Better Late Than Early (From Elle's Blog)
The issue of my age came up shortly after Simon and Schuster bought my novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief. After I sent my agent an over-excited email with some text message acronym that sounded faintly adolescent, she bluntly asked, “How old are you?’ OMG, OMG, should I lie? No. It would be hideous to get caught. I shot back, “I’m sixty. Is that a problem? Because, if McCain can run for president I should be able to publish a book.” Not that I was defensive.
My agent and editor were not much older than my children, and I wanted to fit in. I considered emergency plastic surgery. A facelift, liposuction, did I need a chin implant? I had to pretend to be young again. Didn’t I? But I wasn’t entering witness protection, so once again, the answer was no. I needed to be exactly where I am in life to write the book I wrote. And part of the reason for my success was my middle-aged Enough–Already–It’s–time-To-Get-This-Show-On-The-Road mentality. This attitude is not typical of people in their fertile twenties. I looked at the upside of maturity and saw that coming to success—as my tactful agent put it—“so late in life” did not have to be mortifying; it could even be an advantage. Excellent. I wouldn’t need surgery after all.
Still, embracing my age was an uncomfortable novelty. It’s shocking, unbelievable really, that I’m over sixty. I don’t think about my age, and I feel like I’m thirty-five, only smarter. Because, you see, I didn’t spend forty years sitting on my ass, writing in a void and collecting rejection letters. Oh, I was writing and amassing my share of rejections all right, and I have the emotional hide of an armadillo to prove it, but I was also living.
I’ve had jobs, big and little, marriages, good and bad, lovers and friends and children and grandchildren. I’ve lived in many places on two continents and traveled the globe at my leisure. I have survived divorce, single parenthood, life-threatening illness, and teenagers. I’ve had moments of ineffable joy as well as patches of despair as black as scorch. I draw and paint, and I’m a great cook. All that living and learning and doing takes time, as well as being necessary fodder for the writing life. The truth is, I didn’t yet have much to say at thirty or forty. I wrote pretty consistently through all those seething and heaving life experiences, but for most of us, writing is a tortuously long and convoluted road.
By fifty-five I had an epic collection of rejection letters and I was feeling like an artistic failure. Isn’t fifty-five the age most people start thinking about retirement? But I couldn’t stop writing. There is something in me that wants to make people feel the rush of life in my words. I want to connect, to capture emotions and ideas, and to communicate them in gripping stories. One of the nice things about writing is that no one can stop you from doing it, and so, at fifty-six, I finished my third novel. I remember the surge of elation when that book caught the attention of a reputable agent. Phew! Just in time. I flew to New York and the reputable agent said, “This book is a gold mine.” Hallelujah! It was finally happening.
And then it didn’t.
After six houses rejected that book, the reputable agent stopped submitting it. I re-wrote it and tried to get another agent, but no luck. I spent a year writing another novel, but I couldn’t get an agent for that one either. One day, I looked in the mirror and accepted that it was too late; my books would never be published. It was crushing, and it knocked me flat out of the game.
I spent weeks on the sofa, reading other people’s novels. The only way I could get out of bed was by rolling directly into my reading chair, a comfy old thing in a corner of my bedroom, and plunging immediately into a fictional world. After an infusion of industrial strength coffee, I was able to shuffle out to the sofa where I collapsed for the rest of the day. It’s appalling, but I wallowed in the tragedy of my own crucified ego.
About that time, I hit my 60th birthday. Wow, that was fun. I thought about Shakespeare who had finished his immortal work in his forties, Van Gogh dead at thirty-seven, Caravaggio who revolutionized painting in his twenties, Bernini sculpting masterworks at sixteen, Mozart composing at five. Even Jesus had wrapped it up and headed back to heaven in his early thirties. I sulked on the sofa in rumpled pajamas and ate cold pizza.
Occasionally, I couldn’t avoid having to interact with people, but if I forgot myself and mentioned my writing I’d see that patient look people get when they’re talking to a lunatic.
Then I got angry.
I had always followed the rules. I’d written scores of polite, well-crafted query letters and double-spaced and proofread and followed guidelines. I took classes, attended workshops, learned to take criticism, honed my craft, and where had it gotten me? I could paper the Astrodome with rejection letters. I’d given away control of my destiny, and those I gave it to shrugged and gave it back. Okay. Fine. I’d take things into my own hands.
I turned away from traditional publishing and took the humble route of self-publishing. I really wanted to hold my own book in my hands. I believed that just holding a book in my hands would be enough. So I risked money, I went through endless edits, and I risked more money. Then, one day I had a book for sale on Amazon. My baby made its debut to a shrieking silence and a riot of apathy. My friends bought a copy out of loyalty but I don’t have a lot of friends, just very good ones, and the book maintained a rank of about 400,000, which is slightly above nonexistent.
I finally had a book out and it wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided it wasn’t about holding a book in my hands, but knowing that lots of other people were holding it in theirs. They weren’t, and I went into another funk
One night, moodily slumped in front of a late night rerun of Sex in the City, I watched Carrie Bradshaw’s glitzy book launch party. Carrie Bradshaw isn’t even a real person and Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t even a writer, yet there she was having my book party. Champagne flowed, beautiful people milled, cameras flashed, and I got an idea.
