthand," she says, "but I didn't want to be a secretary, which was pretty much all that a woman could become in those days. I wanted to write."

How she became successful at it was a credit to her inventiveness.

She moved from job to job, still working as a clerk, and began sending short stories to the many magazines on the market. Ladies' Home Journal was the first to publish one.

Meaker remembers getting paid by the magazine and excitedly showing her roommate what she thought was a $75 check. The roommate looked and exclaimed, "Marijane, this check is for $750!"

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The slicks," Meaker says, referring to the magazines that printed on glossy pages, paid extremely well back then. But after her initial success, Meaker had difficulty landing an agent. "To be published in those days, you really needed one," she says. "If you didn't have an agent, you couldn't sell. But, I couldn't get one."

 

'Agent' and 'clients'

@Newsday

That's when Meaker hatched a plan to take on other identities. She had stationery printed with her name and title: "Literary Agent." As Agent Meaker, she took editors out to lunch, pitching the works of her various "clients." In reality, her clients were the pen names she used for the articles she was pushing.

Sometimes, it got complicated -- like when she invented an elderly couple, writers Mamie and Edgar Stone, and sold "their" stories to the many true confession and romance magazines popular at the time. "The editors liked their work so much they wanted to meet them," Meaker says. "I told them [the editors], 'They don't live in New York and can't travel. They're very old.' "

Meaker's ingenuity launched a long and successful career as a multigenre, award-winning author who has had dozens of novels and short stories published. Some bear her real name, but many more have been written under pseudonyms: Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich and M.E. Kerr, among others.

Meaker's 1952 breakout book was "Spring Fire" by Vin Packer. The paperback was heralded as the first "lesbian pulp" novel, with sales of more than 1.5 million copies. "The editors didn't think homosexuality would sell," Meaker says. "They couldn't believe it. It sold more than 'God's Little Acre' in paperback. They suddenly realized there was a market for lesbians out there." She eventually wrote 20 books using the Packer pen name.

In 1972, Meaker began writing young-adult novels under the name M.E. Kerr. The more than 20 books she penned under that name have received numerous awards and, in a New York Times Book Review, the author was described as "one of the grand masters of young-adult fiction."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Once she became established as an author, Meaker was determined to help "would-be writers" who were earnest about getting published. She heard about an attic room in a hall that had been converted from an old school building in Springs, where she could have meetings. Meaker placed a small ad in a local paper headlined "Writers Wanted," and became founder of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop.

 

Preparing writers for print

The workshop had its first weekly meeting in September 1983 and is still going strong, based on her one goal: "to get the writers published." For 31 years, she guided members who had to submit writing samples to qualify to be part of the group, and helped more than a few of them get their works into print. In May, Meaker stepped down as the workshop leader to pursue a personal project.

Rob Stuart, 80, also of Springs, a charter member of the group and its unofficial historian, wrote a short summary of the workshop and presented it at Meaker's last meeting. The evening was a tribute to the prolific author, who was feted with ice cream, cake, Champagne and praise from the many writers who appreciated her years of mentoring.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Summing up accomplishments under Meaker's reign, Stuart said, "We've had over 20 novels published, and 30 manuscripts written in the workshop that may one day be published."

Even writers who had some success before they joined the workshop got helpful pointers from Meaker. "I had a number of books published for gay readers and was looking to break into the mainstream market," says Vincent Lardo, 83, of Amagansett. "I joined Marijane's group while working on my mystery, 'The Hampton Affair.' "

That book was followed by "The Hampton Connection," and the success of those novels led to Lardo being chosen to take over the Archy McNally series when author Lawrence Sanders died. Six New York Times bestsellers followed. Lardo's latest work, "The Jockstrap Murder," was recently released.

"She's written 60 books," Lardo says of his decision to join Meaker's workshop years ago. "She knows the publishing world, what editors look for. She told me to base my East End characters on actual people that I knew. It paid off."

Robert Boris Riskin, of Sag Harbor, was a published author of short stories before joining the workshop in 1990, but dreamed of one day seeing his name on a book jacket. He began working on a mystery featuring Jake Wanderman, a Shakespeare-quoting private investigator.

In 2005, that novel, "Scrambled Eggs" was published. His third book in the series, "Deadly Secrets," was released this year. Riskin, 86, is currently working on his next book. "Marijane has an uncanny ability to spot something in a story that doesn't work; a plot twist, a character," he says. "She never tells you how to fix it. 'It's your story, you'll figure it out,' she'll say. And, she's always right."

The new workshop leader is Laura Stein, 68, of Montauk. "Marijane is unbelievable," she says, "not only in her own writing, how she has helped so many of us get published, but also how she has held this group together for all these years."

 

Constants amid change

Since stepping down, Meaker has continued her routines. She reads five newspapers a day; takes "chair yoga" classes at the East Hampton YMCA; and relaxes to Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and the big bands.

She is proud of her workshop milestones, but decided to leave to finish something she started years ago. "I need time to work on my next book, my memoir. I wrote it many years ago, but back then you couldn't mention the gay lifestyle," Meaker says. "New York was so exciting in the '50s. I want to rewrite it and tell the whole story."

Meaker recalls the anti-gay sentiments of the 1970s and '80s and her involvement in gay advocacy groups. "I was one of the founders of the East End Gay Organization in 1978," she says proudly. "We joined together to have a voice, some political clout." She also volunteered for the Long Island Association for AIDS Care (LIAAC), as the AIDS epidemic spread.

She acknowledges the wider acceptance toward gays now, compared with years ago, and welcomes the inclusiveness. "Gay marriage -- I'm all for it, but if my parents were still alive, they'd be dead," she jokes. "I still have trouble believing The New York Times prints same-sex wedding announcements. How things have changed."

Some of those changes may be included in her new memoir, as she recalls the events in her life she wants to share. The name for the book came easily, she says. "The great blues singer Mabel Mercer had a song, 'Remind Me.' That's my title."


WRITING POINTERS

Here are some of Marijane Meaker's quick tips on how to get a novel published.

Work on your first 10 pages. You have to hook an editor or agent with your opening.

Ask yourself whether your characters are interesting. Will they make readers want to turn the page?

Write scenes that get right to the point. Don't beat around the bush.

Read -- especially books in the genre in which you want to write your novel.

You also may be interested in: