What first inspired you to start writing?
I was always writing journals. I wanted to express my feelings – they were too much for the world I was living in, for the injustice I felt at everything. I remember getting in trouble as early as eighth grade for something I wrote about one of my teachers; it was a satiric piece and he was insulted by the way I described him. (The least of his problems, in retrospect. He was so inappropriate with us he wouldn’t have lasted a minute in today’s #MeToo climate.) I almost got suspended from the graduation trip because of that incident. I didn’t realize how much power writing had. I kept most of my writing private except for being humor editor of my high school yearbook. A decade later, one of the first personal pieces I wrote, about my ten-year high school reunion and how much the school, the neighborhood and my religious community had changed, went “viral,” which in those pre-internet days meant someone photocopied it and distributed it to all the teachers at the high school. I cried when I heard about the hullaballoo (nasty letters to the editor, taped to the school bulletin board), and my sister told me, “You want to make a difference, right?” And I realized if I wanted to write about things that mattered, and I wanted to institute a change – or at least a conversation – I had to be able to take the heat. I put up a bulletin board of especially “interesting” letters in response. (Although I still cried later at nasty responses to my New York Times Fertility Diary columns, but probably because I was on hormones.
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
I actually wrote a memoir about my infertility before I sold a proscriptive book.
When writing my New York Times Fertility Diary column, I always knew I’d turn it into a memoir, maybe when I was pregnant. Well, I didn’t do it when I was pregnant, but after I had a baby, somehow. But when I was shopping the memoir around, I got very different feedback. One agent (who had three kids and no fertility problems) told me, “I want less fertility and more about you and YOUR story.” Another agent (whom I later learned was going to have fertility problems) wanted more practical advice. (This is not to mention the agents who weren’t interested, who said “fertility doesn’t sell.”) That advice from two top agents stymied me for a YEAR. One day, probably after answering someone else’s fertility question by email, it hit me: No one wants to hear about my fertility story. They all want help. They all just want to know how to get pregnant. And then I was in the zone you always hear about. It took me about two weeks to spit out a proscriptive book proposal. (Which was ironic since it took me forever to condense my memoir into a proposal.) Neither of those agents was interested in it anymore (the fertile one had moved companies, the infertile one, who still wasn’t pregnant, thought everyone got their information from the internet). But a new woman in my writing group (an angel?) compiled a list of agents for me, and I landed a top one.
Look, as an essayist at heart and a journalist by trade, I never thought my first book out would be a prescriptive one. (I actually shopped a graphic novel around a decade ago, but missed the craze – or was too early for it, is what tell myself.) But when I first started out as a journalist and was depressed I was assigned to a news beat, not a feature beat, an older reporter turned novelist told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll use everything.”
And he was right. I probably used half my memoir in my book which is a voic-y, girlfriend ish guide to infertility.
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
Keep writing – and publish!
When I was in my early twenties, some guy once said to me, “What do you have to say?” when I said I was writing a memoir. God that shamed me. We were actually on a date, although for the life of me I can’t see why someone would say that to a person he was trying to impress. That comment really stuck with me, like I was too young, too inexperienced to put anything out in the world. But I’d had an eventful childhood swirling around me, with mental illness and religion – always a great combination. I wish I still had those early pages. I would tell my younger self to write down everything – every nervous breakdown I witnessed, every crazy rabbi. Because another thing I did not know when I was younger, I wouldn’t remember it all. That’s a testament to my mental health – but not great for detail in writing.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I was working since high school. My first job might have been the strangest. I worked at a religious women’s dress shop. They were much more religious than me – and I got frightened in the dressing room seeing women’s wigs hanging on the hooks. (I didn’t know any women who wore wigs.) There was also this older woman sales assistant who would tell everyone to buy everything – she’d be like, take in the shoulders, pull up the hem, iron out the pleats – and I’d be thinking, try on a different dress! I didn’t see it at the time but it was probably a philosophy of making do with what you have, and I should have learned, “if it’s not for you, move on!”
What does literary success look like to you?
To me, literary success is just that every outlet takes almost every piece I pitch. Like I’m well known enough to magazine and website editors that they’ll see my name, and say, “I know who she is and I want her to write for us.” Better yet, if they reach out to me to ask me for stories. Oh, and that I never have to write anything just for money again. That everything I write will be something I can be proud of.
A warm welcome to Amy! We wish you all kinds of success in the coming year.