Eleven Things You Should Know About Me
Four More Things You Might Want to Know About Me
- I was born on October 4, 1956 in Forest Hills, New York; grew up in East Meadow, New York; then went to college and graduate school in New York. You notice a pattern? When I say I'm going West, I mean I'm going to Buffalo.
- Most people describe me as being short and blonde, which is true.
- I've been married to my very supportive husband for twenty-five years and we have a cluster of children, ranging in age from 13 to 19. (Look in the FAQ section for: "How do you find time to write?") Also, I have two dogs and one cat. My children tell me I'm obsessed with my dogs, but the dogs say I'm obsessed with my children. And the cat says nothing at all.
- My last name sounds Irish, but in fact, both my husband and I are of Russian-English descent. (My maiden name was Zelony, which is the Russian word for "green.") My husband and I are both the children of Jewish fathers and Christian mothers and we met at church. (That sentence reminds me of that wonderful line by Mark Twain, "My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian.")The first class I ever taught was Sunday School to third graders, and that was great preparation for teaching a fiction class to adults because it taught me to communicate the things I believe in, and also, to keep the class interesting because you can't toss anyone out. I still teach Sunday school, but to first graders, which involves a lot of coloring.
- Before I wrote fiction, I was a journalist. My first job was as a reporter for Fortune magazine and my very first assignment was to assemble the Fortune 500. I was too young to appreciate that I was working on an American institution, but my grandfather was thrilled. Later I covered mining stories for Fortune, and as a result spent a lot of time in Canada. The biggest story I wrote was on gold-mining in South Africa. I've continued as a journalist today, writing articles on the writing life for the magazines Writer's Digest and The Writer.
- My short stories have been published by more than a dozen literary magazines, among them American Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review and www.anderbo.com. There is a short story, "Fortune," that weaves its way through my novel, The Fiction Class, and that was written by me more than ten years ago and published, originally, in The Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review. That story haunted me and when I wrote The Fiction Class, and realized I'd need a story written by Arabella's mother, there it was, waiting for me. It gives me a chill to think about, even now.
- I teach classes in Beginning Fiction and Advanced Fiction for Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan (www.writingclasses.com), and I love my job. Part of the fun of teaching in Manhattan is that you never know who is going to walk into your class. I've had actors from Broadway shows, ballet dancers, pianists, police officers, college students, Greenwich matrons, professors and on and on. Some of my students have gone on to be published authors, some have become dear friends, and a few are both.
- My novel, The Fiction Class, is the story of a woman's relationship with her ailing mother and the offbeat members of the creative writing workshop she leads. It is to be published by Plume, a division of Penguin Books, in February 2008, and soon thereafter by Headline Publishing, in the UK.
- The Fiction Class is autobiographical in the sense that the idea for it came out of discussions (arguments) I had with my mother and I do teach a fiction class for Gotham Writers' Workshop. (Go to FAQs for the answer to, Did you base your book on real students in your classes?) However, the book is fiction because I made a lot of stuff up. For example, my protagonist, Arabella Hicks, is younger and taller than I am and she's single, which allows me to get a romance into the story. And she doesn't have a brother. Sorry, Rob.
- I sold my novel at the March 2006 Pitch the Novel conference and the long version of that story is down below. The short version is that it was the most terrifying and exciting moment of my life.
- My favorite joke is one my grandfather liked to tell:
A man goes up to another man and says, "Can I have five dollars to bury a saxophone player?"
The other man says, "Here. Take ten dollars and bury two."
Five Things I've Learned:
- Why I write the things I do:
One of my favorite parts of being a fiction teacher comes in the beginning of the first class, when every student goes around and talks about what drew him or her into writing. I'm always struck by how early the desire to be a writer starts-usually in the third grade. Almost everyone remembers feeling different from other kids, feeling as though they saw the world in a different way from everyone else, and I'm no exception.
