Debutante Hill, p.1Lois Duncan
Table of Contents
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was ten, painstakingly pecking them out on my mother’s manual typewriter, and shipping them off to the addresses of publications I found on my parents’ coffee table.
Needless to say, those manuscripts were quickly returned.
The editor of Ladies Home Journal was kinder than the others. Instead of a form rejection slip, she sent me a personal note that said, “Try us again in ten years.” That bewildered me, as I had not disclosed my age and thought no one would guess I was a child.
Rather than stopping me, those rejections stirred me on to greater activity. My writing attempts became more and more ambitious. Tales of flaming romance, blood spurting violence, pain and passion, lust and adventure, flew back and forth to New York in a steady stream. My parents thought me cute and funny. My teachers thought me horrid and precocious. As for myself, I was proud. While my schoolmates were playing jacks and trading comic books, I—plump, bespectacled, and unimpressive as I might appear—was plunging ahead toward the glorious career that I was certain would be my destiny.
Three years passed, and I accumulated so many rejection slips that my mother made me stop saving them.
“After all, dear, once you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all.”
Then one day I came home from school to find a craggy-faced giant of a man occupying the living room sofa. He was a new neighbor who had just moved in down the beach from our home in Sarasota, Florida, and he was a writer. His name was MacKinlay Kantor.
“Lois,” my father said after introductions had been made, “why don’t you show Mr. Kantor that story of yours that came back yesterday from the Saturday Evening Post?” He did not have to ask me twice. What an opportunity! A published author was right there waiting to appreciate me! I rushed to get the story and stood expectantly at his elbow as Mr. Kantor scanned the pages.
The praise I anticipated did not come.
“My dear,” Mr. Kantor exploded, “this is pure shit!”
It was the first time that word had ever been used in my hearing. My mother was as shocked as I was.
“Mack,” she said reprovingly, “Lois is only thirteen!”
“I don’t care how old she is,” my idol roared. “If she is putting her stories into the market and expects somebody to buy them, she is old enough to take criticism. What kind of subject matter is this for a kid? She’s never had a love affair or seen a man get murdered. Good writing comes from the heart, not off the top of the head.”
He turned to me and added more gently, “Throw this stuff in the trash, child, and go write a story about something you know about. Write something that rings true.”
I was crushed. I was also challenged. Later that week I did write a story about a fat, shy little girl with braces and glasses who covered her insecurity by writing stories about imaginary adventures. I submitted it to a teen publication, and by return mail I received a check for twenty-five dollars.
That was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
From then on, my fate was decided. I wrote what I knew about, and could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter. The pain and joy of adolescence poured onto page after page. My first loss, my first kiss, my first heartbreak, became subjects for stories. I flooded the teen publications with manuscripts, and despite the unpolished writing, the gut reality of the material carried them over the line, and a number of them were published.
And MacKinlay Kantor went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Debutante Hill didn’t start out as a book, but as a short story called “The Presentation Ball.” The idea for the plot came to me one day when I was thumbing through my hometown paper and found a notice on the society page that gave a schedule of events for “this season’s debutantes.” I couldn’t believe what I was reading! A debutante season in a little town like Sarasota, Florida? That town where I had grown up had had one high school with such a small student body that, when I attended it, there had been no dividing line between students from affluent families and poorer ones. Popularity was based upon personality, not social background.
What a gruesome holiday season, I thought, for a girl whose friends were awhirl in the high school social scene, but who, herself, could not make the debutante list! And what a good story idea!
I worked hard on that story and was pleased with the result. I’d decided to have my heroine, Lynn, forbidden to participate in the debutante season because her idealistic father did not feel it was democratic. Understandably, Lynn was resentful, and that resentment grew more intense when her steady boyfriend was drafted to escort the girl whose mother was organizing the ball. The story built to climax with the Presentation Ball, where a series of events helped Lynn regain her sense of values.
The story did not sell. I was bewildered. The situation was interesting and the characters believable. Still, back it came from one magazine after another, even from those who often published my work.
Finally one editor included a note of explanation.
“This is good material,” she wrote, “but it just doesn’t work as a short story. There is too much here that needs to be further developed. Have you considered writing a book?”
Had I considered writing a book? Yes, of course, I had. It was a dream for some distant day when I was more experienced. What scared me about the thought of tackling a book was the simple fact of its size. A short story might run up to fifteen pages or so, while a book would be over two hundred. How many years would it take to write one, and how could I help but get bogged down along the way?
But that suggestion kept nagging at my mind, and I couldn’t seem to let it go.
After all, I reminded myself, I did have a head start. “The Presentation Ball” was seventeen pages. If I cut it in half, I could call it two chapters. Then, if I tacked five chapters onto the beginning and five onto the end, I would have a twelve chapter book. I could do that by starting the book at the time of Lynn’s birth, and ending it when she got married.
