Monday, March 13, 2017

My First Time: Deborah Willis

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 Deborah Willis, author of The Dark and Other Love Stories, published by W.W. Norton (U.S.) and Penguin Random House (Canada) on Valentine’s Day 2017. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, called one of the best books of 2010 by NPR, and chosen for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Her stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Lucky Peach, and Zoetrope. She lives in Calgary, Canada, and is currently working on a novel. Please visit for more information about her work.

My Many Firsts

First Contract

For a few days after signing my first book contract, I was terrified every time I walked down the street. I lived in Victoria, BC, an idyllic island city where I could walk to work every day of the year. But now I felt a sense of danger as I crossed streets and ambled along sidewalks: what if I got hit by a car or run over by a bus and I died before my book was published?

This was one of innumerable anxieties that struck me after that life-changing first of getting a book deal. I was 26 years old and overwhelmed by my own good fortune. Maybe it’s my Jewish background, as we are the worriers of the world, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I felt so wildly lucky to get a book contract that I figured something equally terrible would soon befall me, to bring my world back into balance. I figured I’d probably die, or at the very least, lose my legs. That only seemed fair.

Fortunately, I didn’t die. I didn’t lose any limbs. I stayed alive, and I spent the following year writing, reading and working at a bookstore. That year still stands as the most productive of my life. My editor had pointed out that all my stories shared a similar theme of vanishing or abandonment, and once I had this idea in mind, I found that I could write more fluidly than ever before. Previously, it had taken me about five years to complete eight decent stories. (I wrote plenty of bad ones in that time too.) But in that one year after signing the contract, as I floated around in a cloud of elation and dread, I wrote five more stories, one after another. Usually I wrote up to thirty drafts to get a story right, but these stories arrived like gifts, almost fully formed. I sent my editor the completed manuscript on the very day of the deadline in my contract.

“I think you’re the only writer who’s ever met her deadline,” said the production assistant in an email.

“We’re allowed to miss our deadlines?” I replied. I was as green as the West Coast grass upon which I fearfully tread.

First Day of Work

But let’s back up. How did I get this book deal? Where did this contract that I signed come from? To talk about those firsts, I have to talk about my first day at the bookstore where I worked. That Monday, I woke up early enough to change my outfit several times, trying to find the right balance of presentable and casual, then walked downtown and stood outside the front doors to Munro’s Books.

“You don’t have keys yet?” said one of my new co-workers as he opened the door. “We’ll have to get you some.”

Keys? I didn’t expect to get keys to the store on my first day. But not only was I given keys, I was also taught the alarm code, and the code to the safe. That’s how much my boss, Jim Munro, trusted his staff. Jim was close to 80 years old at the time, and had been in the book business for decades. He ran one of the most successful bookstores in Canada, a store that was named one of the most beautiful bookstores in world by National Geographic.

Jim gave his staff profit shares and paid above minimum wage because he felt that a bookstore needed to hire and retain talented, book-loving staff. He was unfailingly generous and saw no division between himself and his employees, and this created a sociable, caring environment. As one co-worker said to me during my first week on the job, “You’re part of our family now.”

First Real Money

It was a couple of years after I started working at Munro’s that one of my stories won a fiction prize in a literary magazine, PRISM International. I had been sending stories out to magazines for years, winning some contests and losing others, getting some acceptances and some rejections—the normal course of things when you’re a beginning writer.

This particular publication was a big deal for me, the first time I’d made any real money from my writing: the prize for the short-story contest was $2,000 (and I now wish that I’d spent it on something more memorable than rent and groceries). Most thrillingly, Munro’s Books carried the magazine, so in a small way, my words were now on the shelves. I told a couple of friends at the store about this, and soon, nearly everyone on staff had heard about the publication—rumors travel fast in families—and even my boss, Jim, had read it. I didn’t know Jim very well at this point. I liked him, and I appreciated that he treated his staff so well, but wondered what he would think of the story. There were almost six decades separating us, so I didn’t expect that he would feel a connection to my fiction. What if he thought it was dumb or silly or just plain bad? What if he hated it?

