The language of book publishing is the language of a heady, passionate love affair: Adore, real, emotional, open, honest, LOVE. Those were the words from the early rejections I clung to (blocking out “cancer is a tough sell” and “not for me” and “don’t feel the burning passion”) the entire trip from Wisconsin to Maine, like a woman who’s been dumped but keeps replaying the seduction.
By the time we reached the very quaint Inn at the end of the long country road in Maine and I discovered they didn’t have a business center (husband convinced me taking the laptop was risky and unnecessary) I felt heartsick and frantic. It was 7 p.m. and we hadn’t had any dinner, but I suggested we check out the Bowdoin campus sooner rather than later. Of course my idea was voted down and I spent the night tossing and turning, hoping and fearing, feeling loved and loathed in equal measure.
The next morning I was the first one up and I ushered us all down to breakfast and suggested we head to campus before the tour started, to check out the student center.
“It’s good to get a feel for where everyone hangs out,” I said as I dragged them out the door.
When I spotted the wall of computers, I headed towards them so eagerly, I nearly tripped over my own feet.
My daughter said, “Come on, Mom, do you really need to check your e-mail?”
“Yes, in fact, I do,” I said and waved them towards the bookstore and told them I’d meet up with them in a minute.
I logged on and read the forwarded letters from Larry very fast. The words: Powerful, funny, smart, poignant, honest,” sobered and clobbered by “nobody else in the office would read it,” and “hope you can overcome the prejudice against narratives dealing with cancer.” Of course Larry wrote, “Don’t worry.” But how could I not? I felt sick, paralyzed, utterly confused again about why I chose to write and try to sell this story, still so raw.
Interestingly, the language of college is also full of mixed messages. The colleges lure you in with you how passionate and committed they are to higher education, they have “world-class faculty” and “state-of-the-art labs,” professors who want nothing more than to discuss ideas with their brilliant students, only to be tempered by, “It’s never been a more competitive time to apply to college,” and “Do you know how many 4 point 0 National Merit Scholars we had to turn away last year?” As I watched my middle daughter’s face tense during the info session, I had flashbacks of our oldest daughter getting eaten up applying to college the year before last. She landed on her feet and ended up in a great place for her but it did a number on her self-esteem and exhausted all of us.
By the time we reached Burlington, it was gray and rumors of a big storm were brewing and I was feeling another haven’t-read-my-e-mail-all-day attack coming on. Before I followed everyone up to the room, I begged the desk clerk to let me use his enormous old computer to check my e-mail. He didn’t seem to want to, but I told him it was REALLY important and he agreed, and I wedged myself into the tiny space next to him. It took FOREVER to log on and maybe it would have been better not to log on at all because there were MORE rejections, one saying something like, this is the kind of book I’d want to read IF I were in her position, another involving pom-poms, something about how even though the book wasn’t quite right for her, she’d wave her pom-poms for me. Pom-poms? I was nearly hyper-ventilating at this point. I felt misunderstood and stigmatized. I had put myself out there as the woman who’d had breast cancer and needed strangers cheering me on? With pom-poms?
The next morning we toured UVM and we all really liked it and decided this would be a good back-up school and I focused on that, didn’t check my e-mail at all. Screw it, I thought. Checking isn’t going to make it happen. In fact maybe checking was making it NOT happen.
That afternoon, as we were leaving Burlington, my cell phone rang. It was Larry. Larry calling me?
Oh my god oh my god oh my god.
“Hello,” I said as if I always received cell phone calls from New York, as if another one might interrupt us any second.
“We have interest,” he said. My heart fluttered. And right away I pictured it all. The great big deal I’d been waiting for all these years.
“Is it a good offer?” I said.
“It isn’t an offer. It’s interest,” he said.
“But interest is good, right?” I said, embarrassed.
“She has to show it to others in the house. But yes, it’s good.”
“Fingers crossed,” I said, actually thinking, This is it. By the time we reach New York City, there’s going to be an auction. Press conference. Paparazzi. I couldn’t wait.
“We’re driving through the mountains to Middlebury, so cell phone connection might be spotty,” I said as I put my movie star sunglasses on.
