Aurora NY - a literary inspiration?

Ongoing list of articles about the content and controversy of Happyland, a J. Robert Lennon novel serialized in Harper's Magazine.
  • Why did the original publisher drop the book?

  • How much of the fictional story is based in fact?

  • Could another publisher come out with the full unedited novel?

  • Will "Happy Masters" follow Pleasant Rowland around for the rest of her life?

EXCERT: From an interview, "J. Robert Lennon has Something for Everyone..."
by Russell Bartholomee in Being There, # 16 Jan/Feb 2006

J. ROBERT LENNON: ...This has been a weird year. After Mailman, I wrote this novel called Happyland.... I finally got it where I wanted, and it was going to press. And it got pulled by the publisher because they were afraid of getting sued by someone who is similar to someone in the book. It's sort of a satire. So then there was this big legal battle. And then the legal battle was over and all summer my agent was sending it around; no one would touch it. The end of the story seems to be that Harper's is going to run it as a serial....’s about the CEO of a doll and children’s book company that buys a small town... I rewrote the book, it evolved more and more into a really cutting political satire. main character—this woman, Happy Masters, who runs this company...she basically is just this horrible backstabber who manipulates everyone and lies about everything. And the legal problem I described earlier is basically that there really is a woman who is the founder of a children's book and doll company who bought almost all of a small town not far from here. The similarities basically end there; I made up the character whole cloth. However, there really is only one person in America who corresponds to that job description. I think this falls well within the boundaries of satire. Primary Colors, for instance.

And this isn't even a roman a clef. Nothing happens that really happened in real life. However, my publisher Norton just panicked about it. With any luck, my agent is working on a deal with a paperback publisher who has made an offer to publish the unabridged version of it after Harper’s is finished serializing. There remain legal issues, but I’m hoping they’ll be able to be sorted out. Because I think it’s a funny book, and it ended up being kind of timely. It’s about people feeling powerless against someone who is a leader that they feel they did not choose.

EXCERPT: Harper's Gets Back Into the Serial
by Rachel Deahl, PW Daily -- Publishers Weekly, 5/17/2006

J. Robert becoming the first writer in 50 years to have his fiction serialized in the pages of Harper's Magazine. While the serialization is noteworthy (the magazine will run Lennon's Happyland over the course of five issues starting in July) how Lennon's novel wound up at the magazine is almost more so.

Roger Hodge, an editor at Harper's, said he first heard about the book which follows the fate of a New York town after it's taken over by the owner of a major doll company this summer... Hodge, a big fan of the author, was intrigued after finding out that Lennon had a new book that was dropped by its publisher. "I heard he'd gotten in a jam... because a publisher had gotten inexplicable cold feet."

Those cold feet belonged to Norton, which, according to Lennon's agent, Lisa Bankoff, got "unduly nervous at the 11th hour." When asked why the title mysteriously, and suddenly, fell off the house's list,...the company had no comment...

What is it in Happyland that could've scared Norton away? The only connection Bankoff and Hodge could think of is that Lennon's book satirizes a company (called Happy Girls) which potentially mirrors American Girl...According to Bankoff, the overlap between Lennon's fictional doll manufacturer and the woman behind American Girl may have raised possible legal concerns at Norton. "They could have been concerned that this person could be of a litigious nature and... decided to not publish."

Bankoff said.... "To this day I don't understand Norton's concerns about this work of fiction," she said. Harper's Hodge, who called the book a "broad social satire," said he couldn't understand Norton's hesitation and said the magazine is "completely unconcerned" about any potential controversy...

EXCERPT: When fiction gets too close to reality
by Doug Moe -- The Capital Times, Madison WI, 5/22/06

The intriguing tale of Madison philanthropist and entrepreneur Pleasant Rowland and the village of Aurora, N.Y., took yet another twist last week, when it was revealed that a new manuscript by prominent novelist J. Robert Lennon was dropped by its publisher only months before publication....

I reached Lennon, the author, Sunday at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. "The situation is similar," Lennon said of his novel and the real-life events in Aurora. "The character" - the doll manufacturer in the novel - "is totally made up," the author said. "The book is totally fiction." ... [and he] said that once Norton dropped Happyland, he and his agent tried to place it with another publisher, to no avail.

"Once someone panics," Lennon said, alluding to Norton's dropping the novel, "it can be catching." The good news for the author is that Harper's magazine, which decades ago was known for publishing some of the world's best fiction in serialized form, has agreed to publish Happyland ... "They're totally behind the novel and me," Lennon said Sunday...

The earliest mention of Lennon's novel I could find was in October 2003, in the Press & Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, N.Y. The paper noted that Lennon was "working on a new book about a woman who's buying up a small town and trying to transform it into an 1830s theme village. He was inspired by a similar effort that's actually happening in an upstate community." Lennon said: "In my novel everything will be comically exaggerated. But the situation is from real life."