I was a strange, dreamy child, always imagining myself somewhere else. Although I'm Christian, I often imagined that Israeli soldiers would break into my classroom and tell me that they were taking me back to Jerusalem, where it would be announced that I was the secret child of David Ben-Gurion. (I might have seen the movie Exodus too many times.) Although I'm a New Yorker, I often imagined myself in the South, in the middle of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this rendition, my brother would be Jem, my father was Atticus and my mother was not around.
My books were my treasures. I always had with me a leather-bound dictionary that my grandparents gave me. (You can only imagine how popular that made me in the seventh grade.) I read constantly. Often I walked to the library, reading a book as I went, tripping over curbs. At one point I decided to read the entire fiction section at the East Meadow Public Library, but I didn't get too far with that. All I succeeded in doing was accumulating a lot of library fines.
There was not a lot happening in the suburban Long Island of my childhood, or so it appeared to me then. Later, of course, I realized that there were whole veins of drama to mine. But the great excitement in my life came when my Aunt Lee invited me to visit her in Mexico. She was a reporter for a Mexican newspaper, and she lived in Mexico City, and so every summer I would go down there. It was a magical experience. There was adventure everywhere. There were bullfighters in her living room and fortune tellers and thievery and smuggling. Although I am a very honest person, I've always had a fondness for scoundrels. They tell such great stories.
When I was a young girl, my father became ill with Multiple Sclerosis and this was the dominating fact of my childhood (and his life). If you've seen this disease first-hand, you know how relentless it is. One day he had trouble holding a ball, a year later he could barely walk and by the time he was in his late thirties, he was confined to a wheelchair. He was a gentle man who was swamped by this tragedy and living with him taught me about courage, but it also made me angry because it was so unfair. When I began writing, not surprisingly, many of my early stories were about the ways in which people who are healthy live alongside of those who are ill. This is also what was going through my mind as I wrote The Fiction Class. How does a couple stay happily married when one of them is so changed? Why do some people suffer so much, and others not at all?
- How I Learned to Write
Jump ahead a few years.
I went to University of Rochester in upstate New York and got a B.A. in Political Science. Then I went to Columbia University and got an M.A. in International Affairs with a specialization in Russian economics. From there I went to work as a reporter for Fortune Magazine and an editor for the Foreign Policy Association. Then I got married, had four children, and, somewhat to my surprise, became a suburban housewife.
Which is not to say I wasn't happy being a suburban housewife. I loved being with my kids, I loved going to pottery classes and doing arts and crafts and watching Mister Rogers. I was amazed by the intensity of the feelings I had for my kids--the pride, the love, and also the anger. I don't think I ever really lost my temper until I became a mother, but I think that's because I never felt anything that intensely until I became a mother. It was that intensity of emotion that led me back to writing.
I noticed I was talking to myself a lot, telling myself stories. In fact, I noticed that once again I was imagining Israeli soldiers were going to come and tell me I was related to David Ben Gurion. I began thinking about my adventures in Mexico, jotting down story ideas.
One day I began to write a story. I can still remember that day. My children were taking a nap and thank God, there was nothing good on TV. There was a pad of paper on the table in the living room. I began to write about a woman who has had a bad hair cut. It was inspired by the stories I'd read growing up in Redbook and Ladies Home Journal. It wasn't a good story, and yet I felt such pleasure in writing it. I immediately went to the library, looked up places to send it, and it was rejected by every one of them. That was when I realized this whole thing might not be that simple.
Four years later, I sold my first story. It was a strange story about a woman who is having very mixed feelings at a baby shower and I sold it to The Nebraska Review (Fall/Winter 1994 issue). After that I sold more than fifteen stories to a variety of literary magazines, among them American Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review and anderbo.com. There's not a lot of money in literary magazines (actually, there's none), but the thrilling part to me was that I began to feel a part of the community of writers. I loved getting letters from editors, even if it was rejections. I loved going to conferences and meeting with other writers and then, one day, after about ten years of writing short stories, I was out to dinner with my husband, had too much to drink, and said, "You know, I think I'd like to write a novel."
