The time: November 1976 The place: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA The woman: Marilyn French, novelist and academic
I was teaching a seminar on Joyce at Harvard - I had a one-year fellowship and I was trying to get it renewed. I was in a very sorry state, because I had been turned down for tenure at Holy Cross College, where I had been teaching English literature and women's studies. I felt this to be a terrible failure, and I had never failed at anything in my life, so it was a shock.

The Dean explained to me quietly that the reason I was turned down was because I was a subversive person, and that if I repeated this to anyone he would deny that he had said it. But this did not help my sense of failure. Holy Cross had required me to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, when I took the job - Worcester is not exactly the armpit of the world, but it's not far off it - and I had been very unhappy there, but had really put myself to a great effort to make a little community. Two things lose you friends - one is failure, the other is success: the friends at Holy Cross I didn't lose when I failed I later lost when I was successful.

By the time I had been there for four years, I had friends and was really having a lot of fun in my life. I was working hard and living alone for the first time, my son had gone to college and he was the last child, so I had my time totally to myself. Being very efficient, I arranged my time so I could prepare my courses, do my teaching and my advising, attend meetings and still write at least two and usually three days a week. I had finished writing The Women's Room while I was there, and a book on Joyce, which was published by Harvard University Press.

So I went back to Cambridge to take up this Harvard position for one year. I tried to get a full-time teaching position elsewhere, but I had no luck at all. I flew all over the country to job interviews, I made all sorts of applications and I was offered a job at MIT which a lot of people wanted. It was all set until the Dean decided that I was too old - I was 45 by then and he said that was too old. The fact that I had 20 years of teaching left in me didn't seem to matter to them at all.

I had absolute dread about the future, because there was no one I could turn to for help. I was alone in the world - I had two kids but they were still in school, my parents were in no position to help me. I had divorced my husband and I would never have asked him for help. I just didn't know what I was going to do. I thought, well I could pick up four or five courses in freshman English, or basic writing, but it would take all my time just to teach those and I'd be working for a pittance.

I was mid-way through writing a book on Shakespeare and I wanted to finish it, I knew there were a couple more years of work in it. I thought I could get a job as a cook in a big house, because I'm a wonderful cook, and I thought the only problem with that is I'd have to make breakfast and I don't get up early in the morning.

The other thing which was really appealing to me was to buy a bunch of very colourful pieces of fabric, wrap them around my head and set up as a tarot reader, because I used to be very good at that. These were my most sophisticated and sensible thoughts, so you can see I was in pretty bad shape.

I had sent The Women's Room to an agent, Charlotte Sheedy, who was willing to handle it. She had asked for some changes and some shortening - I made some changes, not the ones she asked for, and I lengthened it and I sent it back at the end of summer 1976. She said, "it's an iffy thing, but I know someone who might be interested. He is starting his own publishing house and I'm not going to send it to him until early December".

So I was in limbo, just waiting. I was so nervous - I always have written myself little notes, and I wrote one that said: "Dry cleaner. Pick up jacket." And when I went to look at it the next day it said: "Pick up job." I was really scared, as scared as I have ever been in my life. Before, I always had such confidence in myself but what would I have in the future if I couldn't use my abilities because of my age?

Anyway, I went to bed one night, and I always read in bed. I was in my usual state of terror, but I wasn't thinking about myself because I was reading something that I was engrossed in. Suddenly the room was pervaded with light. And I sat up in bed. And if there were such a thing as music of the spheres, that's what I heard. And a sense of well-being went through my entire body. I thought, what could this be? What could make me feel this good? It was the sort of feeling you would have if you had crashed in a plane and you were stuck on a snowy mountain and suddenly you saw a helicopter descending - it was that kind of a feeling, as if your life were being saved. And I thought, there's only one thing it could be: and that is if somebody is deciding to publish The Women's Room, but that can't be because Charlotte's not even going to send it to this guy till December.

Early the next morning the phone rang, it was Charlotte. She said: "Jim Silberman wants to publish your book. I sent it ahead of time." I said, "I want $10,000. I want a $10,000 advance". And she said, "You'll get it". A while later Jim called, and we had an argument about what name I would use for this book, because I wanted to call myself Mara Salvosca and he had a fit about that, but he definitely wanted to publish the book.

I never believed in premonitions, but there's nothing else that can explain it. Somehow I was in such a state of heightened sensitivity that I could feel it - because Charlotte said, "He was reading it, he finished it last night and he loved it, and he called me first thing this morning". So it must have been that I felt him at the moment he decided... I didn't even know this man, I had heard of him but I didn't know him.

That's the day that changed my life. I got the $10,000, which was not enough to keep me alive even for a year, even in the very modest circumstances in which I lived, but by the following June the book had been sold to a publisher in Germany who was so enthusiastic, mainly because of his wife, that all the Scandinavian countries had bought it, France and England had bought it, and Warner Brothers had bought it and I had enough money in my bank account to keep me alive at that modest level for the next 30 years."n

`The Women's Room' has been re-issued this month, 20 years after its publication, as a Virago Modern Classic at pounds 7.99.

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