Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling?

Sheila Curran

Ah, the myths about money and writing!  Let me count the ways in which we novelists are misunderstood.  Well-intentioned acquaintances have suggested I ” just knock out a best-seller over the summer” to support my less commercial efforts.  These are not the same people who suggest, upon meeting me, that I ”Just get on Oprah!”  Nevertheless, they’re similarly misinformed.  The notion that anyone can write a bestseller if they’re willing to buckle down and create something from a magic formula?  It’s akin to thinking that warty little man in the attic is spinning gold from straw. 

First, best sellers aren’t easy to write.   They require craft, a natural storytelling ability, and most of all, they require the literary version of winning the lottery.   Does your story appeal to the popular imagination just at the time when the public has shifted appetites from abstinent vampires to deliciously dirty sex capades?  Does it catch the eye of opinion leaders just when they’re in the mood to read something slightly different than last month’s blockbuster?  I sometimes think the word-of-mouth machine is a big Spin-Art wheel, requiring a million splashes of different colors to make that one teal pop out as everyone’s color du jour.  The unnoticed oranges, yellow and periwinkles: they’re the un-sung fictional complements.  They are the backdrop by which any one stand-out is framed.  Unrecognized, they’re essential to the cultural stew.

Second, best sellers require visibility.  Think of J. K. Rowling’s efforts to publish under a pseudonym.  The Cuckoo’s Calling sold only 1500 copies until months passed. Someone let the cat out of the bag.  Now it’s number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Same exact book, same exact words.  One is a drop in the bucket, unnoticed, arguably a loser, the other is a runaway success.   Same words, same cover, same book.

I chose my career the same way I chose my husband.  That is to say, for anyone who’s fallen head-over-heels for their mate, I didn’t.  Choice had nothing to do with it.  Reason wasn’t even in the ballpark.  When I met my husband, he was already getting a PhD, he knew what he wanted.  I remember thinking, back in the height of women’s-liberation-consciousness-raising, that it would be somewhat revolutionary of me to chose love over career.  Instead of the high-flying world of international relations (to which, I must say, I was delusionally unsuited if academically prepared) I decided being with my love was my first priority.   I followed the man.  I found work that paid, first waitressing, then writing grant proposals.  I had my kids and raised them, after a fashion. Meanwhile, I told myself that someday this choice I’d made, to continue writing stories on the side, would pay off. 

 I wasn’t ambitious enough to be interested in fame. Not even in fortune.  What I most wanted to achieve was an ideal that’s nearly embarrassing to admit: I just wanted to provide readers with enjoyment.  As simple as that.   Instead of money, what I wanted was satisfaction.  I wanted meaning.  I wanted to make the world a better place, even if that meant helping my readers escape that very same world for an hour or two.  

          The third myth is that because writers are solitary creatures, they achieve alone.   In my case, and I think most others, nothing could be further from the truth.  My ability to reach my goal, limited as it is, has been possible only through the sacrifices of others.  My husband has taken on soul-crushing administrivia and other ventures to make up for my paltry earnings.  My children went without carte blanche at the mall, they didn’t take luxurious vacations.  (The dirty little secret is that even if we could have afforded them,  spoiled children weren’t in our game plan.)  My family and friends have rescued me in ways both practical and emotional.  My agent has been a deus ex machina, bringing together all the bits with alacrity and grit to reach my impossible dream, seeing my books in print, hearing from readers, working with world-class editors, and most of all, knowing that someday, maybe, these stories will persist, with or without financial remuneration. 

What other wealth could there possibly be?

DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN, a comedy of manners about British transplants to the American West got a starred review from Booklist, which called it "a gem."  Jodi Picoult praised it as a "terrific pick-me-up... full of characters who make you laugh out loud even as they break your heart."  EVERYONE SHE LOVED, a story about a group of friends who band together to mother their lost friend's daughters, is set along the North Florida coast and has been translated and sold worldwide.  Joshilyn Jackson suggested "Read this book.  Then pass it on to your dearest friend."   


  1. Sheila, I enjoyed this so much! Thanks! Tricia (Collins)

  2. This all sounds vaguely familiar, and thoroughly soothing to read and relate to your book writing path! Great post, Sheila!

  3. Lovely post, Shelia. I love the spin-art wheel image. I once had a literary writer tell me he was tempted to whip up a bestselling commercial book, but didn't want to cheapen himself that way.
    If only it were that easy....

  4. "Administrivia" - I love it. Great post, Sheila!

  5. Thanks guys! that myth is prevalent among academics especially!

  6. You're so honest! You must have a million friends!!! I'm honored to be one of them!

  7. Loved this post, Shelia! Very true about the difficulty of writing best-selling fiction and the difficulty of getting any book to stand out. The color wheel spinning away is a great image. :)

  8. I am so grateful for all your comments. I hate that blogger makes it so difficult to comment without putting you through paces Kafka could only dream of. I am dying to know who the second Anonymous is (Tricia's the first) me and say hi at!
    Sara thanks so much too!