When LOVE IN ENGLISH comes out on Tuesday, it will be seven years since my first book came out. Here’s a bit about what it took to get here.
I started life as “the precocious one.” My mom taught me to read (in Spanish) at four years old. I came back to the U.S. at eight without speaking much English, but within six months I was at the top of my class. I moved out at eighteen, got a full time job and put myself through college debt-free. I opened up a business at twenty-six (a business that is still run by a family member more than two decades later). And I liked the attention that gave me, the identity I forged around being the girl who got to things first.
Which is why it hurt so much that what I wanted most came so slowly.
At the age of twelve, I wrote in my diary, “most of all, I want to be a writer.” But life had more pressing concerns for me, like the aforementioned need to be financially self-sufficient at eighteen. When I left home, I got a job at a law firm in Washington Heights for $200 a week. If you’d have asked me then, and into my early twenties, what I wanted to be, my answer would have been, “Not poor.” Lack had nipped at my heels throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and I wanted to put space between me and it.
In college, I majored in English, because books and stories were still my first love. When the professor for my Shakespeare course kept me after class to praise my latest paper (a defense of Lady Macbeth on feminist grounds, because I’ve always been a contrarian), she asked me what I wanted to do after college. I didn’t talk about my desire to be a writer to most people at that stage of my life, because I had no idea how one went about it. But here was someone who might know. I ventured to tell her, “I want to write novels.” She laughed, although I don’t think she meant to be unkind. “No one makes money doing that. But your writing is strong. You should think about a career in academia.”
I’d like to paint myself as the heroic, intrepid person who never gave up, portray my journey to getting published with the soft glow of inevitability one can put on things after they’re done. But that wouldn’t be true. In my twenties, I wrote and sent off stories to literary journals with self-addressed, stamped envelopes, per their submissions guidelines. I waited eight months to watch my pre-paid rejections roll in. I was lost. I didn’t know how else to advance the dream. I started the business, and when someone came in to try and sell me advertising in a local magazine, I convinced them to let me write articles for them instead. No one read a word.
Then I had babies, two, eighteen months apart. And for nearly the first decade of their lives, I mostly let go of the writing dream. I am not sorry about that. They cast a mighty glow, and making sure they had a great life, one not defined by lack, was my biggest priority. It still is. If you’d have asked me about writing then, I might have said that it was something I had once dreamed of doing. I took one writing class when they were small. It was in New York City, and getting there from my suburban home kept me away from them longer than I liked. So I put the dream in a box. I tried local painting classes to see if that scratched a similar itch. It didn’t.
When my daughter was eight and my son seven, I ventured into New York for another writing class. This one was by practical, mile-a-minute uber-New Yorker and consummate writing business guru, Susan Shapiro. (She now has a writing guide you should pick up immediately if you have any writing aspirations, The Byline Bible. But at the time the only way to benefit from her knowledge was to trek out to her Greenwich Village apartment). She gave unstinting feedback on my essays, and recommended editors who might pick them up. Within a year of working with her, I’d published in Newsweek and The Washington Post. I’d opened up about a secret I’d kept all my life until then: my undocumented past. It was the story that would ultimately get me my first book deal for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY.
If this were the movie version of the story, credits would roll here. But life is not always like that. After SECRET SIDE, I wrote a companion novel, centered on a secondary character who had piqued my interest. My publisher was moving in a different direction with their young adult titles, and they passed. Everyone else who saw it passed too. In retrospect, I’m glad. It wasn’t very good.
I heeded the advice writers often get and wrote the next one, a near-future sci-fi young adult about clones who don’t know they’re clones. I sent it to my agent, who was unenthused. Her reader suggested I make it more like a movie that was popular at the time, something I’d explicitly tried to avoid. After some back and forth, I started writing the next thing, this time a fantasy (a book I still really love and which I hope will find its way out into the world one day). When my first agent, who is lovely and whom I hug whenever I get to see her, told me she also didn’t love that genre, I realized with much sadness that it was time to part ways.
