Monday, July 9, 2012

My First Time: Jennifer Spiegel

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Freak Chronicles, a collection of short stories freshly-published by Dzanc Books.  Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia, had this to say about the book: "The Freak Chronicles is a miracle of a story collection: passionately political and a shout of ambivalence about political passion, intensely personal and furiously global."  Spiegel's next book, a novel called Love Slave,will be published by Unbridled Books in September.  Spiegel is an English professor and lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.  She reads a lot, tries to buy mostly organic food, and drinks strong coffee with cream.  For more information, visit her website, and be sure to stop at the Twenty Random Details About Me page for interesting tidbits.  Like the time she set a microwave on fire with fish crackers.

My First Flop

I mean, My first brush with success.  I’ve been wanting to talk about it, so thank you for asking.  I’m going to change the names, not to protect anyone; I doubt they need it.  But just in case they don’t want anything to do with me.  I’m fine if you-know-who comes forward and admits it’s true.

So, let’s do this.  You know how there are a handful of big New York publishing houses?  Well, this is about one of those, one of the really big ones.  I’m going to christen it Big House.   Then, there’s this young editor at Big House.  I like to think of him as some young hotshot upstart editor who was being groomed for greatness, discovering young hotshot upstart writers—like myself.  I’m going to christen him Alistair I-Love-You.  Why Alistair, you ask?  Because—I’m going to let slip this one revealing detail—he was British.

I was twenty-five, living in Manhattan, working at a nonprofit, international organization of some sort.  Recently, I had graduated from New York University with an MA in Politics (International Relations).  Sounds impressive, though the truth is I sucked.  Even though I got the degree and I did fairly well, I’d be willing to bet that everyone present—especially my committee chair guy—knew I was not Ph.D. material.  I knew it, too.

Frankly, I didn’t believe in it.  It wasn’t my Gen X cynicism that separated me from the other political scientist students.  We were all cynics.  It was this: I was uncomfortable with what seemed to me to be the quantification of topics that were predominantly matters of qualitative inquiry.  Game Theory seemed dumb to me.  We were talking world peace.  We were talking saving-the-world.  This was life and death stuff, the problem of #$*%ing evil.  Philosophy!  Religion!

Um, Art!

This wasn’t an inclination that came out of nowhere.  I had an undergrad degree in creative writing, and, yeah, I really wanted to write.  Who doesn’t?  I figured I should do something else instead, something to pay the bills.  You’ve heard this one before.  But once I actually got a job in my “field,” I knew I’d better get out.

It took me about a year of wild nights in Manhattan.  I wrote a novel called So I Slept With Mickey Rourke.  I worked hard on that mother and, when it was done, I sent it to Big House.  Time may not be accurately represented here, because this was nearly twenty years ago—but, in a short period of time, I got a phone call.  Mr. Alistair I-Love-You at Big House had read my book, and he wanted to meet with me—at Big House.

Of course you’ve got to picture me.  Twenty-five, pretty good-looking but not spectacular, probably wearing a dress from Express since we’re talking Manhattan in the nineties.  Student loans up the wazoo.  I hated working in politics, and it showed.  My life was becoming increasingly enmeshed in books and writing, which sounded highly fantastical to those around me.  And, suddenly, a Big House guy wanted to talk to me.  To me!

You better believe I hopped on the subway to midtown Manhattan on my lunch break.  You better believe I was already planning for my resignation from the day job.

Alistair I-Love-You escorted me into his office.  He was young, too.  And he had an accent.  “I like your book,” he said in a sexy British rock star voice.  “There are things I’d like to discuss.  I’ve got some thoughts on revision.”  (I’m paraphrasing, okay?  I don’t know what-the-heck Alistair really said.)

“You like my book?  Okay.  Okay.  Whatever you want.”  I probably really said this.

After our chat on edits, he said, “Call me when you’re done.”

So I did.  I don’t know how long it took, but I do know that I had nothing else going.  I also knew that I had to be a writer.  I had to accept my student loan fate, abandon this career path, and embrace the absurdity of “being a writer.”  I mean, if we were talking about saving the world, let’s just admit this one small thing: politics wasn’t going to cut it.

Alistair I-Love-You wanted my edited book, and so I mailed it to him.  We met again after he read it.  He still liked it.  “I’ll talk to some people.”  I walked out of that midtown Big House skyscraper, singing, I made it!  I made it!  This, my friends, was my first brush with success.

And then he kept it.  For, like, seven months.  I didn’t hear a thing from him.  For seven months, So I Slept With Mickey Rourke was at Big House.  During that time, I re-defined myself, gained too much weight, and decided to get my MFA.  I’m not totally sure who called whom, but we finally spoke on the phone.  My guess is that I called him, because I remember what he said:

“I’m sorry.”

Alistair I-Love-You told me he tried; he really did.  He showed it to some people.  He had hoped it would work.  He asked me, “May I keep it?”  He wanted to remember it, he said.  He told me it was good.  I should keep writing.  I should put this one in a drawer and write the next one.

My first flop.

I took So I Slept With Mickey Rourke to another New York publishing house and did a little finagling.  “Big House looked at it for seven months,” I said.  “Though they decided it wasn’t going to work for them, I thought you might want to take a look.”  They did.  They rejected it in about four minutes.  My second flop.

The years passed.  I did what Alistair I-Love-You suggested.  I put it in a drawer, but I took it out sometime ago.  I turned it into a short story called “The Mickey Rourke Saga,” which can be found in The Freak Chronicles.  I do have a strong emotional attachment to the story.  I can’t help but love it.

That dusty original book in the drawer?  Well, I haven’t read it in years, nor do I think there are any copies left.  Maybe Alistair I-Love-You has his.  I think I officially turned any remaining copies into scrap paper for my girls.  I will say this: Alistair was generous.

The book really wasn’t very good.

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