I love this post by this week’s guest author, Aya de Leon, because it shares a truth that few seem to want to talk about.* Carolina De Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango, calls Aya’s first novel, Uptown Thief, “a smart, sexy, sizzling good time of a novel–a daring and irresistible blend of high-voltage action and deeply human storytelling. The women in this book blaze so brightly, you could almost burn your fingers on the pages.” Aya teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley, and her work has appeared in Ebony, Guernica, Huffington Post, and Bitch Magazine. – Meg
Aya de Leon: My Heart’s Desire: Elation and Letdown in Publishing a Debut Novel
Having my first novel published this summer, I was supposed to be thrilled, but instead I felt deeply disoriented. The previous year had been an intense culmination of the previous 7 years—a desperate struggle to achieve the dream of publication after having a kid and becoming a working mom. Certainly there was joy when my book came out, but I felt a secret disappointment as well. At first I thought it was from the 5-day lag between the pub date and the book party—a sort of anticlimax. But even as I stood up on the stage at my launch event—even as I signed books—the feeling I was expecting never arrived.
In retrospect, I think I wanted a feeling of elation, some kind of high that transcended daily life. Perhaps since I’ve been dreaming of becoming a novelist since my early 20, this has been a young adult dream for me. It was formed during a period in my life that held wild emotional swings, a period that was more glamorous and uncertain. In the original dream, publishing a novel would be a whirlwind. It would sweep me up out of a black-and-white Kansas into a Technicolor adventure tour in Oz. Maybe I would meet eccentric characters and have my eyes dyed to match my dress.
The best analogy I can muster for the publication of a debut novel is also related to young adulthood. I liken it to turning 21. Our culture stokes anticipation for how great it’ll be. You plan your outfit and go out to a big party where people toast you all night. But then you wake up the next morning (possibly hungover) and you’re still living your same old life.
The morning after my book party began with my six-year-old daughter tapping me on the arm saying “mommy, wake up.” I’m a middle-aged working mother, and most of my days consist of making lunches, teaching classes, doing the family’s laundry, and driving carpool. Lately my life also includes many readings—one word at a time with my daughter: you’re doing great! Just slow down, sweetheart…what sound does the N make?
I’m learning that there’s no magical life metamorphosis in publishing a book, just like there’s no magical empowerment in one’s 21st birthday. These status changes aren’t actually powerful enough to transform all the material conditions of our lives. But because I’ve had this dream since my early 20s, the dream itself is a youthful dream. Some part of me still believed that publishing a book would be magic.
So I had been stewing in this cauldron of disappointment peppered with occasional awe as strangers tag me on twitter that they’re loving my book. I guess this is my life now… But then something happened. My editor sent me her feedback on my next book. And then it hit. The elation. A new book to work on! A new set of challenges to face and solve! Hours slip away when I’m wandering around in the fictional worlds that I create. I eagerly began revisions.
A few days later, I had a phone call with my agent about what to work on next. I called her from the car, on the way back from driving the carpool to school. I mentioned several projects in various stages of completion, but she encouraged me to prioritize one that is still at the conceptual stage. I got off the phone more elated than ever. A new world to build! A new character to get to know! I turned up the car stereo and sang along to 80s anthem rock, swinging my head to driving beats, soaring harmonies and howling guitar solos.
Welcome to my new life! The intermittent requests for interviews or readings or positive feedback are a delicious companion to the daily practice of writing. Driving to teach classes, I contemplate my new protagonist. I puzzle out a scene while knee-deep in piles of dark, white, and bright color wash loads on the kitchen floor. As I lay beside my daughter falling asleep, I imagine how to integrate the flashback my editor found cumbersome. When I can’t sleep at 4AM, I slip out of bed and write down plot ideas for the new novel.
The elation comes from the joy of writing. The magical part is that I no longer need to strive to break into publishing. I can relax and enjoy my life. It’s like Dorothy said to Glinda, the good witch:
“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” – Aya de Leon
* When my first novel was published, my novelist friend Anne Ursu took me to breakfast, and brought me flowers, because she said so often publication day goes unmarked, and full of the same kind of mom moments Aya writes about in this post. She urged me to KNOW that it is a moment, and also said by the way if it seems more stressful than you imagined it would be, that’s not you. It is for everyone. – Meg