Monday, April 11, 2016

My First Time: Ellen Prentiss Campbell

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 Ellen Prentiss Campbell, author of Contents Under Pressure, a collection of stories, and the forthcoming novel The Bowl with Gold Seams. Her short fiction has been featured in numerous journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Fourth River, The Potomac Review, and The MacGuffin. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Fiction Writers Review, where she is a contributing editor, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. A practicing psychotherapist, she lives in Washington, D.C.

My First Book Babies

I’ve been experiencing the thrills and chills, the excitement and the terror, of first-time parenting. At age sixty-two, I’m a prima-para. Impossible? One for the Guinness Book of World Records? No. I’m giving birth to a book—two, in fact. My first full-length books are both being published this year, within three months of each other. So here I am—a very much older Mom, a double prima-para in late middle-age. My short story collection Contents Under Pressure appeared in February. My debut novel’s due date—oops, publication date—is coming soon: The Bowl with Gold Seams will be released in May. I’m calling the duo my Irish Twins.

Perhaps every publication, like every birth, seems miraculous. These do. I believed I’d waited too long to try and have literary children. Reading and writing were my first loves, but then wonderful, welcome life happened: marriage, social work school, practicing psychotherapy, raising three children, caring for my elders. Life happened, interrupting other plans the way it does—life: interesting, messy, demanding, joyful, and sad. Life happened, bringing an ever richer accretion of stories to tell, but an ever-diminishing amount of time and energy.

Until the autumn of 2001. My return to writing, my prompt to pick up the quivering pen, was not a direct 9/11 epiphany. I did not have a close personal encounter with that tragedy. My immediate loved ones were safe: one friend called me that night to say she had made it home, walking barefoot by the end of her trek from Wall Street to W. 69th; my brother worked in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, that day. But as the ruins smoldered, as the wreckage of lives was winnowed, as the obituaries piled up like autumn leaves, I kept vigil two hundred miles south. I watched over my elderly parents fading and slipping away. They died in close succession: peaceful, timely deaths. The twin towers of our family went down, and their loss reminded me I was next in line.

So I picked up the pen. Actually, I starting typing on the word-processor my kids no longer claimed for homework; they’d moved on to laptops. I wrote short stories for the first time since college, stories inspired and infused by memory and experience. I wrote in the early morning before work, sustained by a small audience of readers: my husband, my friends. I took a workshop at our local writing center; joined a writing group. I sent stories out, and out again as they boomeranged back to me. Success goes to she who pays the most postage, a mentor counseled in that snail-mail submission day. Finally, an acceptance came from a literary journal, and another, and another. Some of those early published stories are among those now collected in Contents Under Pressure.

And then I discovered a strange chapter in the history of a resort hotel near our summer home. The Bedford Springs had served as the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany and his staff in the summer of 1945. Such an odd confluence of cultures, in that unlikely place, in that particular moment, grabbed hold of my imagination. I began writing the first version of what would, more than a decade later, become my novel The Bowl with Gold Seams.

I continued practicing psychotherapy, listening to stories of loss and yearning, struggle and resilience. I enrolled in and completed an MFA with the Bennington Writing Seminars. And I kept writing, sustained by a network of writers and friends, near and far. More stories were published; I tried to find an agent for my novel. Queries went out: no takers. I grew anxious, discouraged. I remembered trying to get pregnant, an uncertain process that seemed to take too long. I almost became convinced it was too late for my book. Would my creative juices also dry up in some sort of parallel process as I entered menopause?

My husband, the optimist, encouraged me to keep writing, to start book reviewing. Pushed me to attend a local literary conference that offered (horror of horrors) speed dating with agents.

The conference took place in a suburban hotel. Most of the writers and agents seemed to be wearing black. Oddly, in the lobby the writers crossed paths with a group of Buddhist monks in bright robes. I never learned what brought the monks to the hotel but the commingled cultures must have been a good omen for my novel, the story of a young woman from Pennsylvania and the Japanese prisoners at the Bedford Springs. Several agents nibbled; the following week two offered, and I selected one. My agent loved the book; her belief and validation flooded me with confidence like a positive pregnancy test. But even with her representation, the novel went out and came back, out and back, out and back. Finally, an unexpected, unsolicited offer came—for the unrepresented stories (the collection had placed in a contest, garnered some attention). That kept my hope alive, and urged on by a wise friend, I re-wrote the novel again: one more time, one last time.

