May 29, 2013
Nonfiction writer Richard Adams Carey - a faculty member in the low-residency MFA in Fiction & Nonfiction program at Southern New Hampshire University - remembers the day a student in that program talked to him about the Young Adult novel she was working on. She said that one of the novel’s main characters is comatose throughout nearly the entire story.
"Wow, that’s hard to pull off,” Carey told her. "It can be done, but you really have to know what you’re doing."
That student was Pratima Cranse, who would earn her MFA last June on the strength of that novel, entitled “Last Streetlamp." By now she certainly knows what she’s doing. In January “Last Streetlamp” was sold to Viking Children’s Books.
For Cranse, this is like being in third grade again. "We made these books out of wallpaper and cardboard, and we could write stories in them," she recalled. "I remember the title of mine - "The Mystery of the Purple Pizza Man’—and people thought it was very good and very funny. I found that, well, gratifying, and that was all it took - I was a writer."
By 2009 she was also a grown-up - married and working as a nurse at an adolescent clinic near Ithaca, New York. “We couldn’t afford for me to take time off to go to school somewhere," Cranse said. She needed an MFA program that could fit into the circumstances of job and family, so she began looking at low-residency programs on the Internet. Always a voracious reader, she compared such programs by reading books written by their faculty members.
"There were a couple books I really loved, novels by people at SNHU," she said. "One was ‘Love, Cajun Style,’ by Diane Les Becquets, and then ‘The Suburbs of Heaven,’ by Merle Drown. They were both very exciting and very different sorts of books."
Les Becquets is now director of that MFA program at Southern New Hampshire. She worked with Cranse on her manuscript for two semesters, Carey and Drown one each. The novel begins with the auto accident that plunges Sara, a lovely and charismatic high school student, into a coma. Sara’s best friends, Andrew and Marcia, are left to carry on lives that in different ways are bent by that tragedy and the lingering presence of its victim.
"By the time any student graduates from this program, we want that person to have a complete and publishable manuscript in hand," said Les Becquets. "But we don’t just leave it at that. We're very fortunate in the people we have on our advisory board, all of whom are very accomplished agents and editors, all of whom take an interest in our students’ work."
Once Cranse had finished her book and collected her degree, Les Becquets sent a letter praising the novel to one of those board members—Ken Wright, then a literary agent at Writers House. Yes, he wanted to see the manuscript, but he also told Les Becquets that he had a new job, that he was now publisher of Viking Children’s Books for the Penguin Group. “If I can’t be her agent,” he wrote, “perhaps I can be her editor and publisher."
Wright received the manuscript, read it, and quickly determined that he would indeed like to be Cranse’s editor and publisher. So who was her agent?
It so happened that Les Becquets had written to one other board member at SNHU about “Last Streetlamp" - Esmond Harmsworth of the Zachary Schuster Harmsworth Literary Agency. Harmsworth had also fallen in love with the story, and in short order Cranse had both good representation and a contract from Viking.
Now the young woman with the long-shot novel premise is about to begin work on the production process that will put “Last Streetlamp” between real book covers (as opposed to wallpaper and cardboard) and into the hands of many more readers than she found in third grade.
In the meantime she’s got a second novel in the works. Here’s the premise: “Two girls, best friends, one from Nepal, both very smart, both social outcasts in high school,” said Cranse, whose mother is Nepali. “They solve a mystery involving a predatory theater director.”
So, yes, it will be a mystery novel—just like her first big success. Obviously she knows what she’s doing.
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