It’s not every day that an aspiring writer quits her cushy lawyer job in the hopes of being published. It’s also not every day that she then writes a debut novel that, according to Publisher’s Marketplace, sells (in conjunction with a second book) for over seven-figures. But for Julie Buxbaum, the above scenario is a reality: the now-London-based writer’s first book, The Opposite of Love, was published this past January by Dial Press to much acclaim, and her team recently announced a film deal with Paramount Pictures. Not too shabby for this former lawyer who didn’t even start writing her book until she told her law firm, “Sayonara.” So we’re thrilled to have Julie stop by and answer some questions on her writing process, her follow-up book, and how she’s dealt with this whirlwind process.
Q: Some writers outline their entire book from start to finish. I tend to write where my characters lead me, which means that I don’t always know how my book is going to end. Which sort of writer are you and why?
JB: I am definitely of the school of thought (particularly if you are not writing something like a mystery, where clues need to add up) that your characters have their own stories to tell, and it’s usually best to get out of their way. Though I did write an outline for The Opposite of Love, as soon as I got absorbed in the writing process, I completely forgot to look at it; I have never actually gone back over it, but I would imagine my end product is very different than what I had originally envisioned. If I hadn’t let myself go off outline, I would have missed the most fun part of the process: the surprise.
Q: Your lead character, Emily, shares a few, but not all, similarities with you, which might lead readers to assume this is more autobiographical than it is. Did you make an intentional decision to make her different than you, despite some life-experience similarities, such as losing a mother to cancer?
JB: Though I imagine a lot of people don’t believe me, I am not Emily. (I guess I should be careful here not to protest too much.) If I had written a book about myself not only would it have been incredibly boring for others to read, but it would have been painfully boring for me to write. I spend too much time navel-gazing as it is; I am not sure it would have been healthy for me to do it all day, every day! That being said, Emily and I do have a lot in common–we are both lawyers, and more importantly, as you mentioned, we both lost our mothers to cancer. And so when I created her, I wanted to create someone I could learn from, almost a thought experiment for me, or a “what if” character. Who would I have been had I had not had the support of my family when I lost my mom, and not had models for how to deal with my loss? What if I had never forced myself to deal with it? My reason for creating Emily was to use a character as a means of looking thematically at happens when we delay grief.
Q: Before you embarked on this publishing experience, what did you envision it to be like? How different has the experience been from the reality?
JB: To be honest, I am not sure I ever got that far with the envisioning. I never dreamed I could actually have a career as a writer. I do realize that’s a weird thing to say considering I quit my job as a lawyer to write The Opposite of Love, but the truth is when I made the decision, I told myself that the experience of writing the book had to be enough for me–even if it never got published and lived in the bottom of my desk drawer for the rest of my life. The fact that I get to do this full time now is nothing short of a dream come true. I just feel so unbelievably lucky. That being said, I do have to admit that being a writer and having a book out in the world is so much scarier than I had ever realized. There is a lot vulnerability in putting your work out there.
Q: I know that you’re working on your follow-up to The Opposite of Love. Is the second book proving harder to write than the first? Or is the experience any different?
JB: The experience has been very different. Sadly, I’m having a lot more trouble concentrating this time around. Although I don’t have kids, I imagine it’s a lot like having a second child; you can’t give that second kid nearly the amount of time and attention that the lucky first one got. (Can you tell I am a second child?) I think when you have poured so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s hard to shift all of that attention into a wholly new project. Or at least it has been for me. I am just now starting to let go of The Opposite of Love, and give my second novel the focus it deserves.
Q: Your book has been pretty huge. What, in your opinion, makes or breaks the success of a book, other than it being a good read!
JB: Thanks so much! I’m beyond flattered to hear you say that. I wish there were some magic formula, but honestly, beyond the obvious–a good read, a lot of hard work–in my limited experience, I think it takes an amazing amount of luck and determination and maybe a dash of obsessive compulsive disorder. I keep hoping someone will let me in on the secret password or handshake though, because I spend a little too much time worrying about how my book is faring out there in the world. (Again, I very much feel like it’s my child. I want to get it into the best schools, and give it a backyard, and maybe one day, an SAT tutor…)
Q: You recently sold the film rights to The Opposite of Love, which many writers dream about! Can you tell us how that came about?
JB: It is so exciting. I can’t really wrap my head around the possibility that there could actually, one day, be a movie on a movie screen in a movie theater, with these characters that I created and have grown to love. (I still haven’t quite gotten over the fact that there is this book, with my name on it, in bookstores.) As for how it came about, I really had very little to do with it. My film agent takes any and all credit for that.
Q: What’s the single-most important thing that someone should do if he or she aspires to be a published author? (Or the top few things, if you can’t name one!)
JB: Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on, and read critically, even on a sentence by sentence level. Ask yourself what works, what doesn’t, what captures your imagination and why. Why are you turning pages? Why are you bored? Why are you in love with certain characters, and have no feelings towards others? Why do you worship (insert your favorite author here)? When I made the decision to become a writer, I had absolutely no experience or legitimacy. I hadn’t even studied literature in college. But I’ve always been a lifelong reader–reading is the closest thing I have to a religion–and I honestly think that has helped me (and continues to help me) more than anything else. I am not sure you can become a novelist without worshiping books.
Thanks so much, Julie–and Allison–for a great interview!