By the time we left Burlington, the blizzard was in full force, snow and sleet and fiercely gusting winds. The roads were narrow and slippery and the further we drove into the mountains, the less we could see. (The sunglasses didn’t help but I left them on anyway.)
I have a huge fear of driving through storms especially with the kids, so to distract myself, I obsessively checked to see if I had any service on my cell phone. I didn’t. Which was probably why Larry hadn’t called with the HUGE deal yet.
Hours and hours later we arrived in Middlebury, tired and hungry, but of course that didn’t stop me from locating the business center and logging on to read and reread the letter from the “interested” editor. She was ENTHRALLED. Enthralled? I liked that! Loved that! I was enthralled with her being enthralled with me.
Those next few days were a blur. Vermont, Connecticut. Middle daughter decided she didn’t like Middlebury or Connecticut College, loved Wesleyan. Another rejection or two or three. I lost track. Nothing more from ENTHRALLED. That didn’t seem good to me. I reasoned if she loved it so much, she’d have already made an offer. Isn’t that how it is when you love something? You can’t NOT have it? By the time we reached New York City, I was starting to lose hope. And now it was Easter weekend and the publishing world was shut down.
But we were in NYC. I love NYC. So we dragged the kids to the East Village to show them where we’d lived (something we do every time we’re in the city), ate a fabulous Brazilian meal, stumbled into an art opening in Soho, went window shopping (even though it was unseasonably cold) and that night we ordered Dreamgirls from the hotel movie channel and when Jennifer Hudson’s character got booted out of the Supremes and she sang, “What about me? What about what I want?” I wept. She deserved it make it. She was more talented than Diana Ross. She had soul. It wasn’t fair.
Back in Madison and there was more disappointment. ENTHRALLED couldn’t convince others that there was a big enough market for books about cancer. There were more no’s, more people who didn’t want to deal with the subject. And who could blame them? I was tweaking their anxiety about their own mortality. I didn’t want to deal with it either. And yet, I thought, isn’t that exactly why this story needs to be told? Isn’t that why I chose to write it? Yes, I was writing this so others didn’t feel so alone in their fear and despair. I was writing it to give others hope that if they had to face something dreadful, anything dreadful, they could make it through. Of course this didn’t stop me from losing hope about getting the story published. You know that sappy Seal song? Love’s Divine? I cried to that, too.
At the end of that week with no book deal, no auction, no reason to wear the movie star sunglasses and the words: “sorry no sorry no sorry no” haunting haunting HAUNTING me, I wrote Larry a long e-mail about Joan Didion and the popularity of Misery Lit in the UK and people’s fear of talking about sex and death and the pom-poms (I’m pretty sure I mentioned the pom-poms) and how I wanted to back up to that day BEFORE we went on submission, that delicious day when everything was possible… My husband said, don’t send it. But I did.
Monday morning I hadn’t heard back from Larry and I figured that was it, I’d revealed too much and convinced him I wasn’t worthy of being published and there wouldn’t be a book deal EVER. And what was I thinking anyway? I should go to law school. Do something real and solid with my life. Although I’m making it sound as if I wasn’t a complete and utter wreck. I was. And in that wrecked state, I called my friend Amy and she talked me off the ledge.
The next day, I received an e-mail from Larry saying he was sorry he hadn’t responded to my Friday e-mail (no mention of the insane rambling) and that we had some more interest. Interest! By now I knew that interest wasn’t an offer. But I also knew I was back in the ball game! Oh yeah, baby.
By mid-week we had more interest and by the end of the week we had two editors who wanted to speak to me on the phone! One had an offer on the table, the other really wanted to make an offer, but needed approval from the senior editor who was out of the country. But I spoke to both of them and love love, LOVED them. Mostly because they loved my voice and story and really “got” me. Monday morning the senior editor was back and said no, but we had our offer and I was thrilled. And THAT was the day I received THE CALL.
I’d like to end this here. My victory after years of toil. But there’s a little more to say. I see it in my husband’s eyes when people ask me the name of my book. The reminder that, as grateful as I am for my agent, my editor, my book soon to be published, as much as I’m loving this debut year, I had to live through and write the story of year that brought me to my knees, before I could have this love affair.
Don’t forget to read Deb Jenny’s backstory today!