Monday, September 4, 2017

My First Time: Emma Smith-Stevens

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 Emma Smith-Stevens, author of the new novel The Australian, now out from Dzanc Books. Her short story collection, Greyhounds, is forthcoming from Dzanc in early 2018. Emma has been employed as a server at a pancake house, a gift-wrapper, a personal assistant in Los Angeles, a scriptwriter for virtual patients used by nursing students, and an instructor at the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, and the Bard Prison Initiative. Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Joyland, Day One, Lucky Peach, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Emma currently serves as fiction editor of The Mondegreen.

My First Time Calling Myself a Writer

After I graduated from a college two hours north of New York City, where I’d grown up, I felt exceedingly lucky to have a job lined up in Los Angeles. I’d never been there.

My friend Molly and I drove across the country with my dog Phil in the backseat. I’ve got this great snapshot of my passenger-side rearview mirror reflecting Phil’s head stuck out the window, ears flapping, and the Hollywood sign straight ahead of us.

Upon arriving at my sublet apartment, I emailed my employer that I was ready to begin work immediately. I did not receive a reply, but I was a couple weeks early so I thought little of it. Several emails, a few phone calls, and two months later it became apparent that I no longer had the job—or rather, I never did. The woman who’d held it before me had decided, on second thought, not to attend the PhD program she had been admitted to. I scrambled together work, two part-time jobs: as personal assistant to a woman whose father had been the first major collector of a very famous impressionistic artist, and in a very chic West Hollywood art gallery where I never did quite figure out what I was supposed to be doing, other than wearing all black and looking bored, which I was.

Six weeks into my time in LA, I’d moved into a studio apartment in Little Armenia, a small neighborhood wedged between Thai-town and the Los Feliz hills. Once, I search my address on the internet and learned that Charles Bukowski had lived in my exact apartment during the time he wrote Post Office. Before work each day, I brought Phil to the nearest dog park, which was situated rather unfortunately beside a freeway exit. It was grassless, dusty, and smoggy, but it was all the same to my dog. One time Phil peed on the leg of a woman seated at the lone picnic table. The woman was enraged, silent and smoldering as I apologized profusely and offered to give her money for dry cleaning, which for whatever reason she declined. Usually, I kept to myself.

Quickly, I became recognizable as a regular. Others who frequented that dog park began waving and smiling, then approaching me to talk. If there is anyplace where people are even keener on knowing what you do for a living than New York City, it’s LA. By that point, I’d been a restaurant server, a professional gift-wrapper, a bookseller, and—for a single hour—a burger flipper at Burger King. I didn’t want to talk about what I really did, because it only reminded me of the job I’d lost, and also I believed that my current work did not reflect my aspirations or trajectory. Since nobody at the dog park knew anything about me, because I’d published a couple short stories in literary magazines, and because I’d begun applying for graduate programs in fiction writing, I decided to try a new title on for size: writer.

I remember the first time I said, “I’m a writer.” I’d been asked, “What do you do?” by a bland-looking woman in a Patagonia fleece and khaki pants. When I responded, she quickly perked up and said, “Oh, you’re in the business?” “No,” I replied. “I write fiction.” “Oh,” she said, that one syllable like a sigh, and then paused, the way a stranger might pause if you casually mentioned you had a terminal illness.

Her response was common, and I realized that telling people I aspire to write books was usually a good way to fend them off. It was an unhappy time and I didn’t like talking to strangers. I couldn’t wait to leave that city. Unfortunately, sometimes when I disclosed my intentions with my writing—that I wrote short stories and hoped to write a novel—people launched into their own life stories, which they were certain were so inherently fascinating that even the most dimwitted scribe could parlay them into a bestselling masterpiece. Often they would tell me that they would write the book, of course, if only they had the time.

At some point I became known as “the writer” at the dog park, and without ever having spoken to me before, people began approaching me with their ideas, or to ask me whether I’d read whichever books were their latest favorites—almost always thrillers or romance novels, which I have nothing against but are just not my thing. And when I told them I wrote literary fiction, their faces drooped or grimaced. Their disappointment seemed equal to that of those who hoped---upon learning I was a writer—that I worked in “the industry”—meaning the film industry, as a screenwriter—that I was someone who might have the connections to help them gain entre into that world. It was only when, eventually, I’d firmly established myself as a nobody with a prickly attitude, who hadn’t read or published a thing, that I could take my dog to that park in peace. And then finally and to my most heartfelt relief—as my life in LA had been a series of professional and romantic disasters—it was time for me to move to Gainesville, Florida.

I attended the University of Florida’s MFA program in creative writing. I was proud and felt very lucky to be a part of that program. However, I took to heart what was perhaps the only thing I learned in LA, other than not to date anyone whom I first met while crying on the sidewalk, who describes himself as the “unofficial poet laureate” of another country, or who has zero degrees of separation from someone with a starring role on the remake of Hawaii 5-0especially when all of those descriptions apply to one person. During grad school, when asked what I was studying by anyone I didn’t want to speak with at length—a drunk guy at a bar, for example, or the person seated beside me on a plane—I had a new answer. What I said to people was true, but did not elicit interminable dialogue. “I’m in the English Department,” I’d say, keeping my face very neutral, like I had while working in the art gallery. And if pressed to elaborate: “Contemporary fiction, mostly. Literary fiction. I just love books.”

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