One year ago I was putting in applications for Affordable Housing. The time had come that I couldn't realistically continue spending my entire $627/month Disability payment on rent. I visited an apartment building in Pittsburgh, knowing the wait list was at least one year long. But there was no other way I'd ever be able to move back home: the rent and cost of living was just too high for my meager income. I put on a smile as I looked at the apartment complex, but a part of me was dying inside. Most of the people who got apartments there stayed until they died. I really wasn't prepared for that to be the last place I'd ever live, but it seemed like my best choice at that moment: cheap rent in a decent neighborhood. But all I could think was: is this really all that's left for me? Cinder block walls and a life with no meaningful choices?
One year ago I had a holiday slumber party with my sister and our long-time friend, Lisa. I looked at these two women, just a bit older than I was, and wondered how my life had gone so astray. I don’t think I'd ever felt so defeated. They had careers, well-filled lives, and the confidence that should come with middle age. I barely felt able to contribute to our conversations. How had I, a reasonably talented and ambitious person, so utterly failed?
One year ago I was negotiating a peace treaty with myself to stop submitting my writing. The cycle of submission and rejection had gone on for so long – nearly 30 years – and it was time to break the cycle. I was exactly four years into writing novels. I'd completed my sixth, gotten it into Pitch Wars, and queried it heavily, but I just wasn't getting any interest. For my own sanity, I needed to make my life not about waiting for someone else to appreciate my work. And for me, that meant beginning a new chapter of writing for myself, and not submitting – for representation, or publication, or anything else. I needed my writing to become its own source of joy. I had embarked on writing novels for a not entirely pure reason: I'd hoped my one skill – writing – could help me escape living in poverty. But, one year ago, I needed to find peace with a different reality.
One year ago I was incredibly depressed – and let's be real, things started sinking after the 2016 election. It was hard – for many of us – to be happy. It was easy – for many of us – to start fearing the future. To make matters worse, my Rochester, NY apartment – where I'd been living for thirteen years – had recently been robbed by someone on the maintenance staff; they stole prescription drugs. I'd discovered it right away and called the police, but in the end my landlord didn't believe me. Let me tell you, to be called a "silly, careless woman, quick to make accusations" in the days after Trump was elected was truly dumping insult on injury. I started to feel unsafe in my apartment and was desperate to leave. So I began applying for Affordable Housing…
One year ago it was obvious – palpable – that something needed to change, and this was a challenge because I was feeling pretty powerless at the time. I did the one thing I felt I had control over: I got back from my holiday break and quit my job. I know, that sounds a little nuts. But at that point I was only working a few hours a week (I was on Disability after all, but I was trying to stay connected to the world and my community). There were many things I really liked about my part-time gig at my local library, but it had also been a frequent source of frustration. I was forever wanting to see my work – personal, or otherwise – make a difference; I wanted a sense of accomplishment, and that just wasn't to be had from a minimum wage job. So I gave my two weeks notice.
I don't recall being concerned about how I would spend my days, in spite of the fact that I'd committed to both quitting my job and "retiring" from my novel writing ambitions. I recall feeling a sense of relief that things – small as they may be – were changing, and that felt hopeful to me. One week after my final day at the library, I got a response from one of the last queries I'd sent out for BABY TEETH. An agent wanted to talk to me.
The rest, as they say, is history. And this last year has been one I never could have imagined.
A couple of weeks later I signed with Sarah Bedingfield of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. A few weeks after that she submitted my novel to publishers. A week after she started submitting, we received a six-figure pre-emptive offer for BABY TEETH. And I suddenly became a professional novelist.
A year ago I was applying for Affordable Housing. Now I'm living in my apartment of choice, in my neighborhood of choice, in my hometown of Pittsburgh. It is the ability to choose that makes a person wealthy – I've always believed that. I have teams of people at St. Martin's Press working to make my book the best it can be. Sometimes I joke now that my "job" is sitting at home in my pajamas. Or my "job" is getting surprise emails filled with good news. I've seen the cover of my book and held the ARC in my hands. I've done copy edits and reviewed the first pass pages. I've talked to my publicist, and my film agent, and had lunch with the leader of BABY TEETH's marketing team. And I've had many calls – and exchanged thousands of emails – with my agent, Sarah.
The changes happened so incredibly quickly. Sometimes it still doesn't quite feel real. Sometimes I'm not sure who – or what – to thank, but be sure: I'm incredibly grateful. I can't thank Sarah and the folks at St. Martin's Press enough. I don't think they'll ever be able to fully understand the opportunity they've given me: I have an entirely new life.
During the first half of this year I couldn't stop thinking in terms of BABY TEETH being my only book, my only chance. I've been through too much in life to make assumptions about things; I've shopped my own work around enough to know that you can't make people read, watch, or like anything. But slowly I am moving away from the shock of that blizzard day in March when Sarah called to tell me we had an offer for my book. Slowly I'm moving toward a longer-term way of thinking: building a career.
I've been working really hard on a new novel. Sarah's feedback has been so helpful – as has her enthusiasm. It's starting to really settle in: I am a professional novelist. Maybe all of my books won't succeed, but I know better than anyone that that's no reason not to try. I always love my new, shiny work the best… So I'm entering the New Year full of hope, and immense gratitude.