The Publishing Secrets I’ve Told, and The One I’m Still Keeping

FullSizeRender-4As a child, my mother was an elected official, and my dad was well-known in the community, as well. So people always knew who I was. I grew up with strangers asking me Isn’t your mom on the school board? When I was in middle school, my mom received death threats for some of her antiwar activism, and at one point, we had a plainclothes police officer stationed in front of our house. Later, my mother became known as an attorney prosecuting cases of police misconduct.

I once had a fabulous conversation with several African American writers–including Tananrive Due–all of whom had activist parents. We talked about the lack of expectation that we would have privacy as young people. When you grow up wondering if your phone line is tapped, expecting that the FBI has a file on members of your family, never knowing if you are being watched, you just assume that anything you say out loud may become public knowledge. One of the writers in that conversation talked about how, in middle school, she knew the FBI might be listening to her telling a friend on the phone about the boy she liked. We all agreed that our takeaway from the experience was this: your only protection from having your secrets revealed is not to have any secrets. If you’re prepared to utter it aloud, be prepared to have it repeated.

So as an adult, I don’t have a high expectation of privacy, and I am pretty open about my business. In particular, as a teacher, I find it effective to use my own experience as examples to illustrate points I’m trying to make. I take a young adult development approach to my university teaching. My students are curious about different aspects of the lives of older adults, and I am willing to give them some answers. For example, I routinely tell my students how much money I make teaching creative writing in college, when talking about issues of socioeconomic class. From their perspective, incomes are very mysterious, and I have no problem offering mine as a point of reference.

When it comes to my writing life, I have certainly disclosed the amount of my advance to everyone who asked (and even to some who didn’t) without any qualms. Maybe if the amount had been life-changingly huge, it would have made me uncomfortable. But it wasn’t, so it didn’t.

Overall, I am not a hold-it-in type of gal. I am definitely one to find venues to express my personal angst. I routinely am a member of one or more support groups where I blab all my personal business. The long, arduous process of querying agents was one big quest for writers to keep me company in my misery. And I specifically sought out people who were at the same stage of the process as me: #amquerying. So imagine the shock to my extroverted system when I was on submission (the stage where your agent has sent the book out to editors hoping to sell it) and I wasn’t supposed to complain publicly (you don’t want to look like a whiny loser to the editors). I didn’t know anyone else who was on submission, and I didn’t have an online venue to make any new #onsubmission friends. It was deeply isolating, and the first time in my adult life that I felt forced to keep a secret.

There is, however, a secret that I have been keeping—more like sitting on. My novel is about a woman who is a criminal mastermind, a former sex worker, a madam, a thief, and the financial genius behind a wealth redistribution scam. I have a connection to one of these aspects of the character that I have never publicly disclosed. I am saving it for a big reveal as part of the book’s publicity campaign in the spring/summer. That way, when we pitch it to different news outlets, it can be pitched as an exclusive.

Of course, it’ll also show up some time in 2016 in the weekly news roundup here on the Debutante Ball. Stay tuned…

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

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