Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Wanted to Be A Model But God Missed That Memo

I am often asked if I always aspired to be a writer. The truth is, I aspired to be a fashion model but God apparently missed that memo. Or maybe he was very wise because instead of giving me the perfect body, or at least the willpower to not nosh on cookies all day, he gave me a great sense of humor and a name that people would remember. It occurred it to me that I had a calling for writing when I discovered that my funny notes to the teachers were being circulated.

And yet I nearly blew my first chance to be published, in the New York Times no less. I had submitted an essay about the difficulty of being a mildly neurotic parent in a sea of wild-eyed, my-son-walked-before-yours-did neighbors. One evening a woman called from the Times and I went off on a rant. Did she know she was interrupting dinner? How about checking the records to see that we were already seven-day subscribers? Only she wasn't calling to sell me, she was calling to say the Times wanted to publish my essay. To which I said, "Hold on. Let me get Saralee for you." And then I finished the conversation in a very deep voice.

The piece did appear and it taught me a valuable lesson. If you're going to write about your neighbors, don't forget to say a kind word or two. The story got a chilly reception, but did that stop me? Of course not. Feeling the power of the pen, I volunteered to write a column for my local ORT chapter (ORT is the international charitable organization which raises money to rehabilitate and train Israeli citizens). After my first piece was printed, there was no turning back.

I wrote a half a dozen humorous but blatantly honest essays about life in an affluent suburb at time when we had no disposable income, only disposable diapers. One of them was called Down and Out in Baldwin Harbor, a take-off on the Bette Midler film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I lamented about the phoniness of driving a Mercedes and wearing enough diamonds to open a store, but not be able to furnish your living room with anything other than Little Tikes tables and chairs. It created an uproar and though so many women came up to me at Waldbaum's supermarket to say they agreed with me, or I know exactly who you were talking about, I was fired from my volunteer post. I apparently ruffled one too many designer ruffles.

Ah, but remember God's plans for me? While I was pregnant with our second child, my husband mentioned that a client had just opened a publishing firm in Florida and was looking for an author to write a book about relocation to the Sunshine State and hinted that I should submit a proposal. I had no idea why he was suggesting this as I knew nothing of living there, let alone how to write a book. "I told him you would do it," my husband said. "Why?" I asked, tempted to hit him over the head with a fry pan, if only I owned one. "Because you're a great writer and besides, after you have the baby, I know you'll want to keep busy."

Keep busy? I wouldn't be busy enough with two young children? I was so annoyed and afraid, but the P.S. of the story is, I gave birth to our elder daughter and began to write a book called DESTINATION FLORIDA: THE GUIDE TO A SUCCESSFUL RELOCATION. It came out in 1989 and sold a ton, in no small part because the timing was great. It seemed that the entire northeast corridor of the country was moving south and everyone wanted to read about their options.

My next two books were co-authored with my financial planner husband and were called 50 FABULOUS PLACES TO RETIRE IN AMERICA and 50 FABULOUS PLACES TO RAISE A FAMILY. For that one, we were flown to Chicago to appear on Oprah, and what a life changing experience it was. First, Oprah was a doll and Stedman was in the studio and smelled so nice. We were treated to a nice dinner, a beautiful hotel, a limousine and a chance to sell a ton of books. Nobody sells a book like Oprah, and this was way back in 1993.

One would think that given our newfound success, I would want to continue milking this series. Imagine the possibilities: 50 FABULOUS PLACES TO GET AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY, 50 FABULOUS PLACES TO FIND A NICE GUY... but no. I needed to take a break. We were now parents of three children and the travel was insane. Plus, I had a sort of idea for a novel, not that I had any idea how to go about writing one.

My husband, understandably, was concerned. We were making a nice income from our books while I worked from home, and the potential was great. Still, he understood the difficulty of managing three young children and a job that required cross country travel. He asked how long I would need to write this supposed novel. I hadn’t a clue but figured I could probably do it in a year. It took three. And another year to find a literary agent... if you're counting, that was four years without my bringing in a dime. How long would the agent need to sell this novel, now titled ALL IN THE CARDS? A few months maybe? Finally, nine months and dozens of rejection letters later, she called with news. She hadn’t found an editor but how would I feel about Bette Midler optioning the book to make a movie?

