The Frightening and Wondrous Things That Will Happen to You When You Publish Your First Novel
You will be standing at a community pool in a patch of mosquito-y grass. You will be sunburnt. Your breasts will be engorged from needing to nurse and at any moment your milk might let down and drench the front of your swimsuit. You will be talking to a man you know slightly who has read your book.
“I thought it was good and everything, but I don’t know if I agree with the reviews,” he will say. “Comparing you to Faulkner and Hemingway? Forgive me if I just can’t go there.” He’ll hold up his hands to say, “don’t shoot,” and laugh. His sunglasses will obscure his eyes.
“Yeah,” you’ll say, and laugh too, so polite. Where is your husband? Is there anyone near you who can help? People will mill about, all around you, but no one will swoop in to help you shift the conversation. The sky will remain perfectly blue.
“I mean, do you think you’re as talented as Faulkner and Hemingway?”
“Well, no,” you’ll say. “Those are two writers, actually, it would never occur to me to compare myself to.”
“Yeah, because I think they are both such better writers than you that it isn’t even — like the two things aren’t even comparable.”
You’ll nod. His child and your child will be on a blanket together, playing, or what amounts to play for 12-month-olds — touching each other’s faces and hair, cooing, laughing. You cannot simply walk away. It is possible some kind of force field is surrounding you that will actually keep you in place, and even keep your husband from returning from the bathroom and ending this. Your only solution, your savior, will be if your milk lets down so forcefully that you actually spray this man in the face through your swimsuit. You are grim. Milk is the only way out.
“Well, you know, reviews…” you’ll say.
“I mean, yours was just a novel about girls.”
“Yeah, I know that,” you’ll say.
“I just don’t see how anyone could compare it to actual literature.”
“Sure,” you’ll say.
“Are they going to make it into a movie?” he will ask.
“I don’t think so,” you’ll say.
The day you first find out your book has sold, you will be in the midst of the most terrible flu you have ever had. You will be lying in bed, trying to keep still so you won’t vomit anymore, and your agent will send you an email with an offer in it that actually makes you so excited and panicked that you will literally fall off your bed. It is a very high bed and the floors of your basement apartment are tile and it is winter so they are cold, which makes the fall even more physically confusing. You will thrash there for a minute before understanding how to get up.
You will race into the living room shouting incoherently to alert your best friend, who is staying at your house, and to whom you have given the same flu. Later, she will confess that she had just finally been able to fall asleep after a sleepless night of vomiting and she holds this rude awakening against you the whole rest of the day. Besides, you will wake up the baby.
It won’t matter. You will be so happy you can barely breathe.
You will also be terrified. Your heart will race and race, and not stop racing for approximately two weeks. You will be sure that you are going to say something wrong to either your agent or your editor that will make them call the whole thing off. They will suddenly realize you are a turd and they will regret ever speaking to you. You gear your entire being into a single wish, and the wish is that they never wake up from this dream and discover that really you are a turd.
That night you will buy many kinds of soup from Whole Foods and a nice bottle of wine. Everyone will be too sick to eat the soup, but somehow everyone will be well enough to drink the wine. You will remember that night around the cramped kitchen table with your best friend and your husband and your baby, in the cold apartment where the radiators are broken and the floors are icy tile, with the yellow lamplight making your sick, flu-flushed, feverish faces luminous, and it will be one of the happiest nights of your life.
People will say all sorts of things to you. Some of the conversations will be weird, but most of them will go exactly like this:
“And what do you do?”
“I’m a writer. I write novels.”
“What kind of novels? Fiction or non-fiction?”
“And are they based on your life?”
“Have you actually published a book?”
“Are they going to make it into a movie?”
Your novel contains within it the following taboo topics: abortion, heroin abuse, neglect of disabled children, threesomes and promiscuous sex, childhood sexual abuse, and genocide. Your husband’s entire extended Mormon family will read your book.
When you wrote the book, you never imagined they would read it. It honestly didn’t even occur to you. Whatever ways you were immoral and unfit to be married to their darling and beloved son/nephew/cousin were your business. When they begin contacting you, explaining they have read it or telling you that they are going to read it, you will begin to panic.
Your husband will not be worried. He is almost preternaturally laid back. The only thing that can ruffle him is the threat of physical injury to your child. Otherwise, the world does not worry him. “It will be fine,” he says.
Every single member of his family will tell you they loved your book. Even the most religious ones from Utah. They will buy extra copies. They will bully the people in their workplaces to buy your book. They will start book clubs just to promote your book. They will mob your readings. They will show up in clumps of 15 or 20, having forced all their co-workers and their co-workers’ children to attend. They will all buy yet another copy at the reading, to show their support. At one reading, you will sell out of 100 copies of your book though you know full well that most of them already own two or three copies.
They will tell you every time they see you how proud they are of you.
And each and every time it will make you cry.
You will be at the house of one of your close friends. He and his wife have made some kind of lentil soup that is delicious and they also have homemade bread, but they are being very stingy with it, only putting out a few slices at a time. You will long to eat that bread. You would eat the entire loaf if they let you.
“So my mother read your book,” your friend will tell you.
