Diana Lively is Falling Down, 2005
Everyone She Loved, 2009
And so it’s been with my writer’s journey
In 1986, I was 30 years old. I had fallen in love at 20, followed my boyfriend to Chicago, gone to graduate school in literary criticism and done a whole lot of waiting tables.
Graduate school was a bit like reading Camus. You know it’s good for you. You despise it. Half the time you think (like Susan Sontag, who was in the same exact program before me) that you aren’t nearly smart enough to have been admitted. The rest of the time, you find yourself suspecting that much of what you’re being told might just be The Emperor’s New Clothes.
In the meantime, I LOVED waiting tables. Instant gratification, the ‘flow’ of utter concentration on something other than one’s pitiful self, and filthy, dirty, gorgeous money It was a guilty pleasure, and sometimes, worse. Not degrading, not ever. Still I knew my parents had higher hopes for me, my peers were moving up the career ladder and new employers were starting to ask why I was applying to work in their restaurant when I had a masters’ degree from the University of Chicago.
That might have been the moment I found my calling. And my curse.
I did what fiction writers do: I made something up. “I’m actually working on a novel," I confided. "I just do this to make money.”
I got the job. And I started to wonder if writing might be something I could try, just so I could tell myself I was doing something other with my time than schlepping cocktails.
Being a mystery fan, I chose that plot form to begin with. I began writing, tore up lots of pages, but eventually completed my first novel, THE MINNESOTA CHOP HOUSE.
That was when I turned 30. Through a friend of my brother’s, I found an agent willing to represent me.
I had no clue how lucky I was. Like most newbie writers, I expected the “call” any minute.
In the meantime, my new agent sent me an advance reader’s copy of Pat Conroy’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Already a fan, I was nevertheless unprepared for the way in which I would be held captive by this glorious book. For three days, I, a dedicated workaholic whose Catholic guilt colluded with a severe case of the Protestant Ethic, did nothing but curl up on my futon and read. It was one of the more exhilarating and memorable experiences of my life.
Inexorably shy, I had never presumed to write an author, but in this case I was so infatuated that I couldn’t help myself. I typed out a note (which I sent to the publisher of THE PRINCE OF TIDES.) I told Pat Conroy that 1) this was my first fan letter, and 2) I would never, ever measure up to the fantabulousness of his talent. I wanted to thank him for writing the book..
Meanwhile, the rejection letters on my own novel started pouring in. I received single-spaced letters of three pages from top New York editors praising my work but finding some reason my mystery wouldn’t work for their particular ‘list.’ I cried. I sighed. I wrote my agent a ‘Dear John’ letter, saying it was wonderful that he’d given me a chance but there was no sense in trying to sell a book that had so many flaws.
I continued to mourn my premature death as a person of substance. Noisily.
Shortly thereafter I got a postcard in the mail from my idol.
|front of card|
You write a great letter and no matter what you feel about fan letters you praise too fully and too well to neglect the form. You also write beautifully. Don’t worry about the depressions, they come with the territory, no matter the degree of success or failure. It’s what makes you different as a writer. “oh Sheila, just write it down. Just do it.” All love and luck to you. And all thanks. This postcard is my family’s and my view of Rome this year.
Pat ConroyI tacked the card to my bulletin board and used it as a talisman against despair.
In the meantime, I tried to improve my writing. I started another novel, to which the publishing world also gave me encouraging responses but ultimately rejected. I began again and again. I had kids, took a professional job as a grant writer and continued to read novels for the transporting joy of living in a dream world built entirely from the human imagination.
I have never seen myself as persistent. However, just when I found myself thinking that maybe I should have chosen nursing or law school or multi-level marketing, some dear soul would give me the sort of encouragement or leg-up that allowed me to believe in myself just enough to continue doing that thing to which I’d become quite addicted, creating my own fictional dreams.
There were my family and my friends, who are too numerous to mention. (That abundance, of course, beats the pants off all possible literary accomplishments.)
My first big publishing break came with the help of Joyce Maynard, who offered to show an essay I’d written to editors at McCall’s. They loved it and the editor encouraged me to write more. I worked for magazines, raised my kids, wrote grants and hoped to someday finish another novel.
After I finished my next one, a decade had passed since my McCall's piece was published. Finding an agent seemed next to impossible. It took a LONG time. In the end, I found the absolutely perfect agent for me.
If Pat Conroy was my talisman, my literary agent, Laura Gross, was my shaman. She pressed my book into the hands of Susan Allison at Penguin, who treated my novel as if it were her first-born child. She ‘got’ it. Susan would call me out of the blue with insights about characters that had come to her in the shower or while walking her dog.
So many other kindnesses followed. Jodi Picoult was kind enough to take the time to read Diana Lively is Falling Down and give it a wonderful review. Julianna Baggott and Carlos Eire did the same. The book did very well and continues to yield fan letters of the sort I’d sent so many years earlier to Mr. Conroy.
It took me four years to finish the second novel, EVERYONE SHE LOVED, which was adopted by Simon and Schuster’s well-known editor, Emily Bestler, the champion of such writers as Jodi Picoult, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and other household names. Emily pored over my second book with the same eye to detail and ear for dialogue as had my previous editor at Penguin..
Again, far better and more well-known writers than I decided to help me out. Joshilyn Jackson, Julianna Baggott, Masha Hamilton, Paul Shepherd. What lovely generous souls!
I’ve been so fortunate. I would never, ever think that I made it on my own, It has only been through the generosity of other writers, including my lovely compadres at the Girlfriends’ Cyber Circuit, to say nothing of my husband/bread-winner/cheerer upper and my dear, dear agent that I have had the great good fortune to get published and find a readership.
Through all of this, my family and friends have been at the very center of telling me I must keep writing.
And so I do.
Just a few weeks back, my niece sent me a photo she took at one of Atlanta’s biggest bookstores.
|Note the book on the table just above Everyone She Loved!|
This lovely coincidence pleased me no end.
Mr. Conroy, you are one damn fine neighbor!
To celebrate the kindness of strangers, I will be giving away a copy of each book, wrapped for the holidays and inscribed to the person of your choice. The winner will be selected at random from those who take the time to comment. I'll email you and get your address. Happy Thanksgiving!