For those of you not in the writing business, getting an agent is perhaps the hardest part of breaking into publishing. Once you’ve got one, you hold on for dear life… it’s scary to let go, even when the relationship is not a great fit. (Get in a room with two or more writers and the talk will eventually turn to agents and how to get them). And this takes up a few lines in this post, but it actually represents years of my life, years in which my first, “quiet” book was aging and disappearing from shelves. By the time I queried and got my second agent, it had been four and a half years since my book had hit shelves. I queried this agent with a contemporary, closer in theme and tone to SECRET SIDE, based on something difficult that had just happened in my life and which I worked through by writing a novel about it. We went out on submission with it. Crickets. For months. While I waited I wrote some more, including a full (a fantasy) I workshopped at Highlights and edited extensively and which still wakes me up in the middle of the night with ideas and dreams, I love it so much.
I’d been working on another project, a dark horse I worried wasn’t going to go far, a little book which would grow to be called LOVE IN ENGLISH. It’s not because I didn’t love the story that I didn’t know if anyone else would. It was because I still wasn’t sure if writing wanted me, if that dream I wrote in a diary at twelve was even achievable for someone like me, with the disadvantages I’d had growing up and my slow start in publishing, with my growing stack of rejections. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. I had ten drawer novels by then, six “fulls,” books that had captivated me and taken months of sweat and love and late nights to complete. I had a nagging suspicion I might just be a one-hit wonder, minus the “hit.”
We went out on submission with LOVE IN ENGLISH nearly eighteen months after I began it. I’d been out on submission before, so on the evening it went out, I put a reminder in my phone to check in one month just how many editors had passed on it. Except in the morning, I had a message: they had a pre-empt they were suggested I turn down. A pre-empt is when an editor really wants a book and offers you a good sum to take it off the market. The initial pre-empt was more than ten times what my advance had been for SECRET SIDE. By the end of the day, there was one for a higher amount (there would be four pre-empt offers altogether, a tough thing for the kid who grew up in an illegal basement apartment to pass up). The following week, they set up an auction, and I spent a day being wooed by editors at imprints whose names I knew by following the New York Times bestseller lists. And while I would have been honored to work with every single one of the editors I spoke to, LOVE IN ENGLISH landed with my dream editor at my dream imprint. When they gave me the projected publication date, February 2nd, 2021, I realized it would be one month shy of seven years between my first and second books.
As I like to tell folks: not from lack of trying.
LOVE IN ENGLISH helped me learn about storytelling and what readers (and editors) like. It is a lighter book that THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY. While it deals with what it’s like to come from another country and not speak English (as I once didn’t), its focus is on the love story. There’s fun and whimsy in it, plus humor (not to say there aren’t all those things in SECRET SIDE and my other books, but there’s more in LOVE IN ENGLISH). But a lot of the reception it got was outside my control. In a business as market-driven as publishing, it just turns out LOVE IN ENGLISH was an idea whose time had come, packaged in the right way at the right time. And I am grateful to have gotten a seat on the ride. I won’t pretend to have been the driver. While it is humbling, there is a peace to that, too. A writer can only put down the words. A lot of the rest of it (whether anyone buys, what people think, whether you’re lucky enough to get a good cover, like LOVE IN ENGLISH did, how readers react) is outside our control.
I am long past the days when I can gain a sense of identity from being the one who “gets there first.” My precocious days are behind me. In the place of the girl who wanted to blaze fast and hot is the woman who understands that things have their time and place. This week is the time to sit with the satisfaction of taking another step on the road to the dream. It is a road which I finally know I’ll always be on, no matter how winding or long, or how bright the light shines on it.
Thanks for walking these steps of it with me.
If you want to know more about LOVE IN ENGLISH, you can read some of what professional reviewers have appreciated about the book by clicking here.
And if you’d like to read a few pages of it to see it’s for you, check out this excerpt on Entertainment Weekly by clicking here.
If you want to buy, I’ve got links through which you can get it through your preferred retailer. Click here.
Prefer audio books? LOVE IN ENGLISH is out on audio too! Click here.