Monday, December 1, 2008

Author Amy Koppelman is fantastic

I first encountered the works of Amy Koppelman when her first novel, A Mouthful of Air, came across my desk.  It was a summer filled with breezy reads, and this book, about a young mother's postpartum depression, promised something more substantial.  I devoured the book.  I loved it so much I build a whole Boston Globe column, "Let's Hear it for the Unhappy Ending" around it.  Koppelman's second novel, I Smile Back, is equally ferocious, beautiful, and unforgettable.  I asked her, "What's it like being a novelist the second time around, and here is her very thoughtful response.  

Thank you, thank you, Amy.

The Second Time Around

I thought that it had to get easier, that the second time around I would have more confidence, which would invariably lead to more productivity.  I wouldn't be timid about bending a sentence this way or that because the last time I bent someone bought.  I was certain I would find validation between the hard covers and deckled edges. So much so, that I might begin to call myself a “writer”--might even say “I'm sorry, I can't meet you for coffee because I have to write.” That's what 
we writers do right? --we write. Yes, if only I could get my first novel published I'd be part of the we- and my second novel would pour out of me like (and I'm one who takes issue with simile) melted chocolate from a gravy boat. 

The thing is, a blank sheet of paper is exactly that-blank. An 8x10 inescapable white surface that you must fill with letters.  Letters that form words.  Words that build sentences. Sentences that comprise paragraphs. Paragraphs that hone thought.  Thought that sustains chapters.  Chapters that link a narrative.  A narrative, and this is where it gets tricky, that 
means something.  You are, after all trying to say something.  That's what we writers do right? -we say something.  Yes, if only I could get my first novel published I'd be one of those people that espouses.  Morality would spring from me (and I'm one who takes issue with metaphor) like oil from a well. 

What's more I had a plan.  I was building a career.  A small press leads to a big press. I would recoup my advance, I would sell out my printing, I would be operating in the black. I would have reviews, a small but dedicated group of fans-- I would get another shot.  I didn't factor in book scan. A friend of mine, let's call her X, sold her book for $300,000 to one of the big presses.  She sold five thousand more books that I did.  They lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I got a royalty check. Aren't I the better investment?

The answer to the above is succinct. “No.”  The publishing world of today rarely builds careers.  Editors, if they want to keep their jobs, simply don't have the time. There is so much media to compete with: the movies, internet, Youtube. If books about teenagers in New York City are all the rage you can expect a run on them.  And that's not only okay, it's reasonable.  Publishing is a business. I knew this back then but thought it was somehow different.

I'm not sure if I answered the question since I don't have much in the way of advice. All I can tell you is this: From my experience the writing doesn't get easier, it's nearly impossible to sell a book and people don't read much fiction. What I know now, that I didn't know the first time around is that none of that can matter.
  I write now with the assumption that few will ever read my words and validation will remain, for me, perhaps more elusive than a 
Times book review. BUT, what I also know is that as long as I keep at it there's the chance that I might find the words to build the sentences that comprise the paragraphs…
     For the sheer possibility, I remain grateful.


Gina Sorell said...

What a great response. I totally get the wanting to belong to the published club, and naively hoping that it will change one's life.

And I have to agree that novel #2, doesn't come any easier than novel #1. In some ways it's harder...the fate of the first novel still undecided, makes it hard to move on.

Michele said...

I love reading about authoring a book. I have no concept of it and learn so much, gaining an even bigger appreciation for the writers that I love.

I have just sent a note to my family asking for these books for Christmas. Yeah me!

Unknown said...

Agreed -- great response. I'm putting her books on my to-read list immediately.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

This really was extraordinary. I loved reading it, and it helped me a lot, too, for its honesty and wisdom, thanks to you both for posting it. I really know these feelings, that second book which is like a red balloon you thought would float on helium and fly you across windows and doors which had been closed before as you soared holding its string(I hate similies too but they get contagious)---when it turns out that red balloon was just an inflated party toy and lots of people have fallen and broken trying to hold onto its dangling string in desperation for that high,it brings as much damage as it does ecstasy. The second book, for me, was like learning how to walk instead. The thing is, it's more magical to be able to walk, to just love my work because I'm not crawling around in one room anymore infant-like and drooling and waiting for unconditional acceptance and elevation..not to need that inflated balloon,the bloated parties toys which are presented to us writers as real "Success"...just to have the work, that passion for the work back and solid inside the heart, to move honestly, humanly and modestly is a greater pleasure. For me anyway. Just walking is so under-rated.