The Cross House
When I was a child in the 1960s, my parent’s had a fiberglass sailboat and I spent countless hours and years aboard her. But I never loved her. She was plastic and smelled funny. And, she was…small.
Very occasionally we would happen upon a big old wooden yacht. These fascinated me. In the pages of Yachting magazine, in the For Sale ads, could be found many more big old wooden yachts. I would gaze longingly at the small grainy images and dream of owning something so glorious.
One day! One day!
In the mid-1980s, I was living in New York City and had my own architectural design firm. One night, while gazing upon the East River, I was struck by a thought: It was now possible to manifest a dream from childhood!
So began my hunt for a gorgeous 1920s wooden yacht. In time, I amassed a large file of Xerox images from old Yachting and Rudder magazines and the hunt eventually led me to…
Me, being the obsessive type, had tried to purchase books on classic wooden motor yachts but it developed no such book existed. This seemed curious as the old yachting magazines were filled with gorgeous images of gorgeous wooden motor yachts. But…no book.
My ever-expanding file offered reason to think that such a book should exist and that I should write it. Everyone I knew however said that getting a book published was near impossible.
“You need an agent!”
“You need great connections!”
I had neither.
Still, I wanted to write a book about big ol’ wooden boats.
One day, I arrived home with a new book about the world’s most extraordinary yachts. It was full of color images of modern yachts but with one or two classic wooden yachts included. I poured over the latter images.
In the acknowledgments, the author’s wrote to the effect: “Our editor, Jim Mairs of W. W. Norton, suggested that we write a book about classic motor yachts but we decided to do this instead. But thanks, Jim, for the idea!”
I held the book in my hands, frozen. I read the line over and over. And I thought: But I want to do a book on classic motor yachts.
Without even thinking, I went over to the side table and pulled out the phonebook (remember those?). I looked up W. W. Norton. Ahhh, they were at 500 Fifth Avenue in the city. I called. The receptionist answered. I asked for Jim Mairs. A moment later I heard: “Jim here.”
I explained why I had called, read him the quote from the book, and explained that I wanted to write just such a book book.
Jim replied: “I have been trying to get a writer to do just that for twenty-five years. So, if you really want to write about classic yachts I will publish it!”
And many years later Norton published my two books about classic steam and motor yachts. Jim was not only my editor but a Norton partner.
Writing the books, and their research, was the most fun I ever had. When Jim showed me the cover for the first book, I stood in a conference room, surrounded by other people, and cried. It was soooooo beautiful.
After the book was published one of Jim’s support team members told me I was the most enjoyable author she had ever worked with. This confused me and she noted the look on my face. She explained: “Every phase of the long process excites you! And it’s such a relief working with that!” She noted my still confused look and said: “Most author’s are horrible to work with. They freak out at every suggestion! They act like we want to saw their leg off for an editing suggestion! They hate the cover art; they fight to the death with the copy editor; they scream about royalties! But with you? Like I said: the whole process excites you!”
The confused look left my face. I replied: “Why would any author fight with all of you? I mean, from my perspective, you all work really hard to make the book better but I get all the credit with my name on the cover! I wish I had a team of people managing every aspect of my life!”
One night, late, my phone rang. It was Jim. He rarely called late at night. “I’ve just finished reading your book and wanted to let you know how proud I am of it. It surpasses my wildest dreams! It’s so much better and so much richer than I thought possible. You found amazing images and accessed an astonishing amount of information. Of all the books I’ve published over the decades yours is one of my top ten favorites.”
I laughed. “Jim! Stop! You say that to every writer!”
Jim, with grave assurance, stated that this was not so. And from his tone…I believed him. “Jim, wow, I’m really touched. This means the world to me.”
My second book came out in 2004 and a few years later I began a new company restoring vintage lighting. The company took off fantastically and consumed my life. Writing books became a thing of the ever more distant past.
After buying the Cross House in 2016, I called Jim right away and we looked at online images of the house. Jim was insane for big old houses and he went crazy over the Cross House. After I created the blog, I talked again with Jim in 2015 and he loved the blog. “Ross! I absolutely want to publish a book about the restoration of the Cross House! It’ll be incredible! Just let me know when you are ready.”
I could not have known that would be my last conversation with Jim. He died in 2016 and I did not learn about his passing for several months. His death felt like a sucker punch to my soul. Jim was always incredibly generous and gracious to me. We never once argued. Rather, we laughed and laughed and traded stories about old yachts and old houses and old cars and old movies. On several occasions I spent time with him at his house in the Hamptons; one day we drove through a new neighborhood on Long Island filled with McMansions and we laughed so much at the horror of each passing house that our lungs hurt. I knew Jim’s fabulous wife, Gina, and had met his young children.
And then Jim…was gone. After thirty years in my life.
Months passed before I realized another loss. My connection to the publishing world had been severed. I’ll never publish another book, I thought.
During the last six months I have been through a transformative experience: How do I want to spend my remaining thirty-one years? The culmination of this was detailed in a recent post.
The direction I was headed? This hit a brick wall and a new future was envisioned, one where I return to my greatest passion: researching and writing books.
With my connection to the publishing world severed I began learning about self-publishing.
Then, last week, something quite extraordinary happened.
In the recent blog post I mentioned a book I hoped to write:
Then Suzanne wrote in. She suggested that, rather than a single volume, why not create a multi-volume set on the Cross House? She thought, based on the blog these past four years, surely there was already enough information to create Volume One?
I read Suzanne’s words and instantly understood the fantastic brilliance of her suggestion.
But…but…this was not a project suitable for self-publishing. No, the volume I envisioned needed…W. W. Norton.
Jim though was gone. I had no other connection at the company. And surely a cold call would be received…coldly. Publishers are inundated with calls from wannabe writers.
A few days later though I realized that I was making a lot of assumptions. Negative assumptions. This was not really like me. So, on Monday, I called Norton. The main receptionist answered. I explained. Then a little voice in my head told me to ask: “Did you know Jim?.” A moment passed before she replied, quietly: “Yes. I worked with him.”
And then I knew that she knew.
After another few moments she said: “I think you should talk with Tom. One moment, please.”
I expected to be put through to Tom’s secretary and that I would, politely, get nowhere. Instead, I heard a click and then: “Tom here.”
I quickly explained and offered a brief outline of the book idea.
And Tom’s reaction? It was good. He needed more information, of course, and asked that I forward him an email with an outline and relevant links to the bog. “And then we can go from there.”
I thanked him and hung up the phone.
Gee. That went well. And then it took a moment for my heart to resume.
This was just a first step. An introduction. There is no way to know if Norton will pick the book up.
But, I am least inside the door.