What would you do if you found out your dad is gay?
That’s what happened to Karen McClintock.
Karen McClintock thought she grew up in a family like everybody else’s. But after her father died of cancer, she discovered his lifelong secret. It lead her to her write a memoir called My Father’s Closet. As you can tell from the title, Karen found out that her dad was gay.
“I’d been avoiding the book with the most pain and the most love,” she says, smiling, when I ask her about it later. “It was relatively easy to write a professional book once every two years. But writing this memoir was more emotionally and creatively challenging.”
Karen McClintock was looking for advice to improve her book proposal for My Father’s Closet. Seemingly in an ideal marriage, her dad was actually carrying on a passionate love affair with another man nearly the whole time he was married to her mom.
My Father’s Closet assesses the damage of that life-long secret that her father was gay.
I love reading memoirs. And this book is a memoir that also reads like a mystery novel, engaging readers in the search for truth as Karen narrates how she discovers letters, a journal, and at last, the man her father loved so much while married to her mother for over forty years.
Her initial proposal was the perfect rough draft, though it needed work. It can be very tricky when a writer comes to me believing what they have is perfect (and basically hiring me to confirm as much) only to find out they have a lot more work to do. But Karen seemed totally open to feedback. And neither one of us had any doubt that her project was important. I advised her not to send the proposal to any literary agents or publishers until it was in better shape.
“Don’t show this to anyone … yet,” I urged, offering detailed suggestions for the fixes the proposal needed and recommending she work with an expert memoir editor, Candace Walsh, who had made her own journey out of a straight marriage to embrace her lesbian identity.
Karen seemed to take my suggestions with the grace and poise that categorizes her writing.
Turns out that was not exactly what happened.
What I didn’t know then is that my comments angered her. Karen later told me, “I didn’t even hear the word, ‘yet.’ I felt like I was being silenced again. I walked away from that meeting pretty upset.”
Luckily getting feedback she wasn’t expecting didn’t stop her for long. Like the pro that she is, she used my suggestions to improve the proposal and refine her pitch. She even won the pitch prize contest at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland the following year!
I always explain to writers I work with that it is harder to find an agent than it is to find a publisher (which is true.) After searching for an agent with disappointing results, Karen wrote an email directly to Ohio State University Press back in her hometown.
The subject line read: “Oregon author with Ohio book.”
Who needs an agent?!
Senior editor Tony Sanfilippo was instantly hooked.
He responded quickly. “This is a good book,” he wrote, “and it will be a great book if we find your father’s long term partner.”
With the help of Ohio State University archivists, Karen was at last able to locate her father’s second true love. She had a new character at that point and a full-blown love triangle. Her father’s lover’s story begins in Nazi Germany as he learns of his parent’s Jewish ancestry and flees for his life. Karen’s good book, which was just published in April as a hardcover original, leapt into the great book category.
I cried through the reading she did at our local Barnes & Noble last week. This is a brave book, a beautiful book, and in some ways a sad, sad book. I bought two copies—one for my aunt who’s a psychologist and an avid reader and who loves memoirs and one for a dear friend’s mom. Winnie is in her late 80s. She was married to a Methodist minister for fifty years. After raising four children she realized she was a lesbian. She didn’t have a secret and closeted love affair but she boldly left her husband to be with the lady love of her life.
What do you do if you find out your dad is gay?
One place to start is to read My Father’s Closet.
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