The Glamorous Writer’s Life
By Kate Flora
As a child growing up a small town with the library as my refuge, I thought writers were gods. I imagined that they lived very glamorous lives, an image that was fed by TV and the movies and novels that I read. Writers lived in New York. They went to swank parties and hobnobbed with famous people. They were sent around the country, if not around the world, on book tours. They rode in limos. They were profiled in magazines and interviewed on TV. They dressed, I thought, like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (And yes, I know SHE wasn’t the writer, but I never imagined myself in a tweed sport coat.) When they had book signings, eager readers lined up around the block to get their signatures.
I dreamed of becoming a writer, but became a lawyer instead. And then one day, when I was taking some time off from work, and at home with two small boys, panicked about not having a job, I thought—well, I’ve always wanted to write. Maybe it’s something I can fit into the small spaces of a mom’s busy life. Nearly ten years later, after a long time spent in the unpublished writer’s corner, my first book was coming out, so I went to New York (glamour, adventure, the BIG TIME) to meet with my publisher to talk about promotion for the book. I wore black pants, white shirt, a vest. I looked very little like Audrey Hepburn.
After a tour of their offices in the Flatiron Building, crowded with manuscripts and crammed with shelves of book, over the moon with excitement, I went to lunch with my editor, my agent, and the publisher. A chicken farmer’s daughter from Maine becoming a writer in Manhattan. The publisher leaned back in his chair, studied me like I was a lab specimen, and asked, “Why are you here?”
“To talk about the publicity campaign for my book,” I said.
After a lecture on how much advertising is necessary to get a book noticed, he delivered the bad news. There was not going to be a publicity campaign for my book. It was a first book. I was unknown. They had invested very little in the book. Then he said, “What month is this? September? Nine months into the year, and you’re the first first-time author I’ve had lunch with.” I guessed that lunch was my publicity budget.
I was undaunted. I hadn’t really expected glamour. I wasn’t a dreamy kid in Union, Maine anymore. I was just thrilled to be published.
That was back in 1993 or so. And what Anne Lamott writes in her chapter on publication in Bird by Bird is a pretty accurate picture of how it is. There are no bands or parades. It’s more like a roller coaster. You get the prepub review that says you are “a treadmark on the underpants of life.” Later, you will get the starred review that takes your breath away. On your publication day, no one notices—there are no marching bands, no phone calls from friends, the only flowers you get are the ones you sent yourself.
You schedule an event at Barnes and Noble and they set you up in a ring of chairs occupied by street people who have come inside to get warm and are now snoozing in all the other chairs. Or they seat you at a table where everyone asks you the way to the bathroom, except the bored guy whose wife is shopping, who talks your ear off until his wife is finished, then leaves without buying the book. You speak at the Boston Public Library and a person with mental issues sits in the front row and talks over you until staff escorts her out. Then you go to a library in a small town, and sixty people show up and you sell every book you brought. You visit a bookstore after the New York cab driver has gotten lost three times and told you how he’s inspired by Andrew Carnegie, and no one is there. But the cab driver has given you a character and a story, and then a woman wanders up to you, asks about your book, and buys it, and then confesses it’s the first book she’s ever bought.
When I ask other writers about their glamorous lives, Sheila Connolly says: “I live in chef’s pants and cracked crocs. Every non-writer I meet assumes I make pots of money. And the absolute low point was driving across the state to a distant town, in the dark, in the rain, and only one person came. And she already owned the book.” Marnie Graff writes, “Well, we get to work in our jammies. But once we finish all those rewrites, we don’t get to sit back and relish that. Instead, we are setting up readings, traveling to hawk our books, promoting ourselves in blogs and in articles and interviews, if we can get them, when we’d rather be sitting home in our jammies, writing the next one.”
Charlaine Harris, author of the books on which the True Blood series is based, says: “I thought I would have to drink all the time. I discovered that that’s only optional.” And yet, at our conferences, that’s where we all are. Gathered in the bar. Incredibly congenial. And perhaps looking for a mutual escape from those incessant voices in our heads. An escape from the thousands of hours we spend all alone, in our pajamas, in our rooms, in our chairs, staring at screens as drops of blood slowly form on our foreheads and we face the reality that everything we wrote that day is absolutely crap. So glamorous.
My friend Kathleen Valentine, who’s really taking off on Kindle, says: I've only been a "success" for four months now so I don't see much different except instead of spending my days glued to the computer designing web sites, I spend my days glued to the computer working on books. However, I can afford to order Chinese food instead of cooking more often....” Ellen Byerrum writes: “You have to be cautious when you have a day job. Employers believe you won't give them your last drop of blood and while some coworkers think it's cool, others can make your life miserable, particularly if they harbor thwarted writing ambitions. One person I worked with told me not to talk about writing because not everyone had such a glamorous life, which is funny because I gave all my nights and weekends to writing while they had fun. However, I have to say there have been moments of glamour.”
Moments of glamour indeed. Like getting nominated for an Edgar, the mystery world’s equivalent of the Oscars, and needing a gown and shoes. I got my shoes at Out of the Closet, in SF...and the guy behind the counter caressed my lovely peep toe, black satin Bruno Magli pumps with swirls of rhinestones on the toes and said, "Oh, I wish I would of seen them first." Like having my editor take me for a drink at the Algonquin, because every writer ought to get to go there. And like being taken to a very fancy restaurant by the late, and wonderful, Leona Nevler at Ballantine. Leona, my agent, the publicist, the publisher, all hanging on my every word. And when I called her later to say “thank you” and comment on how wonderful it was to finally be treated like I always imagined a writer would be, she said, “Ah. Yes. But we can turn on you at any time.”
Attorney Kate Flora's fourteen books include seven series mysteries, four gritty police procedurals, a suspense thriller and two true crime books. Finding Amy was a 2007 Edgar nominee and has been filmed for TV. Death Dealer,a true crime involving a Canadian serial killer, is a 2015 Agatha and Anthony finalist. Flora's Joe Burgess police procedurals have won the 2013 and 2015 Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. She spent seven years as editor and publisher at Level Best Books. Flora is former international president of Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the Maine Crime Wave and New England Crime Bake conferences. She has taught writing at Brown, the Cape Cod Writers Conference, for the Maine Writers and Publishers Association, and at many national conferences. She teaches writing for Grub Street.See other articles by Kate Flora