Monday, June 18, 2012

The OTHER Other Book in the Trunk

In the mid nineties, I had an opportunity to take a sabbatical from my lawyer job.  A big chunk of free time was foreign territory; I was a gymnast through high school, working out evenings and weekends and summers, and I had summer jobs through college and law school. I was living in Santa Fe then and did a lot of hiking, miles and hours alone in my head. And I wrote, regurgitating the word piles from those walks. The writing wasn’t new. I have been writing in spare moments since I could hold a pencil (literally: as only a mother can do, my mom showed off my first poem, written when I was six, at one of my book signings). The difference was that I had lots more spare moments. The word piles sorted themselves into sentences and paragraphs and pages, and suddenly I had a manuscript. I sent it off to a couple of agents, and got some good feedback, but I really wasn’t very motivated to publish – I just wanted to write. So I tossed into a file drawer and dove into another story.

Then I got sucked back into the black hole of law practice. But I did keep writing when I could. I joined a critique group, and when I retired from law a few years later, the group encouraged me to send out queries on the second manuscript.  When one of the agents called me, she told me she really liked the story and asked what I was working on next. Well, I’m no dummy; I pitched her the first one – it really was already written after all. “THAT should be your first novel,” she said. And I said, “Well, okay then,” pulled out what really was number one, and tossed number two in the drawer. I did a bit of revision - like adding cell phones that didn’t exist fifteen years ago, and Mothers and Other Liars was born.

St. Martin’s exercised their option on my second novel before MAOL was released. I’m thinking easy-peazy, got that one in the drawer, too: a Thelma and Louise and Louise tale of friends searching for the man they think might be the biological father of one of them. The story is told from the perspective of Samantha, flowing back and forth from her past to the present. Here’s a short excerpt:
 I am seven.
           It is the spring of second grade at Country Day.  I have worked so hard to shield myself from the taunts of my friends.  Loony bird. Loony bird.  Samantha’s mama’s a loony bird.
           My stomach had churned each time when I heard my classmates talking about the birthday parties to which I had not been invited. I myself had intercepted the invitation to the Bluebird mother-daughter tea, snatched it right out of the silver bowl on the marble-topped foyer table. I had crumpled it and buried it in the bottom of the wastebasket, too ashamed of Lily to risk attending.
But today, on this warm spring day, I hear the snickers of the other kids before I see the spectacle of Lily wending her way from the back of the room between the neat rows of desks.  Lily in her Lanz night gown and bare feet.
Mrs. Galloway just stops the spelling lesson in mid-sentence as Lily sidles up to me, holding a half-melted ice cream cone with pink goo running down her arm. She is a Medusa, her hair a tangle of snaky strands.
With a splat, the remnant of an ice cream ball lands on my spelling book. Hi, honey," Lily says. I brought you an ice cream cone. Strawberry, your favorite.
I look over at Mrs. Galloway, who shrugs her shoulders. I stand up from my desk, pry the soggy cone from Lilys sticky fingers, and lead my nightgown-clad mother back down the aisle, our hands cleaved in goo. I cast my eyes down, concentrating on the disintegrating cone in a desperate attempt to avoid the smirks and stares of my classmates.
Once we are outside, past the flag pole, past the prying eyes at the windows, I wrench my fingers from Lilys grasp and fold my arms in armor across my bony chest. I walk briskly, put several paces between myself and Lily. Knowing in my marrow that I can never outpace the humiliation.
I refuse to turn around, but I hear her, feel her, back there, following meekly in her shuffling bare feet.
It would be so, so much easier if Lily were just dead. Janeylynne Blakes mother had died in childbirth. Spencer Craigs mother had died when he was five.  How much easier it would be to just lose my mother once, to have Lily totally gone instead of this half-person drifting in and out of my life.
I envy my friends their absolute motherlessness as I guide Lily home through the bright, warm light.

Crisp pages in a drawer, just waiting for a bit of spit and polish.  And then I crashed into the brick wall of marketing.  Mothers and Other Liars was being praised for its characters confronting difficult choices, moral dilemmas, for being edgy. Yay me, right? Wrong. Of course it was yay for Mothers and Other Liars. Just not so much for the one in the drawer. “They” wanted something edgier, something more fraught with moral tension and didn’t think Number Two should be number two. Maybe down the road, they said.

