Monday, August 8, 2011

My First Time: Celine Keating

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 Celine Keating.  Her novel, Layla, is about a woman on a journey to understand her parents who were vocal in protesting the Vietnam War. Larry Dark, director of the Story Prize, had this to say about Layla: "CĂ©line Keating's deftly plotted novel takes readers on a gripping journey along the underground railroad of post-'60s radicalism....Every adult has to reinterpret the story of her childhood.  Keating beautifully demonstrates the courage it takes for each of us to face that bittersweet truth."  Keating's short fiction has been published in many literary magazines, including Appearances, Echoes, Emry’s Journal, The North Stone Review, Prairie Schooner, and Santa Clara Review.  Visit her website here.

My First Novel

The expression “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” has resonated with me each time I got tantalizingly close to having a novel published only to have that dream snatched away.  There was the agent who gave up on my book because the rejections got him too depressed, the agent who gave up on trying to sell fiction altogether when she couldn’t sell my novel, and the agent who gave up agenting—and I think even checked into rehab?—when a deal for a novel fell through.  Was it me?  If you throw in the small press that went bankrupt as I was at the page proof stage, it sure looked like a serious jinx going on.

I kept writing anyhow—new novels, short stories from old novels.  I didn’t think of myself as tough or resilient or even persistent, it was simply that writing fiction gave me the truest sense of myself, and if I weren’t writing, I was depressed.  Apparently all I needed to keep utter discouragement at bay was the least little bit of encouragement.  A “nice” rejection letter, winning a writing scholarship, a story acceptance, something to make me feel it was legitimate to keep going.

After the point when my friends were no longer asking, “How’s the novel going?” or even, “Are you still writing?” I landed a contract with issue-based literary Plain View Press, in Austin, Texas.  Plain View had been around more than 30 years and Susan Bright, the publisher, seemed the perfect editor and publisher for Layla, which is something of a political novel.  A poet herself, Susan was also a community and antiwar activist.  Every chance she got, she’d tell me, “It’s a beautiful book.”

Finally!  Finally it was going to happen.  I felt not so much the euphoria you’d expect after the fulfillment of a dream clung to for years (OK, decades), but a deep sense of peace and contentment.  And everything went well—editing, galleys, choosing a cover.  I was looking forward to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, to meeting Susan and the other authors whose books were being published in Spring 2011, to the reception and reading Susan had organized for us.  But then my Advance Reading Copies, due to ship right before the holidays, didn’t arrive.  When I emailed Susan to see what was happening, she didn’t get back to me the way she usually did.  Still, I told myself to chill.  It was the holidays.  She was just busy.

When I saw the email with the subject line “news about Susan” I heard myself say, “Oh no!”  Intimations of something terrible thrummed in my chest.  Indeed the words were stark, irrevocable.  Susan had died, totally unexpectedly.  I sat back in my chair in shock and sorrow.  How could she have died before I even got to meet her?

I stared at my computer monitor and the realization hit.  The press had been pretty much a one-woman show, Susan’s creation, her baby.  From everything I’d heard, Susan was a force of nature, a community treasure who played an important role in Austin’s literary and political life.  In all likelihood the press would fold and my book would be orphaned.  I felt these words deep in my heart: I must have done something really really bad in an earlier life.

I had to face the existential reality of who I was: Sisyphus, destined to keep trying to shove my novels up the publication mountain, doomed never to succeed.

In the days that followed I waited for the depression to hit.  It didn’t.  How was this possible?  I thought maybe that it was the realization that what was happening to me paled in comparison to what Susan’s family, friends, and colleagues were going through, but even so, my equanimity was downright weird.  Day after day, perplexed, I waited for the blow to register, but it just didn’t.  Finally I came to the realization that somehow, somewhere along the line, I had apparently learned that rolling that rock up the hill—continuing to write because I wanted to write—was the point, and not the destination.  To mix my metaphors, having a book published is the icing on the cake, but it’s not the cake.

That was a real “wow” moment, one I’m glad I had before learning that, lo and behold, rather than folding, Plain View had a wonderful new team in charge.  Everything is back on track.  So now I’m trying my best to face up to a new and somewhat uncomfortable reality: how to be a blushing bride.

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