(Also read: Part One)
In the car on the way home from Chicago, I scribbled down notes for the Overview. Of course I had NO idea that the Overview was a key piece of the non-fiction proposal document consisting of up to thirteen parts: subject hook, book hook, special features, foreword by a well-known authority, answers to technical or legal questions, back matter, markets, subsidiary-rights possibilities, spin-offs, mission statement, platform, promotion plan, competitive and complementary books. I wrote: This will be the story of my brush with breast cancer and how it served as a catalyst for a re-examination of my midlife, motherhood and marriage (not the exact words). But that was it. One sentence.
After I read it aloud to my husband, my then 10 year-old son said, “Are you sure you want to write about that? Do you have enough to say?”
Back in Madison, before I even unpacked, I manically wrote a few more columns (potential chapters for a book?) and sent them and my Overview (tweaked a time or two more) off to Larry. While all this was exciting, I have to admit, part of me wondered, Why was I switching gears from fiction to memoir? Was I abandoning my novels? Did I have the emotional energy to write a book about breast cancer? Did I have enough say about that? How would it feel to expose myself and my family this way? Was this how I wanted to make my writing debut? And then I figured, given my history of near-misses, it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Larry would probably say he wasn’t interested and I’d probably go back to peddling my second novel or write another one (I had an idea about writing about a young woman who lives in Manhattan and works at a Yeshiva at the end of the D line in Brooklyn and how those two worlds clash and ultimately collide. It was based on a short story I’d already written and published. So at least I had that). But before I could obsess and analyze all that more than half a dozen times, I received a memorably lovely reply from Larry. Something to the effect that he and his wife “loved” the columns and the concept and would I be available to speak to them on the phone? On the phone? On the phone.
I tried to be cool. Didn’t answer on the first ring (even though I’d been pacing and practicing “hello” for half an hour), said “hello” uber casually, as if it could be the plumber calling, as if I didn’t know notice the New York area code. But as soon as I heard Larry’s voice, my heart started beating too fast and when he asked me how I was, my voice cracked. It was a conference call with his wife Sascha (I loved her name, loved how sophisticated it sounded) and honestly, between the nervousness and the conference call fuzziness and a sort of out of body surreal disbelief that this was actually happening, I didn’t hear everything. My timing was off. I didn’t know when to speak. When not to speak. I’m sure I nodded a couple of times thinking they could see me. At some point I started rambling about The Book and when I realized I was rambling, I said, “Interrupt me anytime.” And they didn’t. And in that two second silent moment, while they waited for me to continue, I remember feeling so amazed that these smart and savvy and successful people (this Sascha!) were interested in what I had to say. At some point they said they wanted to represent me. This may have been earlier in the conversation. Probably was. I don’t remember. But I do remember I fighting the impulse to say, Are you sure?
The next month or so I worked with my agents writing the proposal. This was in some ways more difficult than writing the actual book. Essentially I had to write a document about what the book would be about. I kept writing scenes and extraneous passages, whole chapters spilling out of me and Larry kept saying, “Save that for the book. What’s it about?” Call me slow but I didn’t know. How could I know until I wrote it? Of course I knew the details. They were my life. But what did it all mean? I was still living it. Still sussing it out. Moment by moment. Day by day. And I was supposed to be lucid about it on paper? Again, those nagging questions rose up. What was I doing? Why was I writing this? At the same time, working with Larry and Sascha back and forth was absolutely exhilarating. They would tell me what was wrong, what wasn’t working, pushing and inspiring me to reach deeper than I ever imagined I could. By the time we finished the 72 page proposal (which also included chapters summaries of all 23 chapters) it felt like I’d written a whole book condensed in warp speed.
I was thrilled when so many editors expressed interest in seeing it even though right from the start some people refused to even look at it because of the subject matter. Soon, the first few rejections came trickling in. Mostly, “People don’t want to read about cancer.” I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help but take that personally. Couldn’t help but think, they don’t want to read about cancer because they don’t want to be associated with someone who’s had cancer. It’s an ugly word. A scary word. A word that feels contagious. A word I’ve chosen to plaster across my chest for all the world to see.
Again, the self-doubt. What had I been thinking? Maybe I wasn’t ready to deal with the whole book rejection thing so soon again. I’d just been through it the year before. I was barely recovered from that. Barely recovered from my surgery. And why a book about the scariest thing that had ever happened to me?
Of course Larry (great agent that he is) said, don’t worry, we’re going to sell this book, and then he said (and I paraphrase) think about it as if you’re at a dance. Someone is going to take you home from the dance. Of course this made me laugh and not worry quite so much as we left a day or so later for our spring break where between a jam-packed college tour schedule and traveling through the mountains in Vermont, computer and phone access would be limited.
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