I first encountered the wit of Jane Lotter in the paid death notice she wrote for herself, published on July 28, 2013, in the Seattle Times, 10 days after her passing. Touching, funny and inspiring, the obituary was liked, re-tweeted, Googled and shared across the globe, creating its own social media whirlwind. “There’s hundreds of comments on all the various articles about her,” says Bob Marts, her husband of 29 years. “Even though we don’t know these people, Jane communicates to them.”
Like all smart writers, Lotter took the opportunity in the obituary to plug her debut novel, The Bette Davis Club. Intrigued by her humorous yet humble voice—and always up for anything with Bette Davis in it—I downloaded the title to my Kindle. Within the first four paragraphs, I was laughing out loud. By the end of Chapter 2, I was thoroughly engaged in the madcap adventures of “fifty-some” Margo Anna-Louise Just and the much younger, more sober Tully Benedict, the jilted groom of Margot’s mercurial niece, Georgia Illworth (of the Hollywood Illworths).
Lotter was a lifelong Seattle resident, “aside from eight memorable months lived in New York City” at the age of 19, but her book, winner of the 2009 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest, is a classic American road novel. It begins in Malibu and ends in Manhattan, with comedic rest stops throughout flyover country as Margo and Tully hunt Georgia down in a candy apple red 1955 MG TF convertible—the very car in which a 7-year-old Margo rode with Cary Grant to get ice cream.
“You don’t get over it,” Margo laments to Tully about this seminal experience. “No woman could.” Of course, Margo is simply a character, a stand-in, perhaps, for the author’s “own feelings about culture and values and spirituality,” according to Marts. “A little decadence, a little drinking, a little Zen, all those aspects, you know?”
Lotter seemed to “get over” many of life’s great challenges with aplomb. In the obituary that pushed her novel into the spotlight, she advised her two grown children: “Always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.”
Her advice rises above platitude when one remembers it was written by a woman enduring grade 3, stage 3c endometrial cancer, which had recurred and metastasized to her liver and abdomen, while forging her own route to get The Bette Davis Club finished and into the hands of readers.
At first, she went through what Marts calls “the various stages of trying to find an agent and publishers.” Lotter’s critique partner, Steve Jaquith, recalls that she completed both the manuscript and her first round of chemo in 2011. She was ready to submit the manuscript to agents and editors who had expressed interest. “The rest of us, who were a little more tortoiselike, said, ‘Wait, don’t you have to go over it like 14 times? Get an editor?’ ” Jaquith recalls. “No. I’m an editor myself,” she told them. “I’m ready.”
“I eventually convinced her to let me read through it,” he says. During their first meeting, the two spent an hour and a half going through editorial suggestions, “basically structural issues and things that came off a bit differently than how she meant them.” She was a pleasure to work with, he says, “so open and receptive.”
She went back through the book again then submitted it to some agents.
Even from the first diagnosis, Jaquith thinks that Lotter was aware the cancer was “going to get her sooner or later.” She thought she might live long enough to publish The Bette Davis Club traditionally; she wanted a New York agent. In 2012, one of her top picks wrote her, saying, “I’ve been on the fence with this for a while. There’s a couple of things I’m not sure about.” Lotter then did another rewrite and resubmitted it. “She never heard back from him,” Jaquith says.
Lotter refused to wait for some nebulous green light and published The Bette Davis Club as an e-book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing on April 23 of this year. A print-on-demand paperback, through CreateSpace, came out the first week in July.
Yet still, in the press that followed her auto-obituary—press that helped triple sales of the book, according to figures provided by Lotter’s sister, Barbara—there were some who sought to portray Lotter’s accomplishments as a dream deferred or even denied. This elitist attitude toward independent authors appears in the story the New York Times devoted to Lotter on August 5.
“Ms. Lotter’s dream” the reporter writes, “was to get a novel published, but she ran out of time and self-published it as an e-book,” which makes both self-publishing and e-books sound illegitimate, permissible only under impending death. The truth is, Lotter ran out of patience, not time. Not only did she self-publish The Bette Davis Club as an e-book, she made sure it was available in paperback—both of which are two popular forms for a published novel in 2013.
“She was slow to come to self-publishing,” says Jaquith. “Once it did happen, she was so happy she had. But it was not an easy sell for her.” Sure, he agrees, it may have been “the lack of time, but she wanted people to be able to read it.” Before she passed away at the end of July, she had been “able to hold that book in her hand and sign some copies,” according to Jaquith, “which I know must have been really great for her.”
After the Kindle edition appeared in May, the two made a deal. “I’m going to keep calling you and ask if you want me to come over,” he told her. “At some point, you’re not going to respond, and that’s OK.” A month before she died, Jaquith stopped hearing from her. He kept checking her website and ordered three copies.
“The day I got the call from Barbara, telling me Jane had passed away, I took my dogs out for a long walk,” he remembers. When he returned home, a cardboard box with a smile on the outside was waiting for him, Jane Lotter’s books inside.
Tom Eubanks is a freelance writer, editor and consultant with 25 years of experience in magazine and book publishing. You can follow him on Twitter.