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We Are What We Write?

Flickr Creative Commons: art of imagined reality [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: art of imagined reality

Kim here to welcome and introduce WU’s latest contributor, Therese Anne Fowler. Therese is the author of the New York Times bestselller Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and three other novels. She has a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology, an MFA in creative writing, and occasionally teaches writing workshops at North Carolina State University. Therese lives in Raleigh, NC with her partner and their (mostly) agreeable cats.

In early 2008, Therese Walsh emailed me with an interview request. She was a regular visitor to my blog (as I was to WU) and knew my debut novel was about to launch. With characteristic generosity, she wanted to help me get the word out, and we ended up producing a two-part interview (that you can read here [2]and here [3]). It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that has seen us through the promise and perils of this publishing life—four books for me, two for her, in seven years so far.

We were on retreat together in the North Carolina mountains last September when “the other Therese,” as she first referred to herself, mentioned there was an opening at WU for a new contributor. Might I be interested? I said, “Absolutely! Count me in.” The novel I was trying to configure during the retreat would surely be well underway by the time my first post came due in March.

Alas. I’m no closer to having a completed manuscript today than I was last fall—or, in fact, the previous fall. Which just goes to show that you can think you know something, can believe you know it, can foresee a path ahead, and even then can be mistaken. This is true for a lot of things, but nowhere more so than in publishing.

Note that in the above paragraphs I’m saying “publishing” as opposed to “writing.” I referred to the perils of the publishing life, the mistaken beliefs I had about publishing. It’s an important distinction. Writing has its own very different perils and paths.

In re-reading the 2008 interview, I had two prevailing reactions: I thought I sounded pretty competent, which made me happy. I certainly don’t always feel so competent. And I thought Wow, was I ever naïve.

A short history: in December ’05, I’d just defended my thesis (a novel) and received my MFA, and then, a few weeks later, signed with one of my first-choice literary agents. In early ’06, as my agent continued to receive reluctant rejections from editors, I began a new, deliberately different novel, finished it that summer, sold it at auction in late September. A six-figure deal, a big pile-on of foreign rights deals—it was, I believed, a dream come true.

I talk in the interview about what I did differently with that novel, how deliberately I’d assessed my work and my ambitions and wrote the new novel accordingly. The combination of idealism and confidence now seems quaint to me. Yes, I’d analyzed and acted, and I’d succeeded (inasmuch as one succeeds before the book actually goes on sale). But the results of the analysis were faulty because there was one important component, one unknown aspect of the publishing world that I’d failed to take into account.

That first published novel, and the two that followed, were commercial women’s fiction. I’d foreseen publishing several such novels, using the income to pay off the debts I’d accrued over the previous decade (from my divorce, then undergrad, then grad school), socking some money away to fund my sons’ future college educations. And then, if I wanted to, I would write literary fiction, “serious” novels that no publisher would ever think to market as being “in the tradition of Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult,” as was the case with my debut. I’d have proven myself. I’d have a “name.” I could write whatever I wanted to. No problem.

[pullquote]That missing aspect I’d failed to take into account was this: in the publishing world, and particularly in the subset that is the high literary world (i.e. writers, editors, publishers, and critics of literary fiction and nonfiction), you, as a person, are what you write.[/pullquote]

That missing aspect I’d failed to take into account was this: in the publishing world, and particularly in the subset that is the high literary world (i.e. writers, editors, publishers, and critics of literary fiction and nonfiction), you, as a person, are what you write. To those who maintain this view, someone who would choose to write commercial fiction of any genre is not a person who can also be regarded as a “serious” writer. Publish one commercial novel and you, as a person, are judged as lesser.

For some of you here in 2015, this truth will seem self-evident. But maybe because back then in my early days the Internet hadn’t yet exploded with resources, and because I hadn’t spent time with writers who’d actually experienced that part of the publishing world, I hadn’t been exposed. When I discovered the truth (as exhibited, first, by the way I was treated at a couple of pre-pub dinners with industry insiders), I was—to use a term of high art—pissed.

I should note that many commercial fiction advocates exhibit a significant prejudice against literary authors as a group, a kind of reverse discrimination that is no more legitimate than its counterpart. Writing talent is writing talent. Why should it matter what genre it’s applied to? Why is there a class system in the publishing world? A story either succeeds in satisfying its intended audience, or it doesn’t. Why isn’t that the be-all, end-all truth?

I actively tilted at windmills for a while, but then I was faced with a more important problem. My career was failing. My sales trend was a sharp down-slope. I had to make some kind of change. With nothing to lose, I chose to write a novel I was passionate about, a novel that fit better with my personal interests and writer-goals than my earlier books had done, come what may. (If this sounds like I’m denigrating my earlier work, that’s not the case. I’m proud of those books. They’re done well, even if they didn’t all do well.)

If changing course meant publishing under a pseudonym, so be it. In the end, though, my new publisher was willing to take a risk. We added my middle name to the author line in order to differentiate Z from my earlier titles, and out into the world it went.

If “all’s well that ends well,” then for now, at least, all is well. The book has proven itself, and in doing so amended, somewhat, the publishing world’s perception of “who I am.” (I put this in quotes because I still find the whole system of judging unfair in this regard.)

But I can’t help thinking about what I might have chosen to do differently if I had known in the beginning what the entire landscape looked like. The publishing life has so many perils as it is; might I have stuck with writing “serious” books and at least saved myself the disheartening experiences of being unfairly judged? I don’t honestly know.

But I raise the issue for you because I wish I’d had it to consider from the start. Unfair as it may be, writerly class judgment is still a reality. It’s real, and it’s not likely to change much any time soon, and forewarned is forearmed. However, that’s not to say there’s no hope. Every time someone from either the literary or commercial world makes a successful foray into the other camp, the boundaries become a little less rigid. We are not different species. We can—and should—interbreed, inasmuch as any one of us wants to. How do we do that? By honing our craft and writing at the top of our abilities in whatever genre we choose.

For what it’s worth, I firmly believe there’s no “right choice” regarding what to write or how to write it or where and how to publish it. There’s only the right choice for you.

About Therese Anne Fowler [4]

Therese Anne Fowler [5] is the author of the New York Times best seller Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and three prior novels. Her essays have been published internationally in newspapers and magazines such as Psychology Today, the London Telegraph and Harper's Bazaar, and her novels are published in seventeen languages worldwide. Though she writes fiction full-time, she does on occasion teach creative writing workshops, as well as classes at North Carolina State University--most recently in spring '14. She has a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. A native of a rural Illinois town no one has heard of, she transplanted herself to Raleigh, NC in 1995 and currently makes her home there with author and professor John Kessel and their three mostly agreeable cats.