Bette Midler? My favorite celebrity in the whole world and the star of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, option MY book to make a movie? Can I think about it, I asked in jest. Trust me, it was a very exciting time, but I’ll spare you the sad tale. Two years of being in the Hollywood spin cycle did nothing but make me dizzy. Bette and her partner couldn’t get financing and she went on to star in a TV show called Bette (how did she ever think of that name?) I was brokenhearted, as you can imagine, but already on to the next novel.

“How long do you think you’ll need to finish that one?” my husband asked, hoping it wasn’t too late to go back to writing books that actually sold. “Another year,” I said. It took three, plus 15 months for my agent to find an editor who loved it and wanted to make an offer.

At least this part of the story has a happy ending. I was the luckiest writer in the world to have my novel, A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE, acquired by Lyssa Keusch at Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Lyssa was and is one of the smartest, nicest, most talented editors in the publishing field and I have been so fortunate to collaborate on four wonderful novels, including A LITTLE HELP, CLAIRE VOYANT, FATE AND MS. FORTUNE and my latest, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD.

Now here’s the kicker. DEAR NEIGHBOR was the reincarnation of the story for my first novel, ALL IN THE CARDS, which was a reincarnation of all those columns I wrote about bickering neighbors and suburban strife as a volunteer for ORT. That's right. It took over 15 years, but I've come full circle.

Mind you, I never gave up the dream to have my first manuscript published, though it languished in a box in my basement next to the boxes of baby clothes. And admittedly, it took a lot of convincing to get Lyssa to read it as Avon's fantastic success was due to their romance books. A story about two suburban moms at war was not their area of interest. Then came “Desperate Housewives” and suddenly it was, get me stories about suburban moms at war. Timing is everything.

My hope is that readers fall in love with my newest/oldest characters, Mindy and Beth, and hug the book to their chests nice and tight and say, “Oh that was soooo good.” As anyone knows who has read my previous books and essays, I love a happy ending and I'll do anything to get there.

I wish the same for you and that your blessings always outweigh your burdens.

Saralee Rosenberg


  1. Love this post, love your books, love you.

    Go Saralee, go!


  2. I'm amazed at the tenacity of writers. I've only been writing (sans income) for a year and a half, but I've gotten some glowing critiques from one editor and two agents. These days, platform is everything. Increasing my following is the long haul, but I'm all in. Congratulations on your continuing success!

  3. What a ride. And Oprah! My heart flutters just thinking about it.

  4. Thanks for the giggles first thing in the AM!

  5. What a great post--wow! Enjoyed hearing about the journey. Your book sounds amazing.

  6. I read that book about 6 months ago! I just absolutely loved it! It was so funny and witty! Wow, I just want to say that I love how you write!

  7. Saralee, you're hilarious! And what a wonderful, wild ride. Love it!

  8. I've got to read this simply because I lived in Baldwin, before relocating to Florida, and I get your humor, big time! Congratulations on your novel.

  9. Saralee, you've made me laugh out loud in my office -- thank you for that!! What a fantastic and fabulous journey ;).

  10. Your warmth and humor come across in everything you write-- including blog posts!!

    I love this post, especially the part about Stedman smelling good.

    Saralee, you rock!!

  11. Here's to hilarity and happy endings!! :)

  12. Great essay, Saralee! Many women in my family have hugged your books and laughed over your words. Isn't it lovely how many people can read your story, one you created out of air, and think "Oh my g-d. This is a story about.. me!" Hah. Fiction truly is stranger and better than reality.

    -Pamela Ross, waving hello from somewhere close to you off the LIE ;>

  13. Thank you all for such wonderful comments and heartfelt encouragement. We writers are a resilient bunch, but Lord knows, the kind praise goes a long way! Onward to all of you as well!!!