- Why I wrote The Fiction Class
The story of The Fiction Class begins with the story of my mother. She was an amazing woman. She was bright, funny, impassioned, intense. We fought constantly. She had a very difficult life because for most of it, she had to take care of my father, and it tortured her to see him suffer so. She had health issues of her own, among them Parkinson's Disease and breast cancer. Had her life gone in a different direction, I think she would have been a great writer because she loved a good story. But instead she wound up in a nursing home at a fairly young age.
I loved her with all my heart, but my visits to the nursing home were torture. I felt guilty, she felt bitter. Sometimes I staggered out of there feeling like I was going to vomit. And then, something amazing happened. I got a job at Gotham Writers Workshop and I began to teach fiction classes. From the first class I taught, I loved it and my mother loved hearing about it. She loved hearing about the students and the books and the writing, but she especially loved hearing about the lectures I gave. Sometimes she would ask me to recite the whole lecture, and then we would discuss it, and, miraculously, over time, we began to understand each other better. We began to forgive each other.
After my mother died, I was devastated, but I couldn't help but feel grateful because I felt we had been given a second chance. How different things would have been if she had died when we were still angry with each other. As always, when I am caught up with an idea, I begin to think about how to write about it. I loved Mitch Albom's book, Tuesdays with Morrie, and I considered something along the lines of Wednesdays with Mother, but that seemed a little derivative. Plus, I wanted to have other things going on in the book. There was going to be sadness, but I also wanted to have humor and romance and mystery. One day the words, The Fiction Class, popped into my head, and then literally, the whole novel fell into place. I began to write.
- How I got my book published
There is no such thing as a boring story about labor, and there's no such thing as a boring publishing story either. Both involve vast degrees of pain, followed by euphoria.
This is my publishing story.
When I began to write The Fiction Class, I was without an agent and in that horrible limbo that unpublished writers languish in.
What do you do?
I write novels.
Where can I buy one?
Oh. Nice to meet you.
I'd been having that conversation for a very, very long time and I was getting hostile. But when I began work on The Fiction Class, I had a different feeling about it than anything else I'd ever written. Somehow, I could imagine someone wanting to read it. Plus, I enjoyed writing it more than I ever had anything else; I think because I so enjoyed spending time with all the characters, especially the mother. There were times when I could almost imagine my mother standing over my shoulder, laughing at something I'd written.
As with everything else in publishing, looking for an agent is a long, harrowing, humiliating and exhilarating process, and, as I was writing, I was always drawing up lists of agents I would query when I was done. Then, one day, as I was clicking around the computer, I happened to notice an ad for the NYC Pitch and Shop Conference. It was just one of those small ads that pop up when you're reading something else, but it was impossible to ignore its claim. "Meet Four Editors."
It seemed too good to be true. I've been around long enough to know that nothing is ever as easy as you think it's going to be, but, the more I read up on the conference, and the person organizing it, and the people who were going to be there, the more legitimate it seemed. I had been to conferences before (Writers@Work in Utah and Bread Loaf in Vermont) and I'd enjoyed them. This would be different because there would be no writing workshops, but I thought perhaps it would kick start my agent search. Best case scenario would be that I would meet an editor and she would give me her card; worst case would be I'd be right back where I was.
But there was a problem. I had to apply. And there was only one day left in the application period and I wasn't sure that my novel was any good because I had only started writing it a few months earlier. No one had read it yet. (That's actually three problems.)
Anyway, I filled out the application and sent it in. I figured I would wait forever for a response, because everything always takes forever, but the very next day one of the organizers of the conference called me on my cell phone and said, "Your book sounds really interesting. We'd love for you to come to the conference."
I thought that was a good sign.
Over the next few weeks, I had a lot to do to prepare for the conference. First of all, I had to finish writing my book. But I also had homework, which involved going to the library and finding books that were similar to mine, looking at the copy on their jackets and seeing if I could write up something like that for my own book. Although we would spend time working on our pitch at the conference, you had to have a draft of something before you showed up.
