It isn’t enough to write an 800-page novel about the long-suppressed sex scandal of Texas hero Sam Houston and his first wife, Eliza Allen--or to look as though you should star in the miniseries based on the book. While helpful, neither will elicit a contract from a New York book publisher--as Elizabeth Crook found out.
The first edition of her first novel, “The Raven’s Bride,” is already sold out and the second printing on its way. Liz Carpenter, author and legendary press secretary for Lyndon Johnson--and the one who gave the book its title--is handling the promotion for the book in all of Texas and half of Tennessee. (Both states were once governed by Houston, a friend of Carpenter’s great-grandfather.) Television personality and author Bill Moyers gave a book-signing party for Crook in New York. Jacqueline Onassis came, although she rarely goes to parties.
But then Onassis was the editor who bought the book--after three other Doubleday editors had turned it down (in three different drafts with three different titles from two agents). Not only that--Onassis has given Crook a Doubleday contract for her second novel.
But before the cheers and the happy ending, Crook spent seven years on the edge of the jumping-off place. In the Southern storytelling tradition, she makes a hilarious epic of the perils of publication--all acted out, complete with gestures, “he saids” and “she saids” in different voices and self-deprecating remarks.
Recently she talked over coffee before flying off to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville for the next stop on her book tour, which had included two parties in Washington and finished up in Austin, where she now lives.
“I’d always wanted to write a book about a real woman who was overlooked by history,” said Crook. “Always” isn’t that long ago--she is 31. “Seven years ago, my father was reading a book about Houston, and he said, “Why don’t you consider Eliza Houston? Nobody knows anything about her. She’s an enigma.’
“That’s a good word,” said Crook.
Crook learned that Eliza was “remote” and not “one to wear her heart on her sleeve for dogs to peck at.” In 1829, at age 20, Eliza married the 36-year-old Tennessee governor, known to his Cherokee friends as Ka’lanu, the Raven. Eleven weeks later, she left him--and neither ever said why. The scandal that followed forced Houston to resign his office, set him on the path to Texas and glory, and led Andrew Jackson to remark, “My god, is the man mad.” Eight years of separation later, Houston divorced her and both remarried.
Crook began by thinking she could solve the mystery of the Houston marriage. “I ended by being protective of Eliza’s history. I was relieved that no explanation actually came to light,” she said. Not that Crook let the lack of facts get in the way of telling a good story.
“The book isn’t to be judged as history,” Crook said.
Freed from fact, she was able to create rather than resurrect Eliza. Crook did see her in a dream, but Eliza was silent. Even so, Crook felt as though she knew her heroine. “In the beginning I wrote her chapters in the first person, and it went so fast it was as though it were being dictated.” “The Raven’s Bride” is not only Crook’s first novel--"I’ve never had anything published before,” she says. “But I’ve always wanted to write; it’s the only thing I’m good at.” She studied short-story writing at Rice University. After graduation, she worked in a bookstore and in her former husband’s electronics business.
Crook found writing a “refuge. Nothing is as compelling or satisfying.” Unlike some people who have to discipline themselves to write, Crook said, she needs “discipline to stop writing.” Not that the writing all went in a whoosh. She didn’t know how to type and wrote at first with No. 2 pencils. When she finally got a computer, her life was transformed.
But in the beginning, Crook started by putting much time into research. “I read painfully slow,” she says.
Houston, the former Tennessee congressman and governor, won Texas’s independence from Mexico in the battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and became the new republic’s first president. He left “copious writings,” Crook says, enabling her to portray him, she wrote, with “his egotism and eccentricities, his great wit, and his fears.”
Eliza Allen, however, left hardly a scrap of paper. Only a few bits and pieces of her story survive. She said on the morning after her marriage to Houston that she wished someone “would kill him.” Before her death from cancer on March 3, 1861, at age 51, she had two wishes--that all her papers and her portraits be burned, and that she be buried in an unmarked grave.
Though she and her second husband had four children, no direct descendants survive. Crook did at last find, in her own home town of San Marcos, Tex., a watercolor almost certainly of Eliza, but she and its owner, who had inherited the painting from a descendant of Eliza’s second husband, finally agreed not to show or publish it, in observance of Eliza’s wishes. The real Eliza, Crook said, “didn’t look a bit like I’d pretended she did.”
Tantalizingly, along with the portrait, the owner had inherited a letter from his aunt saying she had gotten the picture from “my grandparents, who told me all I know about Eliza’s marriage.” Period.
Crook’s first go at the book produced 750 pages of it--"I was burdened with all my knowledge. I didn’t know what to do with too much history. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t any good.”
Unlike most aspiring but unpublished writers, she actually got herself a New York agent. He sent her the rejection letters as he received them, which made Crook go through frenzies of rewriting.
Finally--and understandably--Crook was rejected by her agent, who said he had “exhausted the places to send your book in New York.”
Later in England, when Crook was reduced to “eating pork and beans out of a can,” the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “This is Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday, and I have read your book. It’s very good. We’d like to make an offer.”