By that time - fall 2003 - Rowland's Aurora project was a little more than two years old. I first wrote about it in May 2001, when Rowland gave a speech in Aurora... and she talked about her dream of revitalizing Aurora. Some locals were thrilled, others skeptical, some outright defiant in their dislike of a wealthy outsider buying up property in the small village....

...Lennon said there is no indication at all that Rowland - or anyone associated with American Girl - applied any pressure to Norton to drop the novel. ...Lennon reiterated that he knows next to nothing about Pleasant Rowland. "I didn't even know she lives in Madison," he said.

EXCERPT: This story is not about Pleasant Rowland
by Dave Tobin -- Post-Standard, Syracuse NY, 5/31/06

... Ithaca-based fiction writer J. Robert Lennon.. created a "comically dark" novel, called "Happyland," set in the fictional village of Equinox, N.Y....If it sounds anything like millionaire Pleasant Rowland ...the idea was inspired by her. "It's fiction," he said. "The metaphor of a doll mogul buying up a town is rich with potential."

Happyland's main character, Happy Masters, started a doll company called Happy Girls....Masters is "a damaged person, whose overcompensation for childhood traumas turns a small town upside down," Lennon said.

Apparently, writing a satirical novel about a character inspired by Rowland is fraught with potential litigation. Norton, the publisher with whom Lennon had a book deal for "Happyland," abruptly dropped the project in January 2005...Katie Waller, Rowland's assistant in Aurora, said Tuesday that Rowland had nothing to do with Norton's decision not to publish. "She didn't know anything about it," Waller said...

Lennon, 36, taught in Syracuse University's creative writing program. He lives in Ithaca and will teach writing at Cornell University in the fall. In 2000 he taught one semester at Wells College, in Aurora, where he met Bruce Bennett, a Wells English professor.

"A friend (Bennett) came to me one day and said, 'If you're looking for an idea for another book, how about this?' and told me about Rowland's work in Aurora," Lennon said....For the serialized version, Lennon deleted some characters, cutting the length to about a third of the original novel....The premise of Lennon's fiction might feel like fact. Villagers jokingly refer to their own village as "Pleasantville."...

EXCERPT: Book Mirrors Tale of Aurora
by Anne Gleason -- The Citizen, Auburn NY, 7/24/06

...The first installment of Lennon's story introduces Happy as a strong but troubled woman. She happens to drive through Equinox, decides to purchase a house, then decides she will turn Equinox into "her Vatican, her Salt Lake, her Jerusalem," where young fans of Happy Girls, her doll company, can come to visit...

One thing Lennon said very closely resembles reality is the sense of place. Equinox is located in upstate New York and is situated near another village just to the north called Unionville. The village is located on a lake and is also home to a small, women's college.

The character of Happy Masters, on the other hand, is wholly a creation of Lennon's imagination, he said. However, the publishing company that was first slated to release the book apparently believed there could be legal concerns stemming from "the overlap between Lennon's fictional doll manufacturer and the woman behind American Girl," according to a Publisher's Weekly article last May. Rowland started the American Girl company, which is now owned by Mattel.

Lennon believes Norton, the publishing company, was "quite worried about Mrs. Rowland." "She didn't pressure them or anything," he said. "I believe they were simply paranoid." The Norton company has not said either way whether legal concerns were the reason behind the sudden cancellation....

EXCERPT: There is no Happyland
by Nancy Geyer -- Ithaca Times, Ithaca NY, 8/2/06

The metaphorical possibilities were just too tempting: The fabulously wealthy CEO of a doll company strides into a tiny, faded college town and single-handedly - some would say heavy-handedly - begins to transform it, building by building. Some villagers hail her as a savior; others accuse the doll mogul of trying to turn their town into a dollhouse... This much is true. But the story then diverges into two stories, one staying the course of fact, as reported in local and national newspapers, the other roaming through imaginative territory in the form of Happyland, the new satirical novel by Ithaca writer J. Robert Lennon.

Whether fact and fiction should have diverged sooner, or maintained a wider berth, is a matter of perspective, especially lawyerly perspective. Norton, Lennon's erstwhile publisher, seems to have thought so, for it dumped Lennon's novel after preparing it for publication. If Lennon was crushed by his novel's fate - it took him two years to write and other publishers were similarly scared off - he eventually had reason to celebrate. Harper's Magazine learned of his troubles and decided to serialize an abridged version of Happyland over five issues, beginning this July...

