Two years ago, my first novel WAITRESS OF THE MONTH hadn’t sold, and even though, on my most lucid days, I knew my then-agent was running out of prospects and we were reaching the end, I didn’t want to admit that the story I’d started writing in my head in college and hauled from Massachusetts to Ohio to New York City to New Hampshire to New York State to Vermont to Wisconsin and rewritten so many times, I could probably recite it from memory, might never be published. I also knew my agent was pinning her hopes on my second novel PARIS SMELLS LIKE ROTTEN EGGS (about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life). The good news was, I’d won an award and parts of PARIS had already been published and I was certain (or perhaps more honestly, hoping) that she would LOVE it and IT would sell immediately (at auction) and in that non-lucid, fantasy “they” (the great big mighty THEY) would ask what else I’d written and would also publish WAITRESS and there would movies and glowing reviews and interviews and….
In January, I sent PARIS to my agent and shortly after that I went for my yearly mammogram and they found suspicious calcifications and I lurched and then tumbled onto the pale green surreal slow-mo out of body conveyor where I was weighed and blood-pressured and poked and probed and biopsied. While I waited for my results with equal parts shock and dread, my agent (who didn’t know I’d had surgery because she was 25 and I worried that cancer made me sound old and damaged and not someone you believed had a future or would want to represent or even be associated with) sent me a long e-mail detailing all the reasons she didn’t like my breast cancer novel. Mainly because it was about breast cancer. I guess I’d forgotten to mention that detail to her. This hurt, but I was a little preoccupied with praying that the cancer wasn’t invasive.
It wasn’t. And while my risk of recurrence was high and I’d have to be checked every six months for several years and be on hormone therapy, I’d been lucky they’d caught it early. Now all I had to do was slip back into my old life. Pick up where I left off. But I couldn’t remember what or where that was exactly.
The first few months after surgery, I couldn’t write, didn’t want to write, wondered how I’d ever written and why I’d chosen to spend so much of my life alone with my thoughts, facing that blank page daring me to be articulate enough to express the ideas in my head, taunting me to say something unique and worthwhile. If time was limited (which of course it was for all of us but now seemed more obviously so to me) then I wanted to spend it with people I cared about, to share good food and talk and laughter and soak up the sun and listen to music and breathe and run with my daughters and hug my children and my husband and get up do it again and again and again…
By May I was telling my husband that my first book was dead and I didn’t care if any of my books ever sold. I was thinking I should do something more soothing and useful like teach underprivileged children on the south side how to read. Reorganize the spice cabinet. Weed the garden. Join the Peace Corps. Learn to speak Chinese… all the things I forgot to do. He didn’t believe me and insisted I sign up for a writers’ conference in Boston. Off I crept, still a little weak from the surgery and shell-shocked and somewhat indifferent. I nodded through lunch with a table full of editors and agents and writers all who confirmed that my first book WAS dead (an awful stab) and since my agent hated my second book, it was time to part ways (the thought of that exhausting me). That night, in an effort to cheer myself up, I ordered room service and The Family Stone (a movie a friend told me was mindless but forgot to mention had a breast cancer story line). I cried all night and woke with puffy eyes and wondered what kind of mother would leave her family to come to Boston to talk about a career that wasn’t going to happen.
A few more mostly unproductive months passed and all I had done was think about writing my agent a break-up letter and compose a few half-hearted query letters and splay every crazy fearful thought my health scare had unleashed into a journal that I swore I would never show ANYONE until one day it wrote itself into a sort of essay that I called “Cancer is a Bitch.” And yet… out of boredom, frustration, desperation, a teeny tiny inkling it might be… something… I’m not sure, I sent the “essay” to this writer friend who told me it blew her away and then showed it to my husband who called it intense. Still I wondered, who would want to read this? Who would I want to read this?
Not long after that, I read that Literary Mama was looking for columnists and late one night, on a complete and utter whim, I pitched the idea of a column about my brush with breast cancer and chopped the ”essay” up into a few rough columns. A week or so later they wrote back and offered me a column, Bare-breasted Mama.
So I wrote my columns (which I loved–the camaraderie of the other columnists, the input from a terrific editor, the reader feedback and even the deadlines) and broke up amicably with my agent and started querying agents (I was thinking I might rework PARIS into a story within a story about a woman who writes a novel about a woman who thinks she has breast cancer and ends up with breast cancer and writes a column about it and although I wasn’t sure exactly how I would pull this off, I thought I could incorporate some of the material from the columns). I had several bites on my queries (a few big names who suggested some changes for PARIS which I was considering) when I received a memorably nice rejection from Larry Weissman saying something about how he really liked my voice and writing and website, but wasn’t repping much fiction now. Again, on yet another whim, I wrote him back, thanking him for the thoughtful reply and telling him I’d started writing a column and was thinking (just that VERY moment) there might be a book in it, and I sent him a link to the Literary Mama columns and a few VERY rough columns.
Off we went to Chicago for a short break after the new year (leaving my laptop at home at my family’s request). A couple of days into our trip, while my family relaxed in the room, I snuck away (said something about needing some mints or was it gum?) and located the business center. Very quickly, I logged onto my e-mail account and found an e-mail from Larry saying he and his wife loved the columns and did I have any more and would I send them an Overview of the book? The book? Oh yes, the book based on the columns that I said I was thinking about writing. I wrote him back that I had snuck away from the family to answer e-mail (and they were likely wondering what was taking me so long by this point) and that I didn’t have my laptop with me and would be home in a few days and would that be soon enough to send them more columns and the Overview? I didn’t really have any more columns or know what an Overview was. but I pressed send anyway and right away received a reply from Larry that of course that was fine (loved that answer!) and that he looked forward to hearing from me the following week and then I made my way back to the room and immediately confessed to my family that I’d been in the business center and had a feeling I might have a new agent soon…