“She did? That’s unbelievably sweet,” you’ll say. You have never met his mother, so you will have little personal investment in this.
“Yeah, and she liked it. I mean, she didn’t love it, but she did like it. She was so-so.” He will say this like he regrets having to tell you, like he is telling you your dog has cancer.
“Well,” you’ll say, “not all people like the same books. You have to be allowed not to like things.”
“She said to tell you congratulations anyway.”
“Well, tell her thank you very much,” you’ll say. And you will wish he would make it up to you by cutting you some more of the bread.
One of the coolest and the weirdest things you will get to do is Skype into strangers’ book clubs. Despite your editor’s fervent belief that young women are your main readers, as far as you can tell, all of your readers are 55-year-old women, though they come in an astounding variety of types.
Some of the book clubs will be in a Mexican restaurant and you will be on a cell phone being passed from woman to woman. You will barely hear the questions they ask you over the mariachi music, and you will try to shout your answers from where you are hiding in your son’s bedroom. There will be a dinosaur poster clearly visible behind you and you will look fat. You’ll try to hold the phone at a better angle, but it will be hopeless. The better angle does not exist, not in this light.
Sometimes you will be on a laptop in an impossibly well-decorated house with what appear to be real paintings on the walls and women wearing white jeans and sweaters that you wish you could press your face into. These women will invariably be drinking wine and eating charcuterie. They will make jokes that imply they think you are a drug addict because some of the details in your book seem “too authentic.” This will make you wonder if maybe they are drug addicts.
Other times you will be talking to a college class or sometimes even a graduate-level class, and you will be projected onto a great big screen in the front of their classroom, but the video feed of them will be focused on everyone’s ankles, so you will speak as earnestly and passionately as you can to their feet, which, the more you look at them, will make you feel extreme tenderness for these students, who are mostly wearing flip-flops or else very cushion-y, cartoon-y looking sneakers. Someday, they will all be wearing pinch-y leather shoes that are really foot prisons, and you hope that they savor this time of casual footwear as the paradise it really is.
Also, feet always remind you people will die. It’s just something about feet for you.
You will learn quickly not to read your Goodreads or Amazon reviews. It isn’t that you won’t care what readers think of your book, it is that you will care too much. A lot of the people who read your book thought it was going to be something else. Something nicer and cleaner and more fun. Some of them are upset there was swearing.
You feel angry about this at first, and then suddenly contrite. You look at their other reviews. You look at the books they gave five stars to. One woman, who really hated you, so much that her review became incoherent in the middle, gave five stars to a book called Tie Dyed: A Quilting Mystery. And you understand. This poor woman bought your book by mistake and she was truly horrified by it. You wish you could apologize to her personally and refund her money. You wince at every f-bomb that harangued her poor ears. You will not take your bad reviews as personally after that, but you will also find it easier to stop reading them.
Your book will be long-listed for two major awards. Your publisher will send you a bottle of champagne in a little miniature wooden crate that will mystify you the entire time you are opening it and when you finally figure out what it is you will start laughing and crying at the same time and then you will take a picture of the bottle of champagne with your phone and you will send it to your mother.
When you fail to make the short list for either award, your editor, your publicist, all the people who are usually so anxious to talk to you, will not say a word and will avoid any contact with you for almost a month, as though your loser-ish-ness is a disease and they are afraid to catch it.
Only your agent will acknowledge what has happened and send you an email, “In the Department of You Cannot Only Have Good News, I’m sorry about the short list.” She will then proceed to cheer and gently tease you in the voice of one of your own characters. It will make you feel human again in a sudden, mortifying rush like having the wind knocked out of you.
One night you won’t be able to sleep. It will be because you are pregnant again. Something about being pregnant causes you to be gently but firmly awake between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. You will browse through Facebook and email on your phone in the darkness.
You’ll receive an email left on the web-form on your website. It will be a young woman who writes to tell you that she just finished your book and tonight is her first night in her very first apartment ever. She does not yet have internet access, but your book made her feel things so strongly that she simply could not let the moment go by, and so she has climbed out onto the very corner edge of the roof of her building and by holding her phone in the air has managed to find a wifi network to log onto so that she can send you this email.
You will be able to imagine her perfectly. You were just this kind of girl.
You can imagine her apartment, all cardboard boxes and camping chairs, a cheap folding table, a six-pack, a half-picked over rotisserie chicken in the otherwise completely empty fridge. You yourself lived in that apartment for years. You bought only bookcases and a cat and failed to purchase a bed for almost a year. You were just the kind of girl to read a book and be so moved by it that you would crawl out on the roof to try to reach out to its author.
You will have forgotten yourself. You will have forgotten the beauty and purity and pain of being that young. You will be so grateful to be given the gift of being reminded. You’ll be so grateful that someone has read your book and felt feelings with you and become friends with the ghost of your mind.
In all the years you wanted to be a writer and publish a novel, you never dared hope for a moment like this. And yet, it will come, delivered soundlessly to you in the middle of the night. Like a miracle.
Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her novel, The Girls From Corona del Mar, was published by Knopf July 2014, and is now available in paperback from Vintage. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two sons.