I feel as if I do a lot of whining in this blog—when I’m writing about writing, anyway. Part of me thinks this is OK, because I’m being honest, and writers so often talk only about the positive, exciting stuff. Part of me thinks it’s disingenuous: I want to be admired for my honesty. So I’m going to promise myself (and you) that I’ll stop with the possibly disingenuously honest anecdotes about writing-time-gone-by.
Right after this.
Two of my three fellow panelists were considerably younger than I was. These were their first novels—to remember my first, I have to go back twelve years. I was 33 then, wide-eyed at my trips to Penguin headquarters; delighted by expense-accounted lunches with my editor, an actual professional who wanted to talk to me about my first book. My second, two years later, was supposed to be my breakout book. I was put up at the Fairmount Hotel Vancouver, on my book tour—on the same floor as Wallace Shawn! There was a lounge, on that floor only, open at all hours, full of fresh food and freshly-opened wine bottles and copies of The New York Times and The Guardian. “How would you like your coffee, Ms. Sweet?” “My…coffee?” “Yes. We’ll bring it to your room whenever you like, in the morning. With a newspaper of your choice, and a yogurt parfait.” The parfait was delicious. The bathrobe was plush. Pope John Paul had just died; I lounged about on the plumpest pillows imaginable, watching images of the Vatican on mute while my very small children mumbled into the phone, from four provinces away.
Just over a year later, in the bar of a convention hotel, a young man was holding forth at great length about the awesome deal his awesome agent had just made for his awesome young adult trilogy—the plot of which he went on to explain in loving detail. Even during my own recent period of heady, publishing-related delight, I would never have gone on and on as he did—not because I hadn’t been headily delighted, not because I hadn’t wanted to gush and inspire more than a little impressed, say, envy, but because I’d been afraid of seeming self-absorbed. (And I had been self-absorbed, of course—just silently.) Anyway: I was having a really bad convention. I’d just received my so-called “royalty statement” from Penguin; it showed a negative sales number, and five figures of in-the-red, misplaced publishing hopes.
I very rarely let myself snap at anyone, in social or professional situations; I’m terrified of not being liked. But I saw actual red, as the guy talked on, and on, and my insides were acid with envy and defeat, and so I snapped at him. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like, “I was promised that great things would happen to me, too. Get back to me in five years—no, three: we’ll see where you are by then.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. The people gathered in the circle of comfy bar chairs stared—or I assume they did; I was seeing a kind of puce, now. At some point, probably far more quickly than I imagined, someone said something subject-changing, and I subsided into my chair because it would have been too humiliating to leap to my feet and flee, as I so badly wanted to.
Over a year later, I ran into the guy at another convention. He grinned at me. “Hey: you’re the bitter, resentful one!” I had to agree that I was. (I have no idea what happened with his YA trilogy.)
Now back to Manhattan, in 2015. I’m on a panel. The other three panelists are younger than I am (two of them waaaay younger), and so effortlessly, gorgeously stylish that I (in my Blundstones and brown cords) want to leap to my feet and flee the moment I see them. Two are first-time authors. The third already has a movie deal. (To her enormous and hard-to-credit credit, she doesn’t mention this on the panel: I find it out four days later, via the full-page ad her publisher has taken out in the New York Times Books section.)
We each read brief sections from our books, then answer the moderator’s questions, then the audience’s. The other authors gush about their agents, all of whom are effortlessly, gorgeously stylish, and sitting right in front of us. I talk about how my New York agent dumped me over my penultimate book, and how a succession of agents turned down my last one. I manage to be both nonchalant and defiant about this, and I get all the right kinds of laughs—but my insides are acid with envy and defeat. In one of my other answers, I work in mention of Penguin; I need these agents and editors, here in the Mecca of publishing, to know that I was once with a Big House. (I almost don’t mention that it was Penguin Canada, because I know it’ll undermine the whole Big House thing: my NY former agent always told me that Anything Canada would be considered a backwater company, here in Mecca.) I want to turn to the three women beside me and snap, “I was promised that great things would happen to me, too. Get back to me in five years—no, three: we’ll see where you are by then.”
Some audience members ask me questions. Three of them buy my book. They’re eager to talk to me, as I autograph the books. They’re wonderful. I’m grateful to them—and I very badly want to leave.
The next day there’s no more writing stuff: there are just the Cloisters, and an ego gone blessedly, if only briefly, quiet.