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 Erika Swyler, author of The Book of Speculation. Erika is a self-described failed actor, amateur baker, occasional bookbinder, and accidental illustrator. Her writing has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, most recently The New York Times, and Colonial Comics. Her debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and one of Amazon.com’s Top 100 Books of 2015. She lives and writes in Long Island, NY. You can find her on twitter at @ErikaSwyler, or at erikaswyler.com.
My First Book Without My Name
I don’t have a desk drawer novel or a shelf full of false starts. My first book lives in e-book purgatory and wears an imaginary author’s name. I am a debut novelist who isn’t really a debut novelist.
It was a write-for-hire novel for a startup publisher of—wait for it—feminist erotica. In a standard startup nightmare, the publisher folded after I’d delivered my manuscript. My paycheck never materialized. The book is my biggest achievement and greatest failure. It’s a terrible piece of writing, but the circumstances under which I wrote it changed my perspective on who I am and what writing work means.
I’d just started work when my mother was struck by a car while biking. She suffered brain damage and was put in a medically-induced coma. I kept it quiet. I had my first real paying writing gig and it felt like a lifeline to who I wanted to be. Eventually, once Mom was in a rehab facility, I had to let my editor know. I asked about deadline flexibility. In the politest possible way, she informed me that deadline extensions were not part of the business model.
I panicked. I wrote. Few experiences are more strange than trying to write oral sex while waiting for a neurologist to tell you about your mother’s potential for meaningful speech. I wrote a poker game complete with foreplay between morning and evening hospital visits. It never occurred to me that erotica could be written while waiting to learn if someone would die. That it had been before. But there it is. I know the names of ten different blood-pressure medications and infinite synonyms for penis.
Mom recovered enough to be released to my care, which meant 24/7 supervision, medication monitoring and injections, companionship, and shifting from daughter to caretaker. It meant writing without everything perfectly arranged. It meant deadlines and word counts and figuring out why on earth this cowgirl would want to have sex with that gambler in the middle of a river. And exhaustion. It meant exhaustion.
At 6:00 a.m. I’d wake up and count out Mom’s meds. I did laundry, made breakfast, worked my freelance transcription gig, cleaned, made lunch, took care of Mom, and ran errands. Dinners were early. After evening meds, my time was mine. I wrote from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. with Johnny Cash on loop. I am staunchly northeastern; my jaw reflexively locks at the thought of a Texas drawl, but I made cowgirls, ranchers, and gamblers have sex. A lot. I threw in gunfights and wolves. I chewed scenery until Mom called for me. At 10:00 she’d get night meds, then I’d clean up, shower, and crash on the couch. At 6:00 a.m. I’d start again.
Everything that wasn’t medications or fear of dying went into the work.
I did this for three months. Mom got better. The word count grew. I met with my editor and we talked about how half the sex in books isn’t sex; it’s tension. At points I disappeared, becoming the word count. Goal: 1,700. Goal: 1,225. Goal: 783. Make up Wednesday’s 220 on Thursday. Edit. I met my deadline. I emailed my manuscript and cried. I’ve since learned that I always cry after hitting send, and that’s generally a good sign. Caring is never bad.
The worm turned and my friend left the publisher. All communication from my editor and management stopped. The publisher folded, leaving my book out in the ether. I was published, but hadn’t been paid. To be fair, no one could adequately compensate me for what went into that book. I know it for what it is: a terrible piece of writing that made me who I am.
Not three months after sending the manuscript off I was contacted by the woman who would become my agent. She’d read a short story of mine and wondered if I had a novel. I sent her The Book of Speculation, my “debut.” It needed work, and she wanted to know if I was up for it. I thought of my awful book and the word counts. With utter confidence I said, “I can work.”
No work has been more difficult than the work I did while Mom recovered.
St. Martin’s Press bought The Book of Speculation. Two weeks later, Mom died. I knew that six months to a year’s worth of editing and revision lay ahead. It’s a situation that might make anyone crack, and writers are notoriously flaky. From a business stance I was a terrible investment. I feared that everything that hadn’t already fallen apart soon would. I desperately needed to be something other than someone grieving. I needed to be the word count.
I thought of 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., medications, cowboys and gamblers. I thought, “I can work. I am a workhorse. I know how to do this. Wind me up and watch me go.” And I did. I can hold my second book because of the first.
The power of a first book is that it teaches us how to work.
Mine is a book without my name that isn’t worth reading. But it made me.
Author photo by BJ Enright