I started another novel, trying to accept that the first beloved project would never see the light of day.

Last spring, as my very elderly aunt, the very last member of my parents’ generation lay dying, an offer came for the novel: a strange, symmetrical book-end to the arc of the story of how my writing had begun, almost fourteen years earlier.

And now here I am: the matriarch of my family, squarely in the cross-hairs of mortality but simultaneously the brand-new, first time mother of two literary babes, my book-ish Irish twins. I’m learning that bringing a book into the world—like bearing a child—is a process rather than an event. A private process at first: a gleam, a glimmer, a hope, a hunch; followed by confirmation, and gradual development and quickening. Still quiet and invisible for a time, then shared with a select circle of family, friends, and professional handlers: doctors, midwives, agents, editors, publishers, copy-editors, publicists. And then you’re showing, and it’s time for the attendant logistics and paraphernalia of showers and announcements, launch parties and reviews.

And an author photograph—my personal Waterloo. Not many an expectant mother, unless a Duchess or a starlet, must sit for a formal portrait and later see herself in shop windows and the media. But if you’re expecting a book, an author portrait is required, and you must hope to see yourself out in the world, advertising your baby.

So with my double publication dates still a trimester away, I arrived at the department store make-up counter one morning last autumn. I’m not a frequent-flier there, in fact product lines have been known to disappear between my infrequent visits. But that morning I was en route to my haircut, preparing for the dreaded photo shoot later in the day. I needed something—what? Something for my eyes perhaps, instead of my usual drugstore mascara. Something that would work some sort of magic.

The elegant saleswoman wasn’t busy, and shrewdly gauged my anxiety meant a good sale. She creamed and dabbed, concealed and revealed. A circle of her colleagues, representatives of rival brands from adjoining counters, gathered to watch her gild and glitz a quiet psychotherapist who likes to write in her nightgown before going to the office. An hour later, my eyelids were heavy with shadow, my eyelashes stiff with mascara, my lips glossed, and my billfold lighter. The patrician make-up artist gave me her card and asked for mine, saying, “I want to be sure to get your books.” I arrived late for my haircut, but my longtime hairdresser forgave me. “I’ve never seen you with make-up!” She snipped and blow-dried, sprayed and moussed and I felt like Dorothy being buffed and fluffed in the Land of Oz for a meeting with the all-powerful wizard. I left the salon and hurried home to change clothes half a dozen times before the photographer came.

I’m famous for closing my eyes at the critical moment in photographs. Shy even in my own study, I flinched each time the lithe young photographer clicked her camera. She was patient, or maintained the illusion of patience through the sitting. “Let’s try a few outdoors.” Snap, snap, snap. It was easier out of doors.

My eyes were open in almost every photo. The one I selected looked like me, on a good day. Relieved and pleased, I showed my husband.

“She made you look old!”

If I had been young, he might have paid for that comment. But I’m old enough to know how to re-frame, a survival skill you acquire, over the years. Properly understood, or carefully misunderstood with a dash of humor and perspective, I could appreciate that in his eyes I am still young. As I was when we posed for our wedding photos, and a few years later for our first family Christmas card picture with the first baby.

The author photo must have grown on him, or perhaps he’s been doing some re-framing of his own. Just the other day, he showed off my book, proud as a father with an infant.

“She looks like a writer in this picture,” my husband said.

I’m old enough not to care that I look my age in the author photo. And I’m old enough to appreciate that my age gives me the stories I’m finally telling.

But I’m young enough, too. The first book is newborn, and the next one’s due soon.


  1. Wonderful article! The metaphor was perfect, and I love the author picture.

  2. Very inspiring piece. Your lengthy pitch-acceptance-rewrite process leaves me reminded that writing is more labor of love than instant gratification.
    I too began my writing career at a late age. Like you, my book is my child. Thrilled as I was to witness her birth, I was also sad, for I could no longer coddle and mold her daily, but had to send her out into the world to fly or fall.

  3. Ellen, our writing paths followed similar timelines. Congratulations on your "Irish twins." As it happens I am one of those myself but I my novel is, for now, an only child.