Such were my thoughts when I purchased a new box of paper and sat down at the typewriter. Such were not my thoughts six weeks later when I read the chapters I had written and dropped them into the wastebasket. It took me that long to realize that what I was attempting was not working. Writing a novel by adding onto a short story was just about as feasible as trying to make an evening gown by adding taffeta to the top and bottom of a swimsuit.
There was little that I could add to either the beginning or end of “The Presentation Ball” that would have any bearing on the story, which was about a teenage girl’s reaction to a difficult social situation. Anything that happened before that point in Lynn’s life, (her childhood, elementary school experiences, summer trips with her family), or afterward, (college, a job, a husband and babies), was superfluous.
The confines of my story were set. I could not make it longer, only larger. And to do that I had to deepen it. The short story had a “plot,” a string of related events leading to a single climax. For a book, there would have to be a series of climaxes, each advancing the s
I knew now what it was I was trying to accomplish; my next problem was how to accomplish it. How could Lynn’s difficult year change her radically as an individual? To work this out, I asked myself some questions: If Lynn can’t take part in the social activities in which her friends are involved, what does she do with her time? Does she sit home and brood? Does she make friends with girls who have not been selected for the debutante list? What is Lynn’s reaction when her steady is drafted to escort a deb to the parties? Does she retaliate against him or against her parents? If so, how? Does she attach herself, perhaps, to another boy, one she knows her parents won’t approve of?
When I reached this point, I’d become so interested in what was going to happen next that I could hardly bear to leave the typewriter long enough to go to the bathroom. That was when I knew the story was working.
It took me close to a year to turn “The Presentation Ball” into Debutante Hill. When I stood, at last, with my impressively bulky manuscript in my hands, I realized that I had never enjoyed writing so much, largely because the expanded framework of a novel had given me a chance to develop my characters. In “The Presentation Ball” I’d had Lynn’s father state simply, “No, you may not be part of this debutante thing. It’s ridiculous.” In Debutante Hill, I’d had the leeway to present this man in depth so that the reader could know the “why” behind his attitude.
Another character who appeared briefly and insignificantly in the short story was Lynn’s sister, Dodie. The reader was told only that Lynn and Dodie had little in common and did not get along. In the book there had been room to develop Dodie as a person, to see her in rivalry with her sister, to hear their arguments, to study their contrasting reactions to a variety of situations. As Lynn matured during the course of the year, we saw the two girls begin to grow closer. Lynn’s gradual acceptance of her sister had become a mark of her own change of character. Even though it was a subplot, it had furthered the main theme.
I entered the manuscript in “The Seventeenth Summer Literary Competition,” a contest for first-time novelists, held by Dodd Mead & Company. To my astonished delight, it not only won first prize—$1,000 (which was like $50,000 back then), hard-cover and paperback publication, and serialization in a popular magazine—but the contract contained an option to publish my next young adult novel.
My next novel! I couldn’t wait to get to the typewriter and roll in a new sheet of paper to start on a book that I planned to call The Middle Sister.
Like Lynn in my story, I now knew my true identity.
No longer was I just “a writer.” I was an author!
—Lois Duncan, July 2013
“Lynn! Hi, Lynn, wait for me!”
“Hi, Nancy! I didn’t see you back there.” Lynn Chambers turned with a smile for the bright-haired girl behind her. “In fact, I almost stopped at your house on the way by, but I thought you’d probably left for school already. You were always such an early bird last year.”
The September wind, still warm but with the faintest hint of autumn, whipped past the two girls, swirling Lynn’s plaid skirt around her legs and mussing the blonde hair that had recently been so carefully combed. The result was that she looked prettier than ever. There was something about Lynn Chambers, a fineness of bone, an ease of bearing, a graceful, unconscious little lift of the head, that made newcomers to Rivertown, who had never seen her before, nod approvingly and ask, “Who is that?”
And whichever long-time resident was asked would usually know.
“That’s the older Chambers’ girl,” he would say. “Nathan Chambers’ daughter. You know Dr. Chambers—they live on the Hill.”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Even if someone did not know of Dr. Chambers, everyone in Rivertown knew about the Hill. The Hill Road ran at an easy slope down to the river, and along it lived the society families of Rivertown—in lovely homes, one above another, surrounded by spacious yards and green lawns with gardeners to cut them and shade trees and beds of flowers. Rivertown was proud of the Hill and of the people who lived on it And Lynn Chambers represented it perfectly—tall and slim, clear-eyed and gracious, with a touch of unconscious aloofness with people who did not know her well.
There was nothing aloof about her now, though, as she waited for Nancy Dunlapp to catch up with her.