On Thursday, March 30, 2006, the conference began. We met at the Ripley-Greer studios on Eighth Avenue, which is really more of a dance studio than a writing place. There were mirrors all over the walls, so I got to stare at my panicked face all weekend. When you went to register, you had to get on line with a lot of other writers, and when you got to the front of the line, you were informed which group you were in-A,B,C, or D. This wound up being very significant because different editors were assigned to different groups. I was in the B group, which I thought was a bad sign because I thought it signified that I was only in the second tier, but it turned out that the B just meant that everyone there was in literary fiction. (There were other groups for commercial fiction, science fiction and so on.)
So then, the eighteen members of the literary fiction group trekked into yet another mirrored room and we took our seats around a table. We spent the next eight hours going over our pitches. Each of us read our pitch out loud; then the rest of the group critiqued it as to whether it was understandable, or intriguing enough. Like any critiquing situation, it was anxiety-producing and tremendously helpful. In the original version of my pitch, I had accidentally suggested that one of the characters might be a murderer, which was not the impression I was trying to make. That night, I went home and worked on getting my pitch just right, because the next day we would be meeting with our first editor.
Friday was intense. Not only did we meet with an editor, but the meeting took place in front of the whole group. The idea was that after the meeting, we would critique the way the author presented the pitch. One by one we were called up to the editor, a thin, young woman who sat at a table in the middle of the room. Each writer gave his or her pitch and she said something nice about it; in fact, it looked as though she would request a number of manuscripts. Then I went up and read my pitch which, up until that moment, had received a fairly good reception among the group. Have you ever seen the look Dracula gets on his face when someone holds up a clove of garlic? That was similar to the look this editor had on her face when I read my pitch. It would be a cliché to say that my heart sank, but it truly did. My whole body sank. I was devastated. I had been so sure I had written something good and I just couldn't bear the thought that I might be so wrong.
The rest of that day was awful. I went home and figured I would not go back to the conference. There's only so much abuse you can take, and I had just hit my limit. The thing was, I had told my students about this conference and they were so excited for me. I just couldn't picture telling them I'd quit. So the next day, I trudged back to the city. (I did, however, put the clothes that I wore to that disastrous meeting in the back of my closet and I have not worn them since.)
What a difference a day makes.
On Saturday, we were to meet the editors one on one, without an audience, except for our workshop leader. We all gathered in a narrow hallway and waited for our turn with the editor. No more rehearsing. This was the real thing, but this time, when I gave my pitch, the editor, a young man, gave me a huge smile and said, "That sounds great. I love that type of book." What joy I felt. (Note to writers: Publishing is a very subjective business.)
And it got even better.
On Sunday, I was scheduled for my last meeting and this was the one I was looking forward to the most because the editor seemed like such a perfect fit. She represented humor, women's and literary fiction. Best of all was that as we were waiting in the hallway, the workshop leader came out and said that this editor was particularly interested in learning about what led us to write our book. This was a subject I had thought about a lot, and so I knew exactly what I wanted to say.
Of course, I've been a writer long enough to know that just because you think everything is going to work out, doesn't mean it will. But still, I was feeling optimistic when I walked back into that studio. I sat down at the table, began to read my pitch, and then an amazing thing happened. Every time I read something that I thought was funny, the editor laughed.
Do you know how wonderful it is to meet an editor who laughs at your jokes?
After that, my life became a fairy tale. The editor, (my editor!), Emily, requested my book and she loved it and bought it!!! (I'm collapsing a few weeks worth of negotiations here, but still, it went pretty fast.) . Michael Neff, who is one of the organizers of the conference, helped me to find a wonderful agent. Then the British publishing house, Headline Press, bought the UK rights to The Fiction Class. Now I am in the final stages of doing revisions and planning for the Feb. 2008 release date.
Okay. You've read this far and that's encouraging. If you'd like to take part in the writing exercises, please go to that link. Or, if you'd like to preorder my book, please go to this link.
- You have to write about things that are important to you.
- You have to take a really long view. From the moment I first started to work on a novel, to the day it was signed, took me ten years. And I got lucky.
- You need to get out there. I know you're shy; I am too. But you learn so much from meeting other writers and agents and editors.
- You don't need to be related to someone famous to sell a book, though it probably helps.
- You don't need to be tall and gorgeous to sell a book, though that probably helps too.