Then I got called into his office.

I don’t remember our conversation exactly, only that Jim loved the story. And when Jim loved something, I soon learned, his enthusiasm was boundless—he was the kind of person who once paid for a free outdoor opera concert, wanting everyone in town to be able to enjoy the music he loved. And now he adored the story I’d written in the same generous, joyful way. So he bought up all the copies of the magazine that we carried on the shelf and started handing them out to anyone with a functioning set of eyeballs. One of the people he gave it to was someone who dropped by the store and who happened to work for Penguin Canada.

Jim Munro
First Phone Call

A few months after that magazine publication, I got home from work one evening and noticed the green, blinking light on my answering machine. The message was from Nicole Winstanley, who was then editor at Penguin (and who is now Vice President and Publisher at Penguin Random House). She had read my story and liked it. She wanted to see more.

To understand how unprepared I was for this call, you need to know that I didn’t have a manuscript, or anything even close; when Nicole asked to see more of my work, I sent her several separate documents, one for each story, all formatted differently. I was oddly calm because I expected nothing. But Jim kept saying that he thought I’d hear from Penguin in a few weeks or months.

“Just you wait, kid,” he’d say. “You’re going to get a book deal.”

I didn’t believe him. I knew very little about the publishing business but felt pretty sure that the industry was made up of important people who wanted to keep nobodies like me out. One thing I knew for certain was how hard it was to convince publishers to take a chance on a new writer, especially a writer of short stories, so I had “planned” (or prepared myself for) many more years of rejection. Many more years of working at the bookstore, quietly writing stories and quietly sending them out. I was shocked when I got a call from Nicole a few months later, saying that she loved the stories I’d sent her. Saying that if I was willing to write some more, she would be willing to publish them as a collection.

First Time for Everything

The rest is a long series of firsts: the first time I saw my own book on the bookstore shelves, my first book launch, the first time my book was reviewed in a newspaper, the first time I did an interview, the first time I experienced excitement and horror upon realizing that people I knew—friends and ex-boyfriends and parents—were going to read my words.

I felt, the whole way along, like an imposter, like I had somehow stumbled into someone else’s beautiful life. I continued to worry that I would lose my legs.

Second Time for Everything

In the years since that first book was published, Jim retired from the bookstore at age 87. In keeping with his habit of treating his employees like family, he gave his business to his staff. (Yes, you read that correctly. He gave his business to his staff.) The current owners continue to run Munro’s Books with pride in their independence, care for each other, and a deep love for books. I no longer work there—I’ve moved to another city and a different day job—but whenever I visit, I feel almost dizzy with gratitude that I was once a “Munroid.”

This year, I’ve published a second collection, The Dark and Other Love Stories. Writing a second book was torturous, as most writers know, but publishing and promoting the book has been more enjoyable than the first time around. Instead of wondering when God will smite me, I’ve tried to acknowledge my privilege, appreciate my good fortune, and understand that I’m not an imposter—I truly wrote the book, and that’s what matters. In short, I’ve tried to have more fun this time, because I can imagine Jim saying, “Enjoy it, kid!”

I have to imagine him saying that because Jim passed away, surrounded by family, just a couple of months before the publication of The Dark. His death was a shock that affected many of us deeply—he changed so many lives. I’m happy to know that before he died, he read every story in my new book; he and I kept in touch over the eight years that I worked on the second collection, and I would send him stories when I’d finished them. He always seemed to “get” my stories, and always encouraged me to continue writing. And now that I work as a first reader for a publishing house, I believe that every writer needs someone like Jim in their life—that for any fiction to find its way in the world, it needs to stumble upon its ideal reader. That person could be an editor or a friend or magazine publisher. For me, that person was Jim Munro, which is why I dedicated my second book to him.

Sometimes I imagine that he benevolently haunts the bookstore he loved so much, and so has seen my new collection on the shelves. I imagine that he knows the dedication is my way of saying what I couldn’t possibly have said enough when he was alive: Thank you, Jim.

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