HOW ALCOHOL AND ROCK-N-ROLL SAVED MY WRITING CAREER (AND P.S. I SOLD ANOTHER BOOK)

merainbow
Let there be rainbows.

If you keep up with my blog, you know I’ve been ingesting copious quantities of cookie dough, trying to stave off madness while waiting to learn the fate of my new novel, The Long Ride Home.  I’m delighted to announce that my binge eating has come to a screeching halt. The Long Ride Home will be released by Sourcebooks in Summer 2017.  My former editor from Simon & Schuster, Annette Pollert, who is now the editor-in-chief at Sourcebooks Fire, will be editing the book.  I’m so thrilled and honored to work with this brilliant woman again, and to join the Sourcebooks family of authors.

We closed the deal on Wednesday, and I’ve sent the past few days reeling with joy and disbelief, stealing wine from my brother to celebrate, and trying to absorb the news.  It’s over.  I crossed the finish line.  I’ve also been thinking about how precarious the genesis of this book was.  Conceiving a literary love child is just as statistically unlikely as conceiving a physical love child in any given sex act.  It is dependent on all sorts of factors coming together perfectly.  And as is often the case with physical conception, it is also dependent on just the right kind of drunk.

The Long Ride Home was conceived in Charlottesville, Virgina in July of 2014.  As you may have suspected, I was mildly inebriated on the day she came into being.  That summer, I was teaching a creative writing workshop at University of Virginia, where the father of three of the band members of Sons of Bill is a professor. (Incidentally, he’s the proverbial “Bill” in question. I’ll get to why I’m bringing up Sons of Bill. This information is not as tangential as it seems.)

The day I arrived, a giant thunderstorm knocked out the power during a meeting, and my coworkers and I went outside after the rain stopped to play soccer.  (It was better than sitting inside in the dark.)  When I say “we” went outside to play soccer, I mean they played soccer, and I, being a total klutz, stood on the sidelines and looked at the sky, which was lucky, because an exquisite rainbow appeared.  My wonderful boss Lauren, who later saw fit to sneak out with me for beers at the ends of exhausting days, to listen to all sorts of my confessions and life dramas, and to become a lifelong friend, took a photo of me touching it.  I felt then, and still believe, that rainbow was a harbinger of magic.

meandlauren
Me and the beautiful Lauren

The University of Virginia is indeed a magical place.  I sent my students out one day to write poems about things they found.  When I taught in Arizona and did this exercise, my students returned with poems about rocks.  But in Virginia, they came back with poems about deer.  Mother freaking deer were cavorting about the campus, being all Bambi-ish and providing unprecedented inspiration to fledging writers.  It was really all too much.

For weeks, I worked rewarding but grueling 12-hour days and then returned to my postage-stamp-sized dorm room each night to try to come up with an idea for my second novel.  My agent, Andy Ross, who is awesome, thinks I’m the best thing since pillow top mattresses, and believes I am being a slacker if I am not writing 24/7 (I’m allowed to take pee breaks, but that’s it) was pressing me for new material.  I kept trying to hammer out something “good,” something that would be similar in some way to Beauty of the Broken, and had failed miserably twice. By failed miserably, I mean I had written three chapters of two bad books, so that’s like a hundred pages of failure.  I was feeling pretty freaking frustrated about the whole thing.

Finally, I had a day off, so I decided I was going to walk to a nearby pub, drink until I was either drunk or inspired (or both), listen to music, and write whatever the hell I wanted, good or bad.  I was three glasses of questionable merlot in, scribbling bad poetry, when Sons of Bill’s cover of “Unknown Legend” came on my iPod.  I’ve heard Neil Young’s version many times, but I never loved the song until Sons of Bill covered it.  Their music has a haunting, otherworldly quality that makes everything they perform veritably gripping.

“Out along the desert highway, she rides her Harley Davidson, her long blond hair flying in the wind.  She’s been running half of her life.  On chrome and steel she rides, colliding with the very air she breathes,” James sang. The sound of his voice made me want to cry, (as the combination of bad wine and good music often does), and immediately, I saw an image—a skinny, scared, suicidal girl flying down the highway on a motorcycle ten times bigger than her body.  For the first time, The Long Ride Home’s protagonist Harley spoke to me.

She said, “If you picture me as a rugged girl on a Harley, speeding down a leather black highway at 100-miles-an-hour, you might be right.  I’m like that some days.  A scrawny thing clad in my mom’s biker jacket, long, blond hair flying behind me in the wind.  If you see me riding, you’ll think I’m tough.  You’ll think my biker boots mean I could kick ass if I wanted to, and I guess I could. What you won’t see, if you’re only glancing at me as I whiz past, is that I have tears on my face.  The tears would be frozen if it was winter–really winter, I mean.  Alaskan winter.   My tears would be almost invisible in Bangkok, lost as they would be in a mist of summer rain.  But I’m neither of those places, and I’m not riding my Harley just now.  Where I am is in Los-freaking-Angeles, and not the pretty Beverly Hills part either.”

My agent now uses that paragraph when he teaches workshops on how to grab an agent’s attention within the space of a paragraph. I don’t know if he tells his workshop attendees that the secret to literary success is considerable inebriation, or if he spins it in a more professional direction. But friends, I will tell you there is something be said for drinking, listening to music, and not trying to be “good” while writing.   Harley kept talking, and by the end of Chapter 1, I knew:

  1. that she was living in L.A. with her mom’s weird friend because her mom was dead,
  2. that she was responsible for her mom’s death,
  3. and that she also might be pregnant.

I sent the chapter to my agent, and he wrote back one sentence: “You are a genius.”  After that, I became Harley’s bitch.  She would wake me up at midnight and tell me about her stupid best friend (baby daddy?) Dean.  She would heckle me at rock shows about her PTSD.  She would force me to yank out my computer in airports to transcribe her morbid jokes about her dead mom.  She never let me drink in peace.  At least half of her journey was originally chronicled on bar napkins.

A year later, I pulled her ramblings together, and viola, I had a novel.  A couple months after that, my agent received word that two publishers were interested in the book, and a few weeks later, I sold my second literary lovechild to an amazing publisher.

This sale means so much to me.  One of a debut novelist’s greatest fears is that she will be a “one hit wonder.”  The publishing business can be merciless.  Statistically, I’ve heard that about 1 out of every 10,000 books written gets published by a mainstream publisher.  Even though breaking through that seemingly impenetrable wall and publishing a debut novel feels like a monumental accomplishment, not everyone that publishes a first novel publishes a second.

The precariousness of a new writer’s professional standing is compounded by the fact that many people don’t read books anymore.  They watch T.V.  They play video games.  They go to movies.  But weird little blocky things with squiggles in them?  No thanks.  Unless you are Stephen King, there is no guarantee that anyone is going to want to read what you write. In all honesty, I have lived the entire year since Beauty of the Broken came out feeling like a fraud, thinking that I was going to be unable to sell anything else, and the jig was going to be up.

But as of Wednesday, the jig officially isn’t up.  I can almost, almost breathe a huge sigh of relief and say, “Look, ma.  I’m a real writer.”

Still, I keep rewinding to the moment Sons of Bill’s cover of “Unknown Legend” came on and thinking, “If I hadn’t gone to the pub that day, if that song had never come on, there would be no second novel.”  I’m quite sure I owe at least some of this novel to Sons of Bill.  In addition to be some of the most accomplished musicians I have ever known, they are just all around great human beings.  Thanks for making amazing music, guys, and for rocking hard enough to save my literary ass.

 

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