After my first book, All Unquiet Things, was released in January 2010, my friends threw me a little party at our favorite local bar (which was a very nice thing of them to do). What I remember best from that night was when my friend threw his arm around me and said, “Aren’t you relieved? Now you can just coast for the rest of your life because you’ve already done something!”
I think he was joking. At least, I hope so. But every time I remember what he said, I laugh. This was the first thing to come to mind when I sat down to write this piece. Because the answer to the question, “How did you do it?” is that I’m still doing it. I don’t feel ready to admit I did anything, because I have a long, long way to go. In part, that has to do with personality, I’m sure; I’m pretty driven and never satisfied with myself. I’m always determined to do better. But I also think some of it has to do with the fact that I work in marketing at a big children’s publisher. Had I ever experienced the desire to rest on my laurels or take a long post-debut nap, my day job would’ve beaten that impulse right out of me.
I have been serious about writing since I was eleven, which coincided with having a computer in the house, but I’ve always considered myself a reader first. I’m not always confident in my ability to write something worth reading, but I rarely doubt my ability to identify good books. This meant, of course, that I decided early on that I wanted to go into trade publishing as a career, outside of my desire to write. Call it practicality, but my determination to work in publishing often pushed my determination to be published to the back burner. The former seemed possible, even probable, if I worked hard enough; the latter seemed largely dependent on luck and good timing, two things I'm not generally rich in. So it strikes me as ironic that it was the opportunity to publish that came first, then the publishing job. But that is exactly what happened.
When I was twenty-two, I made the decision to go to graduate school. I chose to attend the University of Chicago for my Master’s because the program that I’d applied to allowed flexibility in terms of how to fill the graduation requirements. Since I had no interest in pursuing my Ph.D., I could take whatever classes I wanted and I could write a creative thesis while taking academic classes, which is exactly what I did. When I started school in the fall of 2006, I thought I was going to write a fictionalized account of my grandparents’ experiences during World War II, but by the time January 2007 rolled around, I’d decided to revisit a manuscript from my college years, a manuscript called All Unquiet Things.
Over the course of those six months, I completely reimagined the novel under the guidance of my adviser, changing it from a story about friendship to a story about lost love, from a story about madness to a proper murder mystery. My hard-to-please adviser deemed it good, even “publishable,” and gave me an A on the project. Not long afterward, I found out that I was being offered a summer internship at Browne & Miller Literary Associates, a Chicago literary agency with a long-standing relationship to the University of Chicago. There I came to know Danielle Egan-Miller, the president of the agency, and Joanna MacKenzie, an agent who became a friend of mine.
I learned an astonishing amount that summer about the trade publishing business, and I swear to God, the most educational experience I had at the agency was cleaning the filing cabinets and sorting through a quarter century of author/agent/editor correspondence. It was like opening a clock face and getting a long look at the gears turning inside. Danielle and Joanna knew that I was an aspiring writer and that I’d finished a novel for my thesis, but I was nervous about showing it to them. I’ve always been cautious about blending “Publishing Me” with “Author Me,” but when my internship was over and I’d moved to New York to work at an independent book marketing firm, I sent Joanna the manuscript to read. She offered me representation and we did some editorial work on the book. In September of 2008, she went out with it to editors. One week later we had a pre-empt offer from my now-editor and I became a Delacorte author.
From offer to release date, it took a year and a half to publish All Unquiet Things, during which time I started a dream job at a big six publisher in the young readers marketing department, where I remain to this day. I work on the same sorts of books that I publish—young adult novels—and though this can sometimes be a challenge, I’m so grateful to work on both sides of the business. I honestly believe that it makes me a better writer and author—author, because I know what questions to ask my publisher, as well as what really makes a difference in a career. And writer because there is probably no environment in which you will talk about what makes books good and successful more than at a publishing house. The conversations I have at work help inform the writing I do when I get home, and what I’ve learned has been absolutely invaluable to me.
But probably the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from working in publishing is that I should always be looking forward, always striving harder, and constantly asking myself, in the immortal words of America’s favorite fake president, Josiah Bartlett: What’s next?
Anna Jarzab grew up entirely in the suburbs, first outside Chicago and then in San Francisco’s East Bay area, where All Unquiet Things is set. She currently lives in New York City and just published her second novel, The Opposite of Hallelujah, in October. Visit her online at www.annajarzab.com.