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The People

The First Time’s a Charm

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Like many fledgling novelists, Marlen Bodden ’86 was stymied by traditional book publishing. The veteran Legal Aid Society lawyer had spent nine years researching and writing a page-turner about a wealthy, slave-owning plantation family in pre-Civil War Alabama. Unable to find an agent—despite sending more than 300 entreaties—or a commercial publisher, she self-published, in the process hiring three editors to polish her manuscript and spending hours promoting the book to family and friends; traveling to book clubs, signings, fairs, and readings; and reaching out to academia and local media. Her hard work paid off.

From 2011–12, Amazon sold 140,000 digital copies of The Wedding Gift, putting it on the Wall Street Journal’s e-book bestseller list. Within weeks, Bodden found an agent who sold her book to major publishers in the US and worldwide, netting her at least two six-figure contracts. The Wedding Gift will be released by St. Martin’s Press this fall with an enthusiastic blurb by Tom Wolfe.

Bodden’s novel was inspired by an actual 1840s Alabama case in which a slave owner sued his wife for divorce and the court granted him all the property she brought into the marriage, including a young slave woman. Writing on weekends and on vacations, Bodden, who is currently working on a class action in the Southern District of New York concerning the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk police practices, did not even tell her family she was writing a book: “I just thought that no one was going to take it seriously, and this was just something that I was doing for me.”

Now Bodden is working on a historical novel about the conquest of Mexico. Creative writing serves as a refuge from the stress of law practice, she says, and vice versa: “It’s the best of both worlds.”

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