The problem was that I didn’t set out to make MAOL confrontational; that’s just where the characters took me. I didn’t know the choices Ruby would face, and I’m still not sure what decisions I would have made in her shoes. But now not only my writing but I was being marketed, shoved into a tiny hole of “edgy but literary author” in an ever fragmenting system.  So I’ve been working on a new number two, in a room now crowded with not only me and the voices in my head but with agents and editors and marketers and even readers. I’ve struggled with this one, worrying that I am losing the thread of what wants to be written, wondering if I am writing from that essential place of truth.  Or thinking that I am just a hack, laying down words like bricks in tidy rows to please other people.

I hate to whine; I know that I am truly lucky to have had Mothers and Other Liars published at all and to have an editor committed and waiting enthusiastically to publish my next novel.  I’m just not sure that “edgy author” is who I am. (Not that the first number two is mere fluff, unless you consider insanity, suicide, alcoholism, a child with a terminal illness and abortion light reading.) For now, though, I’ll keep plodding on,writing the book “they” want.

But I think about the real number two, there in the dark in the drawer, imagine caring for it like a broken-winged bird in a shoe box and letting it fly into the world.

Because I like those people in a marketing-induced coma in my drawer, and I know that the story on those pages is the one they want told.

Amy Bourret's debut novel,
Mothers and Other Liars,
was selected as a Target Stores Breakout Book.
Her second novel is a work in progress.


  1. I don't think you're whining, Amy. I think that's healthy venting! Lots of books show up for the dance, but few leave with a date. KEEP GOING!! Maybe you won't recognize the perfect second book at a glance, but don't lasting relationships take time? (clearly,for me, early a.m. comments lead to metaphoric thoughts) Anyway... Loved your excerpt!! And you never know, with the state of publishing I'm wondering how many of us will take a third or hundredth look at the wallflower in the drawer and think, "Well, there are lots of routes besides traditional publishing nowadays!"

  2. Wow, what a post, Amy! It's so fascinating to hear about how your first novel became your first novel. And why your second novel was made to wait. This glimpse inside the life of an author is what I love reading about!

    And man, do I LOVE that excerpt. I would read everything you've got in that trunk of yours!!

  3. Love the excerpt! And I feel your pain. It's tough being painted in a corner by publishing companies, but like Laura said, authors have many more options these days ;)

  4. Marketing definitions can be a blessing and curse, can't they? Thanks for sharing and good luck with all your stories!

  5. Whatever novel number the one in your drawer becomes, I want to know so I can pre-order!

    A number of writer friends warned me that writing novel #2 would be a beast for all the reasons you shared. For me, it was also, a case of, "Oh, dear God, they're going to find out now what a fluke that first one happened to be."

    Finding, as you said, that "essential place of truth" is more challenging when agents and editors start elbowing one another for space in my brain. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, said she has to drop the mice that scurry in her thoughts one by one into a jar, screw the lid on tight, and begin.

    I know there's a character waiting to introduce her/himself to you...I know Lily has captured me already.

  6. Oh, Sister, I feel your pain . . . and want to wrap my arms around Lily. Your writing is beautiful and true--your real # 2 will find you and then its way in the world, and I have a hunch Lily will as well one of these days.

  7. Great post, Amy! I think we need a catchphrase: "We got no junk in our trunk."

    1. Okay, Lauren, i just applied for the copyright... under your name, of course! (-;

  8. Loved the excerpt and the accompanying story. This going to be so much fun peeking into girlfriends trunks!

  9. I'll bet there are lots of trunks out there with stories just waiting to be revived. Whatdayathink?

  10. Thanks guys, for the compliments and the encouragement. Love.the new slogan, Lauren, and this topic Brenda. I'm looking forward to reading all of your excerpts too.

  11. The excerpt is gorgeous. Maybe you can indie-publish that book yourself...and show the marketing folks how wrong they were, once Lily's story takes the literary world by storm. Don't give up on that lovely book!

  12. really great post...loved the excerpt.

  13. I think we all want to read the rest! :)

    And absolutely--the sophomore book is so much more difficult, for all of the reasons you cited. (I too feel your pain!!! LOL) But now we have so many more's a good time to be a writer!

  14. Loved your excerpt, Amy, and all of the sentiments you expressed in your post. It's hard to write a 2nd book that makes everyone happy... I look forward to reading the one your working on, and I hope we'll get to see more of the story you shared here, too ;).