Lee Wilson’s book, Rebel on Pointe: A Memoir of Ballet and Broadway, has just been published by the University Press of Florida (UPF). I had the honor of helping Lee when she was at square zero with her idea. She knew she had a powerful story to tell, but struggled with how to tell it. We went on to work together on the book, which became Lee’s senior project in the LEAP Program at St. Mary’s College of California, a Bachelor of Arts program designed for current and former dancers. It was my first and only time as an academic advisor! Lee graciously agreed to answer some questions about her book-writing process.
Lee will be speaking and signing books at {pages} a bookstore in Manhattan Beach on October 30th at 7pm. I will be there and would love to see you there, too.
Jennie: Your working title was Fleeing the Fifties in Pink Satin Toe Shoes.  The new title is much stronger and gutsier than that. Can you talk about the evolution of the title?
LeeRebel on Pointe is the story of how I danced my way out of the stifling suburbs of 1950s Delaware into the opera houses of Europe and onto the Broadway stage. Fleeing the Fifties in Pink Satin Toe Shoes was in the ballpark for content, but Meredith Morris-Babb, Director of the University Press of Florida, said the title was too lightweight—that the book had more substance than the title. I struggled to find a new title until the director of marketing said that the girl in the book is “brave, courageous, and audacious” and the title needed to reflect those qualities. His words were a catalyst. Almost immediately I came up with Rebel on Pointe. We circulated that title with several others for comparison, and Rebel on Pointe was the clear favorite.
Jennie: Can you also talk a bit about the cover? I just love it – and wonder how much input you had on it. (Also, is that you in the photo??)
Lee: I always visualized the cover as turquoise, black, and white—very 1950s--and Meredith agreed. After we chose the title Rebel on Pointe, I suggested the photo. Everything else--the way my working leg wraps around the spine of the book onto the back, the lettering, the proportions—all of that is by Louise OFarrell, and, yes, it’s quite wonderful— very different from most dance memoirs. 
The cover photo was taken at the end of a headshot session in early 1970. The photographer said, “I think we have everything you wanted. Is there anything else you’d like to do?” I said, “What about this?” I hit the arabesque, and she shot it.
Jennie: How long did it take you from that first class when you first started working on the book to publication day? And when you started, did you imagine it would take that long?
Lee: In the fall of 2008 when I walked into your class at UCLA, I had no idea how long it would take to get the book published—or if it would ever be published. I took everything one step at a time: In 2010, I finished the manuscript and registered the copyright. After that, I wrote the proposal. In 2011, when UPF took it on, they set the timetable with fall 2014 as the publication date.
Jennie: What has been the role of your editor versus the role that I played earlier in the process? How has the book deepened and changed through working with an editor and in what ways has it stayed the same?
Lee: When I was working with you, you looked at the big picture and the details concurrently. At UPF, the work was sequential. Meredith gave me comments on the big picture—tone and content. She also sent the manuscript to dance historians and gave me the benefit of their comments. After that, the project editor, Nevil Parker, worked with me on the details.
In the published book, I think there’s more joy in the adventures dance has given me: making my debut when I was sixteen in a command performance in Monte Carlo, sharing the stage with superstars in Paris, hearing my first bravos in Vichy—not to mention flying into Algeria without my passport to dance for men holding automatic weapons. The finished book also includes more of my Broadway career than the manuscript that went to UPF, and there’s a deeper understanding of how social and political events affected American dance and my own career. Each draft gave me a greater appreciation of the fact that dance allowed me to travel the world at a time when most American women were trapped in their homes.
Jennie: You are being published by a university press with a strong tradition of bringing out dance books. Can you talk a bit about the process of choosing that publisher and how the alliance came into being? Many writers aren’t familiar with the way university presses work – or the opportunity they represent.
Lee: You set the wheels in motion when you suggested that I attend Pitchapalooza at {pages} bookstore in Manhattan Beach to pitch my book to Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. You said that no matter how good my pitch was they could make it better, so I drove to Manhattan Beach. Arielle and David not only improved my pitch, they also sent my proposal to Toni Bentley, who sent it to the University Press of Florida. Voilà! I had a publisher.
Jennie: You have some nice blurbs on the book. Can you talk about the process of obtaining those?
Lee: I asked a roomful of dancers if anyone knew anyone who had published a dance memoir and might talk to me about the process. One of the dancers, Caitlyn Carradine, said she could introduce me to Zippora Karz, the former NYCB soloist who wrote The Sugarless Plum. When I talked with Zippora, she was so encouraging and so informative that when UPF was reading the manuscript, I asked her if she would read it, and if she liked it, give me a blurb because I thought that having a blurb from her might help the book along. Fortunately, she liked the manuscript, and I had my first blurb before the book was under contract.
Maina Gielgud was my best friend when I was seventeen. I hadn’t seen her in decades, but had contacted her about photos for the book, when UPF asked me if I could get another blurb. Maina was formerly a principal dancer with the English National Ballet, director of the Australian Ballet, director of the Royal Danish Ballet, and is currently staging ballets all over the world, so she was an obvious choice, and she also loved the book. It’s wonderful the way Rebel on Pointe is reuniting me with friends from my past.
The blurb from Ali Duffy, founder and choreographer of Flatlands Dance Theatre, came through UPF.
Jennie: What are some of your plans for getting the word out about your book and connecting with readers?
Lee: I am doing book signings from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City to Manhattan Beach to New York. I have written a guest blog for the Florida Bookshelf (“7 Reasons Why Ballet Dancers Choose Broadway”), and I have a press page on my website with a link to the book’s first review (by Dean Speer for Critical Dance), which was absolutely wonderful. I also did an interview with David Henry Sterry for the Huffington Post. I’m posting news on Facebook, and I’m encouraging people who enjoy the book to tell their friends.
Jennie: What has been the most surprising part of the publishing process so far – perhaps both good and bad?
Lee: I was surprised at how responsive everyone at UPF has been. I had heard horror stories about unresponsive publishers, abusive editors, and impossible deadlines. I had none of those problems. When my rewrite was approved, Meredith told me, “From this point forward, nothing is too insignificant for you to pick up the phone.” Nevil gave me her home number in case I ever needed to call her outside of work hours, which I didn’t, but that is typical of the support I received.
On the other hand, I have been surprised that big bookstores don’t always have a projector and speakers, which I use at my signings to show photos and video. If people make the effort to come to a book signing, I think they should get bonus material, so I have additional photos and stories for the book tour.
Jennie: What advice would you give to other memoir writers?
Lee: I believe in doing a lot of research. For Rebel on Pointe, I looked through many boxes of programs, brochures, letters, receipts, tickets, bank statements, photos, etc. I surfed the Internet to find people I worked with decades ago to see what they are doing now. I made chronologies for “touring Europe,” “Balanchine,” “Metropolitan Opera Ballet,” etc., so that when I was writing, I could use specific numbers and dates. I think it’s really important to have command of the material before you start writing.
Jennie: Are you working on anything new?
Lee: Everything I’m writing now is to find an audience for Rebel on Pointe. Sometimes I feel as if I’m playing whack-a-mole. The minute I finish one thing, two more pop up—which is excellent. I hope that never stops.
Jennie: Where can readers learn more about your book and your work?
Lee: My website, www.leewilsonpro.com, has information about the book, upcoming events, the latest press, photos, my bio, and more. The website also has links to both online and brick and mortar stores that carry the book.