HUMORIST FINDS HER VOICE — AND AN AUDIENCE.
As the number of newspapers that carried Erma’s column grew, new opportunities opened up for her. Doubleday suggested publishing a compilation of a number of her columns. Erma, like most first-time authors, assumed the book’s publication meant riches and fame. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
“Success,” said Erma firmly, “is outliving your failures.” She planned to do just that. In fact, the book, released in 1967, sold moderately well, about as expected for a first-time author just beginning to gain recognition through her tri-weekly humorous commentaries.
As Doubleday sales representative Aaron Priest toured the stores in his territory, he began to hear the same story from bookstore owners. He’d ask them how the company’s “big book” (the most “important” or highly prized author’s new release) was doing, and they would demand more copies of At Wit’s End. Priest contacted the publishing company in New York and urged them to push the book. They ignored his advice. The company evidently didn’t share Priest’s excitement or belief in Erma.
Aaron Priest remained with Doubleday as Erma published two more books. One day she received a card from him. He had left Doubleday. He mentioned that if she ever had an idea for a book and needed an agent or someone to bounce her thoughts off, just give him a call. Maybe she’d like him to act as her agent.
For her first three books, Erma handled the details herself, but when she came up with the idea for the fourth, she tapped Aaron Priest. The idea Erma shared with Aaron in a phone call revolved around paralleling the settlement of the suburbs with the settlement of the American West. He asked her to send him an outline or a few pages of the book. He called her two weeks later and said, “My God, Erma, this has got to be worth six figures.” She snapped back, “Don’t tell my husband!” Two weeks after receiving the outline, Aaron Priest sold The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank to McGraw-Hill.
Erma found a comfortable if sometimes frantic pattern evolving as she continued to turn out newspaper columns and books. In 1969, she was asked to provide a monthly column — “Up the Wall” — for Good Housekeeping magazine, a service she continued for six years. Periodically she wrote for other magazines, including Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, Redbook, McCall’s and even Teen. In 1971, her second book, Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own, coauthored by Bil Keane, originator of the popular “Family Circus” cartoons, hit the bookstores.
Erma traveled around the country from her Ohio home base until one day she gave a speech in Phoenix. The Midwestern native fell hard for the desert — the stunning sunsets, the craggy mountains and the oddly twisted cactus dotting the landscape. Besides, the audience that night fell in love with her. That sealed it. Not long afterwards, the Bombeck family moved to Arizona.
I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, Erma’s next book, released in 1974, helped endear the writer to thousands of new mothers across the country. The book took a hard look at the thankless tasks of new motherhood, the same ones Erma had cried over some years before. She hoped with this book to ease the burden of new moms by helping them to spot the humor in their situations.
While Erma loved writing and enjoyed her growing popularity with readers, each new book, article, or trip to some faraway city to speak made her feel more isolated. Success was forcing her to abandon a normal life. Finally, she took a hard look and decided something had to go. The something was lecturing, which, although it enabled her to interact with her fans, demanded a heavy price. The balancing act between the two top priorities in her life — work and family — had begun to tilt too far to the former.
From the book, Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell.
Used with permission of the author.