How to get a blurb from Thomas Pynchon

Start by sending him your novel -- it can't hurt.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Reclusive literary giant Thomas Pynchon may not push out novels very frequently, but when it comes to book blurbs, he's on a roll. In 1998 he offered bon mots in support of Magnus Mills' Booker-nominated novel, "The Restraint of Beasts"; earlier this year his praise decorated the back cover of Jim Knipfel's memoir, "Slackjaw" (Tarcher/Putnam). The author of "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Mason & Dixon" has now given the nod to "The Testament of Yves Gundron," a first novel by Emily Barton. The book is set on a primitive island; Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish it this January.

How did Barton, a yoga instructor and graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program, accomplish the feat that most fledgling novelists would kill to pull off? "It was actually pretty easy. I think my editor wrote Pynchon and told him the truth," the 30-year-old Brooklynite said, referring to FS&G's Ethan Nosowsky, who sent the letter, along with Barton's novel, to Pynchon's agent and wife, Melanie Jackson. "Ethan just said, Look, she thinks you're the greatest thing ever and she said that she would really like it if you read her book. It was really straightforward." The blurb, which the publisher has extracted from Pynchon's reply, reads, "I found it blessedly post-ironic, engaging and heartfelt, a story that moves with ease and certainty, deeply respecting the given world even as it shines with the integrity of dream."

Knipfel, a columnist for the New York Press whose book about going blind Pynchon praised for its "amiably deranged sense of humor," followed a similar approach. "Publishers and authors make a wish list of authors that they would want blurbs from," Knipfel said. "My editor and I came up with about 25 names. At the end, I said, 'What about Pynchon?' My editor said, 'No, that's just throwing one away. These are expensive.' But he sent it. With just a basic cover letter. To Pynchon's wife's office. Expecting nothing. A day before Thanksgiving, I got a call from my editor. He could barely speak. He said, 'I just got a fax from Melanie Jackson's office,' and then he sent it over to me, and I could barely speak."

In 1996, Pynchon crossed genre lines and wrote the liner notes for "Nobody's Cool," an album by New York indie rockers Lotion. Two years earlier he wrote the liner notes for "Spiked," a Spike Jones compilation.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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