In the fall of 1996 I was riding the 2/3 train from lower Manhattan to my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn Heights when I saw an old summer camp friend sitting across from me. He was 26 and I was 33. He stood up and hugged me and said, “I’ve been reading your column. It’s really good.” For a few months I had been writing an autobiographical dating diary in New York Press, a free downtown newsweekly known for its rightwing politics and great first-person essays. Dan said he had become a literary agent. “Have you thought about turning your columns into a book?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Though my columns had elicited a lot of response in the letters section, it was hard for me to know what kind of impact they were having.
“Well, you should, and I should represent you.” He didn’t tell me that he had been an agent for only a few months, had only a few other clients and had sold only one book.
Read more publishing success stories with Tracey Garvis Graves.
Partly because no one else had approached me and partly because I liked the idea of working with an acquaintance, I hired him as my agent. I sent him all my columns and decided we should go out with a proposal for a collection, which he thought we should call Scamming. We hammered out the proposal together for about a month, and then he sent it to all the editors he thought might bite.
Thirteen meetings and several offers later, ranging from memoir to short-story collection to novel, no one wanted a collection of previously published work. I had a deal with Villard for an untitled novel about a sex columnist who can’t get a date. The editor, David Rosenthal, made his offer to Dan while I was down a hallway with another editor picking out free books to take home.
In the elevator Dan looked pale. On the street Dan lit a cigarette and told me the figure that had just been offered. I was shocked. I was going to have to become a cocaine addict to spend it all. I would never have to work again. (Oh, how wrong I was.) “I can’t believe it,” I said. “But I can’t talk about this right now. I have to go.”
“Where do you have to go?”
“I’m late for Hebrew School.” To make ends meet I was teaching religious school two afternoons a week to 8-year-olds.
“You just got a six-figure offer to write your first novel,” he said. “You can be late to Hebrew School.”
Soon I quit Hebrew School and temping. I spent the next two years writing the book, which was published in 1999 as Run Catch Kiss. I remember reading from it at the Barnes & Noble at Astor Place, looking out into the faces of 200 people, including my father who had come in dark sunglasses so as to seem anonymous, and wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t taken the subway that day.
Since Run Catch Kiss I have published three other novels (Motherland was just released this week with Simon & Schuster) and four nonfiction books. I have never been to a writers’ colony or been published in the New Yorker, and I have never been a critics’ darling, but I have been able to support myself for a decade and a half mostly through writing books and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
1. Don’t rule out a job or a person who might help you. Even if an agent is young, he or she may be hungry and apt to have good relationships with young, hungry editors who might want your book. If I have an instinct that an assignment will lead to bigger things, I’ll take low pay. A low-profile magazine article on a new HBO show called Sex and the City got me a job writing the tie-in book a couple years later. A friendship with a neighborhood mother who was a literary agent helped me get a deal to ghost write a memoir.
2. Spread your wings. If you want to try something different from what you’ve been writing before, don’t be afraid. Write the book and show editors that you are broader than your previously published list. But don’t expect it to happen by himself. Just like an actor who is typecast, you need to demonstrate range. My fifth novel, due out in 2014, is in a different vein from all the others, and I feel lucky that I will have a chance to do something different.
3. Read. The best cure for writer’s block is going back and reading great books. It allows you to procrastinate under the guise of “research,” and it’s the whole reason you got into this in the first place. Even if I start mimicking, eventually I come back to my own voice. Often I learn the solution to a problem, like how to do better physical description, or how to break up long dialogue. Right now I am reading The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans and Madame Bovary, both incredibly pleasurable novel research.
4. Form a discipline. On the days I don’t write I am miserable. It’s like an alcoholic trying not to drink. I try to write at least four hours a day six days a week. Usually they are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., when my daughter is at school. I use Freedom, an app that temporarily disables my Internet. It’s the only way I know to recreate the focused ambition I had before anyone ever paid me real money to write. (Every writer I know becomes less effective once she starts getting paid.)
5. Ignore the haters. Because I cut my teeth in a free weekly that had a vitriolic, barely-edited letters section, I am used to reading terrible things about myself. This actually made my first book reviews easier to read because even the mixed ones contained no curse words or name-calling. Since then two nefarious and anarchic entities called “Internet message boards” and “customer reviews” have been born. Though I read some critics’ reviews of my books, I don’t read message boards or reader reviews, just as I eventually learned to skip the letters section of the New York Press. It is too dangerous to read nasty things about myself by ill-informed, uneducated, hateful strangers while I am writing a new book. As Gore Vidal said, "It is of no consequence to you what other people think of you...what matters is what you think of them. That is how you live your life."
Amy Sohn is the author of four novels and has written for New York, the New York Times, The Nation, and Harper’s Bazaar, as well as TV pilots for such networks as HBO, Fox and ABC. Her latest book, Motherland, is out this week from Simon & Schuster. She lives in Brooklyn. For more, visit Amy at AmySohn.com. Photo credit Charles Miller.