Elizabeth Enslin is a Stanford Ph.D who has done research in Nepal with funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She’s received an Individual Artist Fellowship Award from the Oregon Arts Commission, an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize, a Notable for Best American Essays and a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Nonfiction to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She spent … well, read to see how long she spent writing her memoir, While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal, which is just out. I hope you’ll enjoy Elizabeth’s story of how it found a publishing home, and look for it in your favorite bookstore. – Meg
While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal—my first book—came out in early October 2014. Depending on how I count, this memoir on marrying into a Brahman (high caste) family, giving birth and working with rebellious women in the plains of Nepal took me somewhere between seven to twenty four years to write. At several points, I pushed to the end of one vision and thought it done. After a few hours or days of basking in satisfaction, I’d decide something wasn’t right and start rewriting it again.
I thought I’d finished one version in the summer of 2001. That version was full of sadness and grief, haunted by divorce and the death of my absentee father. I queried a few agents who asked for partials then turned it down. Soon after, I launched into six years of teaching history at an independent high school in Portland, Oregon. The manuscript disappeared behind notebooks stuffed to overflowing with curriculum materials on the American civil war, the global economy, ancient history. I thought I was just waiting for a break in my hectic schedule to submit my book to more agents. But those breaks rarely came. Also, a part of me must have realized that manuscript was no longer the story I wanted to tell.
I traveled back to Nepal in 2007 for my son’s coming of age ceremony and began to imagine another version of the book. I saw how gratitude, joy and greater maturity might infuse the story. I returned to Oregon, gave up my teaching job and––thanks to the generous support of a loving partner––committed myself to full time writing.
First, I wanted to improve my writing chops. I read fiction, memoir and poetry and did more of what I had advised my high school students to do: cut adverbs and adjectives, make verbs do more work, expand details, play with imagery and metaphor. Meanwhile, I polished some chapters and scenes and submitted to literary journals. I wallowed in pity after the first rejections then revised and submitted again. My first acceptance came from The Gettysburg Review for an essay that would one day form the narrative spine through the book (though I only saw it as a chapter at the time). It went on to win an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize. Like any writer, I continued to face rejections, but a steady trickle of acceptances boosted my confidence enough to keep going.
In the book itself, I could not move beyond a grand vision of a single volume that would cover every aspect of my complicated relationship with Nepal. And with each passing year, that relationship kept growing and changing. I knew the manuscript––hovering around 600 pages––would be difficult to place, especially for a first time author. But for some reason, I had to continue on with it.
I finished what I considered my masterpiece in December 2012. I was exhilarated. I’d seen it through and arranged all the puzzle pieces, layers and voices in a way that made sense to me.
Around the same time, I noticed a call for a book proposal writing contest sponsored by She Writes––a online networking site for women writers. The prize: a publishing contract with Seal Press. I perused the publisher’s catalog. Topic-wise, I figured my story was a good fit. But the version I’d just finished was far too long. Seal Press books averaged around 300 pages (a good length to aim toward for most first books, I would learn). More than that though, I began to see just how impossible it would be to write a proposal for my unwieldy creation. Clearly, a publisher or agent would see the same problem.
So, within days of completing what I’d been working toward for years, I started revising again. I saw that I had two possible books in the sprawling mess I’d written. I would have to carve out and focus on one. I wanted to make one clean whack down the middle. But the surgery became more delicate. I had to tease tiny nerves and blood vessels apart so that both books could go on to thrive. I put all the bits that might fit in a second book in one file and left them there. Then I began piecing the first book together.
The looming contest deadline gave me motivation and discipline. I tacked back and forth between proposal and a rough draft. Working on the proposal helped me clarify the narrative arc and arrange the chapters. Fleshing out the chapters helped me sharpen key points in the proposal.
No matter what the outcome of the contest, I figured I would have a solid book draft and a proposal in hand. With those, I’d be well-positioned to find a home for the book. But I did win the contest and soon had what had seemed unimaginable four months earlier: a publishing contract with Seal Press.
Another year of working with Seal Press though editing and design work yielded a book I now like better than those earlier versions. Those were just for me. This one is for readers. – Elizabeth