Monday, November 14, 2011

My First Time: Sabina Murray

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 Sabina Murray, author of the short-story collection Tales of the New World (Black Cat).  Murray grew up in Australia and the Philippines and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She is also the author of Slow Burn, A Carnivore's Inquiry, Forgery, and The Caprices, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  Visit her website here.

My First Book

I sold my first book, Slow Burn, when I was twenty years old.  I was not yet able to sign a legally binding contract, nor able to legally consume alcoholic beverages.  Of course an illegally consumed alcoholic beverage tastes much the same as its legitimate cousin and the fact that I instinctively knew this probably explains why obvious memories (me clutching letter from agent in hand, a tear of pride, a gasp of expectation) are missing from the landscape of that time.  Instead, I fill in the blanks.  I must have been excited, proud, and probably a little smug at my precocity.

I was living in Albuquerque at the time.  I had just graduated from college and my dream of America—having spent my childhood in Australia and the Philippines—was populated with anachronistic hippies, live music, and Indians, all of which Albuquerque had in solid representation.  I say this merely to explain that there was a lot going on and I really didn’t see just how bizarrely lucky I was to have sold a book.  Slow Burn, by the way, follows a Filipina party girl in the crash-and-burn culture of Marcos Era Manila.  I knew that life because I’d lived it.  A few short years had blunted my edge a little and turned me into some variety of fun-loving New Mexican.  And now I was publishing a book.

Six months later, when Slow Burn arrived on shelves, I was living in Portland, Maine.  I felt as if my years in The Philippines had been a dream.  I was working at a greeting card store called The Paper Patch for sisters Shirley and Betsey.  Mostly I ran the register, but I also wrapped gifts, did typesetting for birth announcements, and made balloon arrangements.  During the Old Port Festival, I inflated dozens of balloons and wandered around the Old Port hawking them.  I think my line was, “Balloons for a dollar—instant popularity!”  At the same time that I was selling balloons, I was also in the Fanfare section of Vanity Fair with a nice photo of me looking off to the side and a brief article, “Bright Lights, Big Palm Trees.”  My friends had gone around to the stores that carried Vanity Fair and opened all the issues they could find to the Fanfare section and my picture.  People would come up to me and ask if it was me in Vanity Fair, and I’d reply, “I’ll tell you if you buy a balloon.”

There was also an advertisement for Slow Burn that ran in Rolling Stone.  I’m not making that up, although it does seem like something that happened a long time ago, perhaps in another dimension.

I realize how na├»ve I was then because I felt that publishing a book was success and with success should come financial security.  I thought that book publication was the answer to all sorts of questions: who I was, how other people would value me, what my career would be, how I would survive.  Slow Burn supplied none of that.  It would take me ten years to publish my next book and I spent my twenties profoundly concerned that I had already peaked and hadn’t been alert enough to enjoy the moment.

Slow Burn is no longer in print and, despite a few positive reviews, the book disappeared into the paper sea shortly after rearing its lovely head.  The pages are now yellowed and in the picture of me, taken by my aunt in her backyard, I have a spacey, nervous look that always makes me feel for my younger self, as if she senses that this is just the first hurdle, one of many to come—that things are not going to be easy.  And she could use some comfort because she, that younger me, is absolutely, irrefutably correct.