Lennon says that the idea of people in Aurora getting a rise out of his novel "is really pleasant, no pun intended ... I liked Aurora. It's a weird, cool little town, and the book is essentially about the little guy standing up to, or failing to stand up to, someone who's powerful. I hope it's a theme they can enjoy."

by Doug Moe -- Capital Times, Madison WI, 8/11/06

A novel inspired by Pleasant Rowland's expensive rejuvenation project in Aurora, N.Y., is in the middle of a five-month serialization in Harper's magazine. "Happyland," by J. Robert Lennon, has as its protagonist one Happy Masters, who makes a fortune by starting a doll company and winds up trying to give a small town in New York state a face-lift. When I spoke with Lennon -- who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. -- in May, he said that while the Rowland/Aurora saga may have inspired his fiction, he took it to satiric extremes and actually knows very little about Rowland...The Harper's serialization, which began in July, came after Lennon's book publisher, Norton, decided at the last minute not to publish the novel. There was some speculation that Rowland might have tried to stop the novel's publication, but last week a spokeswoman for Rowland in Aurora, Katie Waller, told the Ithaca Times that Rowland "absolutely" had no contact with Norton. ...

EXCERPT: Moe Knows
by Doug Moe -- Capital Times, Madison WI, 8/23/06

Apparently one of the best things that can happen to a for its original publisher to drop it under the veiled threat of powerful opposition forces. How else to interpret the situation of literary novelist J. Robert Lennon, who contracted with W.W. Norton publishers to write a novel and delivered a manuscript, "Happyland" - about the wealthy owner of a doll company buying up property in a small college town in upstate New York - which apparently set off alarm bells in the Norton legal department and resulted in Norton not publishing the novel.

Though Norton has never confirmed it, Lennon and his agent believe the publisher was worried about possible litigation from Madison's Pleasant Rowland, who founded American Girl and has spent millions of dollars renovating the village of Aurora, N.Y., where she attended college...

Since I first interviewed Lennon and wrote about the novel in a column on May 22, Harper's magazine has begun serializing "Happyland"...and now the New York Times Book Review, likely the most influential organ in all of book publishing, has entered the fray with a full page article, "The Mystery of the Missing Novel," in the Aug. 27 issue...

Katie Waller, who runs Rowland's foundation in Aurora, was interviewed for the Times Book Review story: "Waller said she'd informed Rowland about Lennon's novel in May, when The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., wrote about the Harper's serialization...'I know she hasn't read it and doesn't intend to. I haven't read it and don't intend to.' Waller said Rowland has not been in touch with Norton or Harper's and has no intention of suing. 'Oh, absolutely not,' she said."

EXCERPT: The Mystery of the Missing Novel
by Rachel Donadio -- New YorkTimes, Book Review, 8/27/06

...Novels are frequently based on real people, but it’s extremely rare for a publisher to drop one because of libel concerns. “I’ve never heard of a novel being pulled for fear of defamation claims,” said Paul Aiken, the executive director of the Authors Guild. He said a novelist could be sued if “the character is clearly based on a real person and the person is identifiable and people would believe that it’s factual.” But it’s difficult to prove libel in fiction, especially if the character in question is modeled on someone who could be considered a public figure, for whom the standards of defamation are higher. (For example, no libel lawsuits were filed over “The Devil Wears Prada,” Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling roman à clef about the Vogue editor Anna Wintour.)...

Norton declined to specify why it dropped “Happyland.” But Lennon said the editing process had been going smoothly, and that legal questions emerged only after he submitted the final of multiple drafts... When Lennon handed in the final draft in mid-January 2005, “I wasn’t in touch with my editor anymore, I was in touch with a lawyer,” he said. “They were asking me to remove any reference to dolls or a doll company. I basically refused.” ...

Lennon cut 30,000 words and one character to fit “Happyland” in Harper’s....Harper’s wasn’t concerned about lawsuits, Hodge said. “... Our lawyers thought that they couldn’t imagine that there would be any problem and were puzzled even that they were asked about it.”

Katie Waller, the executive director of the Aurora Foundation, ...said the foundation had helped make Aurora a tourist destination. “We did the restoration of these beautiful buildings, then hired the staff to get them up and running,” she said. “I just turned over the five properties back to the college as of June 1. My work is completed.”...

EXCERPT: Interview with J. Robert Lennon
by Buzzwords -- 3:AM Magazine, 2/2/07

Q: You were the first writer in 50 years to be serialised in Harper’s, who stepped in after Norton shied away from publishing Happyland. You’ve already talked of the reasons why but do you think Happyland will ever appear in book form?

JRL: I hope so. Publishers have been shy, but my agent is working on it. There’s about 30% more to the book than Harper’s was able to run — entire additional characters, and greater elaboration.

LITERARY BLOGS are having a field day with all this; may it continue to haunt Pleasant Rowland for a long, long time to come. Just a few examples:
Book Fox Readers Read

Rake’s Progress

Word Press

Book Ninja

Art Man

Metro Writing


This page last updated May 22, 2007.