where the writers are
My First Book

Safely back in my publisher's manuscript-lined office, I had regained enough of my usual balance to quip that watching my first novel, The Second Story Man, being typeset and printed out before binding, was far more traumatic than losing my virginity. In retrospect, however, I've concluded that this literary take on the "wedding night" was more filled with trauma than it might have been, had I been counseled by some sympathetic source -- say, an article like this one, which is why I'm writing it.

The trouble began before the book was even finished. It had been accepted for publication by a small collective venture, an innovative group of avant-garde writers who were modeling their efforts on those of a similar institution launched in Sweden. New novels were being published in groups of three and four, and for this "cycle," four writers' works were printed, bound and marketed at the same time. Because the most famous author of the chosen four--still the most famous, even today--lived near a small printing firm in rural New Hampshire, it was decided that our books would be printed out there, and to aid in this process, those of us who lived in New York City would travel there together and spend the night with the well-known author, who owned a spacious house in the vicinity.
In those days, when I was excessively nervous I tended not to be able to eat or sleep. At the same time, I smoked, drank, and talked far too much, which increased my nervousness exponentially. After the long drive from New York, I spent a sleepless night in one of the famous author's guest bedrooms and got up in the morning more frazzled than ever. He, on the other hand, may not have disliked me at first sight, but by the end of the visit he practically put me out the door like a wet dog. (Or more forcefully than he would have put a wet dog). It was my good fortune never to set eyes on him again.

By the end of the first day I spent there, I discovered that my poor novel would fill only 99 pages of printed manuscript. This, coupled with my sleeplessness, my awareness that my companions on the road and the "famous author" with whom I was staying all disliked me intensely and wished I would leave, turned me into a total wreck. I finally finished proofreading the final version of my book, the one that was destined to be printed and bound both in hard-and-soft covers, and gracelessly made my way to the bus stop for a long, solitary journey home, throughout which I sobbed as if someone I loved had died.

A few weeks later I had rediscovered just a scrap of decorum and was able to laugh at my "maiden voyage." But I still didn't look forward to the book coming out. To everyone's surprise, however, when all four books were launched that November, it was mine which got the most florid and beatific reviews, particularly in the prestigious New York Times Sunday Book Review. This has taught me never to make pre-judgments, and by the time my second novel was launched, years later, I was far more relaxed about the whole operation.

However, apart from alienating at least three of my co-authors in the writers' collective, (whom I suspect never forgave me--years later, one refused to recommend me for a grant), I continued to make major missteps as the book's history went on. I spent very little time publicizing it, which I have since discovered is a major error, particularly in today's world of public readings and media appearances. And perhaps because I had been so shaken by the experience of watching my first book being produced, I soon took off for a rural, communal life on the American west coast and abroad, and did not rejoin the literary community of my generation until much later. Misstep or wisdom? I have often wondered about that; in any case, the entire direction of my subsequent life and writing career was changed by this. Nonetheless, there has been a second book, the publication of which was far less traumatic and more satisfying than that of the first. And I've been told that The Second Story Man is now being sold as a rare book. Had I held onto some copies when I went on my cross-country hejira, I might even be a wealthy woman today.