“Maybe I was early last year,” Nancy said wryly, falling into step with her friend, “but there’s nothing to get there early for now. Not with that brother of yours away at college.” She smiled when she said it, but she could not hide the touch of loneliness underneath. Nancy Dunlapp and Ernie Chambers had gone steady for three years now, ever since she was a freshman and he a sophomore. They were seldom seen apart, the girl with the red hair and the quiet dark-eyed boy. And now Ernie was at college, and Nancy, alone, looked oddly small and incomplete.
Lynn reached over and gave her friend’s hand a quick squeeze.
“Don’t worry, Nan, December’s only three months off. With this being senior year and everything, time will pass before you know it.”
“I certainly hope so,” Nancy said. “It’s terrible how much you can come to depend on somebody, that is, somebody you really care for. You can’t imagine—oh, but then of course you can. I keep forgetting that Paul is at college, too.” “Oh, it’s not the same,” Lynn said quickly, trying to shut off the tremor that rose within her at the sound of Paul’s name. “After all, you and Ernie have been a steady team for three years now. With Paul and me, it has only been since last winter.”
“Maybe so,” Nancy said teasingly, “but I must say he looked pretty solemn when he and Ernie left together, as though he wanted to say, ‘To heck with college! I’m going back to high school for another senior year with Lynn.’”
She laughed, and Lynn did, too, but the latter’s hand stole to the front of her blouse. Under it, she could feel the thin gold chain which held Paul’s class ring. It felt odd still, having the light pressure around the back of her neck and the weight of the heavy ring against her chest, but it was a good feeling too, a warm, secure feeling. It brought back Paul’s words when he came by to pick up Ernie and to say a final good-by.
“You take care of yourself,” he had said awkwardly, while Ernie was busily piling his suitcases in the back of Paul’s car. “You won’t have me around to steer you across streets and things, you know.”
“I know,” Lynn said, fighting down the sting of tears in her eyes.
I won’t cry, she told herself firmly, I just won’t. But the tears were dangerously close to the surface when she turned to smile up at Paul.
He was smiling, too, a forced smile. And then suddenly, they were both laughing, for the smiles had been so ridiculously inadequate.
Paul reached forward and caught her hand.
“Lynn, I have something for you.”
And then she felt the ring, heavy and hard and warm from his finger.
“Your ring!” she whispered. “Your class ring! Paul, how can we—”
“We can’t,” Paul said. “Not to mean ‘going steady’ the way it did in high school. I wouldn’t ask that when I’m not going to be here to take you to things. But it can mean something else. That is, if you want it to.”
“What?” Lynn asked, almost afraid to hear his answer because she knew what it was she wanted so much to hear.
“That you’re my girl. That we’ve got something between us worth hanging onto. That—oh, darn it, Lynn, you know what I’m trying to say.”
Lynn nodded, letting her fingers curl around the ring.
“Well, you’d better miss me some,” Paul exclaimed, “or I’m coming back for that ring in a week’s time!”
He grinned, and Lynn did, too, and at that moment Ernie turned back from the car.
‘Well, are you two through with the fond farewells? Because I’ve got a girl of my own to say good-by to before we take off.”
“I know,” Lynn said, “and she’s probably about to burst by this time. She told me she was going to be out in the front yard, waiting, at eight o’clock and I think it’s closer to a quarter of nine. She’ll be sure you’ve forgotten her.”
“No, she won’t,” Ernie said easily. “Nancy knows better than that.”
They are so sure of each other, Lynn thought, so completely sure. But then, Paul and I are, too, now—now that he’s given me his class ring.
Ernie gave her a brotherly hug and climbed into the car.
“I’ve already said my good-bys to the family. Come on, old man, let’s get going. I’ll look the other way, if you want to make the grand gesture.”
“You’re a noble guy,” Paul said. He turned back to Lynn, but he did not kiss her. She did not expect him to. Paul was not the kind of boy who made a show of things in public. He simply held her hand a moment and then released it and gave her chin a little tap.
“Chin up. I’ll be back soon. Don’t you lose that ring now; it took my whole allowance for three months straight.”
“I won’t lose it,” Lynn promised. ‘I’ll never lose it!”
And then, sooner than it seemed possible, they were gone.
Now, walking along beside Nancy toward the high school, the whole world had a kind of emptiness about it Last year, she had started toward school in the morning with an excitement burning inside her, with the knowledge that “in just ten minutes . . . seven minutes . . . four minutes . . . I’ll see Paul.” He would be waiting there by the front steps, maybe talking to some of the boys, for Paul always had friends around to talk to, but his eyes would be wandering off in the direction of the Hill Road, watching for Lynn. Or sometimes she would get there first and watch for him to come. It did not matter which way it happened.
Debutante Hill by Lois Duncan / Young Adult / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes