and Other Fables of the Writing Life
by Caroline Leavitt
Way back when I was 28, I first got serious about writing, I had my career trajectory all planned out. I was going to publish a few books of short stories, then, when I made my reputation with them, I’d try my hand at a novel. I collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my apartment. I kept going, sure it would happen. But when it did, everything was vastly different than what I expected.
Meeting Rozzy Halfway, won first prize in a Young Writers Contest. I was thrilled. And naïve. When it immediately sold to a publisher and the accolades came in, the attention, the book tour, the money, the reviews, I thought this was going to be the way it would be from now on—a book every year, money, fame, respect. I loved telling people I was a published writer. I loved being flown to New York (I lived in Pittsburgh then), and I loved having my next two books snapped up. I was on my way!
Except I wasn’t.
Lifelines came out. I had a few brilliant reviews, which made me happy, and zip sales, which made me weep. Suddenly, all the bliss of first publication was gone.
My next publisher was a highly respected literary imprint called Arbor House. They loved my novel, they promised to publish it well…and then they went out of business, the whole sales force fleeing the week the novel came out. You can guess what happened, and I felt so ashamed, as if it were all my fault.
I kept writing. “You’re lucky to be published at all,” my agent at the time told me, and my spirits plummeted. I began to doubt myself. When people asked me, “What do you do?” I answered with a question. “I’m a novelist?” I didn’t know anymore who I was, but I kept hoping.
I cried. Of course I cried. But I kept writing and I begged my agent to find me a big publisher who wouldn’t go out of business. She got me a three-book deal from a big publisher who put my book on the cover of their catalogue. Success, I thought. Success is back again!
But in my first meeting with my publicist, all she had to show me for publicity was a single letter to reviewers. “No ads?” I asked. The publicist shrugged. I wouldn’t give up. I began to try to do the publicity myself, ignoring what everyone told me I should and shouldn’t be doing. I passionately begged book review editors to consider assigning my novel, and while most ignored my emails and calls, some took pity. I wrote essays for every publication I could think of. I contacted radio shows. “Don’t do this,” I was told by my publisher, “It really looks bad,” but I did it anyway, and as the reviews in major papers began to actually have a tally, I started to feel a little bit better. And I got a fabulous new agent who didn’t tell me I was lucky to be published.
Pictures of You and my agent loved it. But my publisher said, “This just isn’t special enough. We don’t get it.”
I asked them, “Would you consider a rewrite? Or another book?”
There was a silence and then they said, “No. We don’t think those will be special, either.”
I knew enough about publishing now to know that if you don’t have sales, if people don’t at least know who you are, then I had about as much chance as getting a publishing deal as I did of becoming a world-class acrobat.
So I cried. And cried. I felt ashamed and miserable and frightened. I reached out to friends, sobbing, and they all commiserated. Then one friend said, “I love my editor at Algonquin. Maybe she’d take a look at your work.” I was so grateful, I wanted to hug her.
She sent a brief description of the novel to her editor. A few days later, she told me that not only did her editor like the description, but she wanted to see the whole novel. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t expect anything, but I sent it in, and two weeks later, I got a call from the editor. At first, I was just waiting for her to tell me why the novel didn’t work. But then, she began talking about what Algonquin could do for me, almost as if she were saying, “If you choose us.” When I hung up, my hands were shaking. They were asking me to choose them. I didn’t have to beg. How was this possible?
They bought the book a week later and invited me into their offices to meet everyone. The staff was smiling and friendly and as excited as I was, something I had never experienced since my first novel. “Are you sure you know who I am?” I kept asking them, and the whole office smiled. “We’re going to change things,” they said.
And they did. They took that “not special book” and got it into six printings before it was published. It got on the New York Times Bestseller List its first month out. And on more than a few Best Book of the Year lists. They bought my tenth novel and it got on the New York Times Bestseller List, too. I was the same person, but people treated me differently now. They took my calls. And because of Algonquin’s out-of-the-box genius publicity and marketing and an editor who knew me so well, we called ourselves “sisters on the page,” I didn’t have to beg people to review me. They actually wanted to.
Cruel Beautiful World is my eleventh novel. I’m stunned and grateful for the response the book is garnering. It feels as if I’ve been pushed up to the next level, and believe me, I know it is because I finally landed at my perfect publisher.
Because I never gave up. When I post my reviews and links to my NPR shows, I apologize for self promotion, but my friends chastise me and tell me I have to stop being so humble, I have to stop apologizing for my success, as if some terrible mistake has been made. “Honey, you have to own it,” one friend tells me.
I’m trying to. But I know that every book is a new entity, and my next book might not do so well. I know, too, that if you are looking at a career, there are ups and downs rather than the “straight to the top” trajectory. Yes, I got what I had yearned for all these years, a readership, reviews, respect, prizes, but it doesn’t mean what I thought it would mean to me. In a way, I’m glad it took me all those years to become, as one review said, “an overnight sensation.” I laugh at that until I’m giddy. I try to be Zen about all of it, to be in the moment and keep my eyes on the prize—which is being able to write my next novel. I try to help every writer I can, however I can, and I tell them the same things I told myself. Write the best book you can. Don’t ever ever give up. That’s where the magic is.
Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her newest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly. Cruel Beautiful World is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth and her own complicity—and about an 80-year-old woman falling in love for the first time. Caroline’s many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Times Modern Love, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin.