Monday, February 27, 2012

My First Time: Amy Franklin-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 Amy Franklin-Willis.  Her debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee has just been published by Grove/Atlantic.  An eighth-generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama.  She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee.  Bookpage had this to say about the book: "In her powerful debut, Franklin-Willis expertly crafts a Southern novel that stands with genre classics like The Prince of Tides and Bastard out of Carolina....A measured, slow-burning book, with complex, compelling characters and secrets that reveal themselves slowly."  Franklin-Willis lives with her family on the West Coast where she has a full-time job as a university fundraiser.  Visit her website here (where, among other things, you can find a recipe for hummingbird cake).

My First Call

The first time I learned a publisher had made an offer to buy my novel The Lost Saints of Tennessee I was on a cell phone in the middle of the Oakland, California airport on March 24, 2010.

Oakland is the closest airport to my San Francisco Bay Area home and I had been flying back from a business trip to Portland, Oregon.  When I boarded the plane in Portland, I was an obedient passenger and shut down the cell phone.  I was not anticipating any important phones calls for either my fundraising or writing work.  The flight was short and uneventful.

After landing, I gathered my belongings and headed down the Jetway, grateful to be returning home to my wife and three daughters.  I juggled my purse and briefcase on the way to baggage claim as I turned my cell phone back on.  Being the mother of three young children requires that my phone is almost never off while I’m on terra firma.

My old Samsung Blackjack booted up at its typical leisurely pace, the email loading first.  I checked my personal account and saw that in the two hours since I’d shut the phone off, two emails from my agent had arrived.  The last one saying only, “Call me as soon as you get this.”

By that point, my agent and I had been working together for a few months and I knew she never just emailed me to check my emotional state or to give me a pep talk about how the right editor would find the book irresistible.  My breath caught and I had the distinct sensation of needing to throw up.

The phone finally discovered the nearest cell tower and began blinking the news of two missed calls and one voicemail.  All from my agent.  Caught in a tide of distracted and weary passengers trudging to claim their belongings, I found myself surrounded on all sides by strangers.  My feet pinched in their work heels as I tried to keep up the walking pace and call my agent back.  Never slowing down, just moving forward, one breath, one step.  One breath, one step.

The phone rang three times before my agent picked up.  Do you know how long three rings takes when you have been waiting eight years?

"I have good news for you," she said.  “One of the top literary editors in the country wants your book.”

Somehow I cut through people to find a spot out of the way.  I leaned against the broad panes of the windows overlooking the tarmac, clutching the phone against my ear.  The offer had come unexpectedly from my dream editor, Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove/Atlantic.  This was the woman who had found Charles Frazier’s beautiful novel Cold Mountain and made it a bestseller.

“Are you there, Amy?  Did you hear me?”

I could not give my agent a response.  Not yet.  Eight years of writing, revising, critiquing, crying, doubting, laughing, believing, hoping, praying, despairing prevented me.

I asked her to give me a minute and then I put the phone down.  I placed my arms around my stomach and bent down.  The dictionary defines overcome as:  to conquer; to surmount; to prevail over; to be victorious.  In those precious seconds, I felt none of those things.  Instead, I experienced a cascade of relief I can only compare to seeing my third daughter—whose conception and pregnancy had been plagued by uncertainty—born healthy.

The dream is true.

Amy Franklin-Willis' family getting the news of her book offer


  1. Overcome. Perfectly stated! It's a wonderful story and an even more wonderful novel!! Thanks for sharing Amy with all of us, David!!

  2. I love how the dream came true in the middle of a regular old day--and that photo? Perfection.