Monday, September 16, 2013

My First Time: Claudia Zuluaga

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 Claudia Zuluaga, author of Fort Starlight, a novel which has just been published by Engine Books.  Here's what Elizabeth Stuckey-French (author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady) had to say about Fort Starlight: “Claudia Zuluaga knows the real Florida, that wild, un-Disneyfied place where people from all over have come to chase their dreams into tenuous subdivisions on lush and mucky land.  In her stunning first novel, Zuluaga sets in motion a tense, multi-layered drama which plays out in the barely drained swamps, revealing a fragile and beautiful ecosystem of vivid, eccentric, and absolutely believable characters.  Fort Starlight is a stunning explosion of a novel."  Claudia Zuluaga was born in White Plains, New York, grew up both there and Port St. Lucie, Florida, and now lives in New Jersey.  She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.  Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, JMWW, and Lost Magazine, and was included in Dzanc Books' Best of the Web series.  She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories.  Claudia is a full-time lecturer in the English department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

My First Money

There’s that story about the gold miner who gave up mining a particular mountain, just an inch before he would have hit the gold.  But there are other mountains.  And gold-plated is often good enough.

I had a short-short story that I really believed in and hoped to place somewhere, but I wasn’t having luck.  I submitted it to ten places at once and waited as the rejection letters—both nice and generic—slowly trickled in.  Right before I gave up on that first group of ten and sent to the next group of ten, a friend told me that an editor friend of hers really needed a short short, and he needed it as soon as possible.  He had a blank spot in his literary journal and I got the impression from my friend that pretty much ANYTHING would do to fill it, so long as it was short enough.  Perfect!  So I sent it, confident that he would read it (or simply look at the word count) and immediately snap it into the blank spot and I would finally be on my way.

It was especially disappointing to get that particular rejection.  Even worse, the rejection was neither kind nor generic.  I am not being bitter when I say that I no longer remember the name of the journal, but I do remember what the editor said: “I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did.”  I had the dramatic reaction of someone who has not yet had their writing validated by publication: I was certain I was the biggest loser on earth.  I’d been here before, of course.  I’d shed a few tears and heaved some heavy sighs as I filed my rejection slips away in my sad little folder.  But this time, since it sounded like such a sure thing, since I had all this student loan debt and, at that time, a very badly paid career as an adjunct professor, well, I questioned every decision I had ever made, and every thought that led me to write this short-short, which I still believed in, damn it.

I cried for a second.  I blew my nose.  I looked over at my eighteen-month-old daughter, gave her a kiss, and filed that rejection slip.  Then I went into the kitchen to open the cabinets and figure out what to make for dinner.

Not thirty minutes later, my phone rang.  I am a call-screener, by nature, so I let the machine pick it up as I got the oregano and garlic powder out.  It was…an editor…at Narrative Magazine.  They wanted to publish the short-short, and heck, they were going to send me a check.  For money.  Not a lot, but still.  Wow.

When the check came in the mail, my husband agreed that it was cause for a commemorative shopping trip.  We went into the city, to a jewelry store in Soho, and I looked around, hoping to look cool as I scanned the glass cases, craning my neck, trying to see the prices (why are they always on the underside?) so that I wouldn’t have to ask.

I found something I liked.  A gold-plated chain with a pendant made of crystal with a moth wing pressed inside.  One side of the wing is brownish, the other purple.  $45 over the amount of my check.  My husband agreed that it was the principal, so I ponied up the extra cash and bought it.

The good stuff didn’t stop there.  Narrative nominated the story for several prizes, including a Pushcart, and then the story was included in an anthology.  This was, of course, worth far more than any bauble.  I’m glad I have the necklace, though.  It reminds me that, if I know something is as good as I can possibly make it, I need to keep submitting it.  It also reminds me that writing fiction is never going to be about money.  I will certainly pay my babysitter more for child-free writing time than I will ever earn from my writing.  That’s fine.

My novel, Fort Starlight, involved many years of drafting, revision, and crises of confidence, but I believed in it more than I believed in anything I’d ever written.  Whenever I started a new draft, I bought some new notebooks, some fresh pens, straightened up my desk, and put that necklace on.  Even now, whenever I do something writerly, I usually wear it, even if it means that I will get a rash on my neck from the chain, which is starting to go a bit green.


  1. I love this writer's style of expression, determination and sense of humor!

  2. Thank you for inspiring me to send out ten more today. I almost forgot that I am never going to give up.