Body of Work 

'Nashville Scene' contributor inks deal for a history of the human body

'Nashville Scene' contributor inks deal for a history of the human body

Michael Sims was in the Asheville Museum of Art in North Carolina when he got the cell-phone call from his literary agent. The Nashville writer (and frequent Scene contributor) was traveling on business for his day job as assistant curator at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, but he was also in the middle of brokering a book deal. Just the day before, his agent, Heide Lange, had turned down a publisher’s offer for his proposed book, Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Body. When she reached him at the museum, it was to tell him that the publisher, Viking, had just made a second offer that more than doubled the first, taking it smartly into six figures.

“I just laughed, hard,” Sims says. “Then I found [Vanderbilt curator and Sims’ boss] Joseph [Mella], who was on the floor above me, and said, ‘I quit.’ He grinned and told me, ‘I could hear you laughing.’ ”

The news that Sims had hit a deep pocket spread quickly through Nashville’s writing community. “All writers know what it’s like to struggle with rejection and to constantly be looking for the right editor who understands what you’re trying to do,” says popular Nashville mystery writer and friend Steve Womack. “So when a proposal like Adam’s Navel finds the kind of home a writer dreams of, then it’s wonderful and magnificent.... It gives the rest of us hope as well. A rising karmic tide lifts all boats.”

The book proposal began with an unexpected letter to Sims from Stefan McGrath, the executive editor at Penguin UK. McGrath told the writer how much he admired his first book, Darwin’s Orchestra, and asked if he’d be interested in doing one on Darwin in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the naturalist’s birth in 2009. Sims phoned McGrath, who asked him if he had anything else he could send for consideration in the meantime. The writer e-mailed a proposal for Adam’s Navel, and three weeks later, Lange, an agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in New York, was fielding an offer for him.

“It was in the mid-five figures—enough to get your attention,” Sims says. Lange asked for more and got it. Then she sent the proposal and news of the London deal to publishing houses all over New York. A young editor she’d recently had lunch with, Molly Stern at Viking, read it and called the next day with an offer, also in the mid-five figures. Lange turned it down cold.

“It was a preemptive offer, meaning if we took it, there’d be no more negotiating with other firms,” Lange says. “I wanted six figures, and it was clear I could always go to auction after Labor Day.” Sims and Stern chatted by phone and got along swimmingly, and Stern said she’d make another offer. The next call Sims got was the one in the museum from Lange.

“I don’t think it was just the sale in the U.K.,” Lange says. “Michael is just a fabulous writer. He is insatiably curious, and his interpretation of almost everything, especially the natural world, just jumps right off the page. He can get the reader excited about it, and it’s that kind of passion that sells a book.”

A native of Cumberland County, Sims moved to Nashville in 1986 and went to work for Mills Bookstores, which closed 10 years ago last month. “I waited on their very last customer,” he says. Since then, he has worked in the Special Collections and Archives at Vanderbilt; he has worked as a writer and editor for Book Page, a monthly book-review periodical published in Nashville; and he has written book reviews, art reviews, and cover stories for the Scene. He has two children’s books on Darwin scheduled for release next year.

His first book, published by Henry Holt in 1997, was “the typical publishing nightmare...,” he says. “By the time it came out, I was on my third editor, and the department had ceased to exist. Even the book reviewers were having trouble getting copies of the advance. Publicity was doing nothing. They didn’t run the ads they had planned. They cut the print run and then completely abandoned it.”

Prospects for the new book look a lot more promising. Slated to be about 100,000 words, Adam’s Navel has a due date of Nov. 1, 2001, and a tentative release date of fall 2002. Each chapter deals with both cultural views and scientific facts about a specific part of the body. The idea for the book came to Sims when he was hospitalized for neck surgery as he finished Darwin’s Orchestra. “The neurosurgeon at St. Thomas was comparing the head to a 20-pound bowling ball on a fragile stem like a sunflower’s, and it certainly felt that way to me,” he says. “I was told not to raise my head more than necessary. At first I couldn’t even read. But I could hold a legal pad on my chest and write there, and pick it up enough to look at it, and I started thinking about the body, listing everything I could think of about its natural and cultural history from head to toe, and that began the process of doing the book.”

Sims recognizes the fortuitous nature of the events that turned his idea into a bonanza—put simply, deals like this don’t come around very often. The situation arose completely unexpectedly, and Lange handled it with professional aplomb. “Don’t ever play poker with my agent,” Sims says.

Michael Sims will read at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 7 p.m. Nov. 4, as part of the store’s “Nashville Writers Night.”

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