My students asked me to answer these questions about writing and getting published as honestly and as simply as I could. Here goes:
What was it like writing your first book?
When I started to write “They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted” I was sitting at a card table, where, as is the fate of all card table, one leg was longer than the other.
There was a 60 watt bulb hanging from a frayed wire over my head – and the light coming through the sheer cheap curtains that I bought at a thrift shop – neither of which gave what you might call a delightful sense of brightness to the room.
There was no air conditioning and it was about 90 degrees – the walls were made of poured concrete and sweated on these days. My old alley cat from NYC refused to walk on the damp, slightly buckled, maroon linoleum floor. She was not a fastidious animal, you must understand. She’d been living in the foul smelling, scary alley next to my Lower Eastside apartment before I took her in. Stepping around the broken glass, the random bits of garbage, cans, and even less savory articles bothered her less than the unnatural damp of the linoleum floor.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t some ideal situation. It wasn’t even a garrett.
I had an old Macintosh computer – one of the ones that look as weird now as a T.V. set from 1950. It had a small screen, was a sort of dirty beige color, and the cursor blinked like an eye on the screen.
I’d already been given an advance by the publisher based on a twenty-page book proposal I’d concocted after being taken to a martini lunch by a young woman my age who was an acquiring editor for a New York publishing house. We’d met only because I sent a postcard to her responding to an article she’d written for a women’s magazine—I told her, quite simply, that I liked her style and what she had to say. She invited me to lunch and we talked books. She asked what I was working on and I didn’t even really understand I was making a pitch, but I was. She liked it.
After all these years, I still remember typing in the first line of the book because I had absolutely no idea how to begin.
I also remember deciding to lose that line. It went something like “I grew up watching endless reruns of the Bettie Davis movie Now Voyager, a film in which Bettie Davis learns how to love a married man without ever expecting any personal satisfaction. It is a movie virtually without humor and it seemed as if it were on TV every other night.”
Instead I ended up beginning the book with a discussion of watching the Dating Game and the Newlywed game – somehow I knew I needed to start with TV – and the new opening worked a lot better for a book on women’s humor.
What keeps you writing?
Even though I’ve never been good at math, I managed to figure out how much I’d be earning per page. It came out to be about $32 per day, which seemed an enormous amount at the time – and still does. In graduate school sometimes, it seemed as if $32 was my take home pay for the week, so getting paid to write exceeded my wildest dreams. I wrote because I had a deadline and because I was getting paid. These are, pretty much, still the reasons I continue to write. It’s very hard for me to write without knowing that for some outside reason I must....
to be continued....