I gambled on a do-it-yourself website and spent thousands on an Internet marketing course. I would throw myself a virtual book launch party. Crazy? Maybe, but no guts, no glory. When you get older you start to think that way. I organized a one-day virtual party designed to generate a surge of sales on Amazon, and catapult me onto the bestseller list. The website looked colorful and festive, but we all know the most humiliating disaster is to throw a grand splash and have no one show up. Then I’d have to kill myself for sure. I needed to reach 500,000 people to make a few hundred sales and reach the bestseller list. I needed partners.
I asked droves of website owners to participate. I sent them a letter, a box of homemade cookies, and a signed book marked on the page where those same cookies appear in the novel. The cookies are called ‘bones of the dead’ so, with an aching back, I stood at the kitchen counter, well into the wee hours, shaping cookie dough into little bone shapes, baking them to the perfect golden shade of doneness, and then rolling them in powered sugar to make them look bonier. Only the boniest cookies went out—fifteen hundred of them. The rest…well, I gained four pounds.
My friends and family were apprehensive. I could see the pity in their eyes. Isn’t it sad to see Elle grasping for the brass ring that has so clearly passed her by? But I forged ahead, bold as an old crow. I blogged and talked up my book on message boards. I got a few Internet partners, I baked more cookies, I begged, pleaded, flattered, cajoled, bargained and I got more partners. In the end I had enough support to reach 500,000 people. Yes! I would hit the Amazon bestseller list. Then agents would notice and publishers would come knocking. That was the plan.
But two days before my virtual party, my son, Michael, thoughtfully stroked his goatee and said, “Mom, if you want agents and editors to notice your book, why not just invite them to your party?” And there’s yet another advantage to age: Grown children capable of clever ideas. However, that idea was definitely against the rules. You’re supposed to approach agents according to a well-established protocol, and you’re not supposed to approach editors at all. Michael’s idea was risky and audacious, but in the end, I decided I was too old to be timid. I just didn’t have that kind of time. I got online and dug up e-mail addresses for 400 agents and editors. The night before the launch, I wrote personal invitations with a link to the party site and brazenly hit “send” 400 times.
By noon the next day, I’d heard from dozens of agents and editors. People were clamoring to read my book! An editor from a major house flat out offered me a hardcover deal via e-mail based solely on the reviews. Agents asked me to speed books to New York, and while I manned the computer, my husband, Frank, made multiple trips to the post office. Within 24 hours I had offers from several impressive agencies—including William Morris, with whom I made an agreement at whiplash speed.
I did hit the Amazon bestseller list, not that it mattered anymore.
New York talent scouts were talking about The Book of Unholy Mischief, and the buzz was so loud I could feel the vibration in California. I swear the earth moved. During that first wild week, my new agent turned down a respectable offer from a major publisher. She said, “We can do better.” I swallowed hard and hoped she knew what she was doing. Two weeks after my virtual party, The Book of Unholy Mischief went to auction.
The auction was due to start at 11:00 a.m. EST, which was 8:00 a.m. for me on the west coast. I planned to be sitting at my phone, showered and fully caffeinated by 7:30. As I stepped out of the shower at 6:00, the phone rang, and I ran for it, dripping and clutching a towel. My agent said, “Are you sitting down?” I stood there, holding my towel, and said, “Yes.” She said, “Two book deal, Simon and Schuster.” Then I sat down. I was naked and wet—like a newborn.
In the following unbelievably heady days, the foreign sales started. It was a global feeding frenzy. As of this writing The Book of Unholy Mischief will be published in a dozen languages.. Personally, I can’t wait to see the Hebrew and Cyrillic and Korean editions—I love exotic alphabets that look like music—and I have a place in my house ready to display them all. Dec 30 The Book of Unholy Mischief will be released in the United States and Canada. In January I’ll go to Venice for the Italian launch, then come back to the U.S. for a national book tour—every writer’s dream.
I’d like to refrain from using that tired old chestnut, Better Late Than Never, but I can’t. It is better late than never. In fact, I might even say, Better Late Than Early. First of all, there is no doubt in my mind that I earned my success, and I feel a profound gratitude that I probably wasn’t capable of twenty or thirty years ago. Second, I’m pretty sure my agent and editor are not worried that I will celebrate by getting sloshed and trampled in a mosh pit, which is a comfort to all three of us. Third, there is the knowledge that I did not waste my time writing for no one and nothing. Every day I lived and every word I wrote was necessary to find my voice.
So my image will be The Author Who Finally Did It “So Late in Life.” That’s fine. Now that I have spent time on the business end of publishing I see more clearly than ever that the greatest satisfaction is in the writing itself. For the most part, it’s not about me or anyone else holding a book, it’s about the work. All writers hope to be published, but we began writing because something inside of us yearned to make something beautiful or to shed light on what it is to be alive. Like any other passion, we did not start doing it for fame and fortune, but for those transcendental moments when we are swept up in the act of creation. We pursue those flashes of clarity when we are able to express the divinity within. I call it “being in the zone,” and it is what gives my life meaning.
Chasing commercial success is, by itself, an unsatisfying ambition, albeit one that I indulged with dogged persistence for many years. Today I know that real success is finding something you love and then doing the hell out of it. Success is nice, but being good at something makes you complete and valuable.
Our passions are our consolation for mortality, age is irrelevant, and none of us knows what waits around the next corner. When my work is passed over or my age seems like cause to quit, I think of Winston Churchill: With the sky over England littered by falling bombs and London besieged and people dying and the future looking hopeless, sixty-eight year old Churchill pushed out his pugnacious chin and growled, “Never, never, never, never give up.”