Once Upon an Unpublished Novel ...

June of 2012, over pasta and red wine at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Diane Goettel ’04 asked Lucy Rosenthal (writing) a question that would change both of their lives: “How’s your book?”

Goettel and Rosenthal caught up in person during Reunion 2014.

The book in question was Rosenthal’s novel The World of Rae English—which she had been trying to publish for almost a decade.

Rosenthal, who retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence in May, first met Goettel in her First-Year Studies course, fall semester of 2000. They knew they had a connection after their first conference meeting when Goettel said, “Thank you, Professor Rosenthal,” and Rosenthal looked at her as if she’d just swallowed a lemon. She coolly replied, “You can call me Lucy.” Their collaborative relationship formed quickly as they discussed Goettel’s writing in conferences.

As a senior, Goettel completed an internship with Rosenthal’s agent, Wendy Weil (who also represented Alice Walker ’65). That experience helped prepare Goettel for a job with The Adirondack Review when she graduated. Weil also asked her to read The World of Rae English, which Rosenthal had recently finished. Goettel spent hours with the manuscript and, despite feeling intimidated that she would have anything to offer her don, she typed a long e-mail to Rosenthal telling her why she connected to the book. Rosenthal was so moved that, as she says, she slept with Goettel’s words under her pillow for months.

In 2009, five years after graduating, Goettel became the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publisher that had absorbed The Adirondack Review. Goettel and Rosenthal stayed in contact, and in 2012, Goettel learned The World of Rae English still wasn’t published. She immediately saw an opportunity—one she only felt confident taking because Kevin Pilkington (writing) had recently submitted a manuscript to Black Lawrence without knowing there was a Sarah Lawrence connection. Knowing her press had developed a reputation solid enough for the College’s professors to send submissions emboldened her to call Rosenthal and set up their dinner date.

“There have been so many steps on this circle, and that circle isn’t closed yet.”

Goettel and Rosenthal initially tried to maintain their professional cool with each other, but after copies of Rosenthal’s book were in hand on Valentine’s Day 2014, they began doting on each other with the intimacy of family members. Though Goettel had moved to Hong Kong in 2009, where she continues to run Black Lawrence Press, she’s stayed in close touch with Rosenthal. The pair often sit together for hours on Skype as though they’re having coffee at a diner, gossiping about the publishing world and checking in about Rosenthal’s work. One such call in 2014 was a celebration. The World of Rae English had just been named to the Women’s National Book Association List of Books to Read (an honor Rosenthal shared with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See).

As Rosenthal prepared to depart from Sarah Lawrence (where she’d been teaching since 1988), a friend in publishing advised, “Don’t say you’re retiring; say you’re leaving to write full time.” Rosenthal took the advice. Ghosts of Detroit is the working title of the novel she’s currently writing about adoption and a city in a crisis of identity. Goettel says she can’t wait to read it.

“I hope it’s not the last time something like this happens,” Rosenthal says, though she insists the blossoming of the student-don relationship into such fruitful collaboration and friendship couldn’t have happened at another school. “I keep saying, This is the way it’s supposed to be; this is why it took so long to publish my book. There have been so many steps on this circle, and that circle isn’t closed yet.”