Sara Gruen calls this week’s guest author, Alex George “a first rate talent.” And last week’s guest, Eleanor Brown, calls his new novel, A Good American, “by turns laugh-out-loud funny and achingly sad … that rare and beautiful thing – a novel I finished and immediately wanted to start again.” And they aren’t alone. A Good American is the winter must-read pick by Indie Next and O Magazine. It’s a Barnes & Noble Discover pick and an Amazon Best Book of the Month. And Alex is that best type of writer: a corporate lawyer. (Not that I’m prejudiced.) Seriously, for anyone who thinks they don’t have time, Alex writes in the morning before work. And published authors who despair of getting past “modest” sales of early works, Alex’s story is for you as well. The post is a terrific argument for writing what you want to write, not what anyone else expects you to. I enjoyed it immensely. – Meg
Let me explain.
I’ve published four books before, but only in Europe – never in America. I stopped writing completely after my fourth novel was published while I studied for the Missouri bar exam (I had been a lawyer in England for eight years, and had to re-qualify when I moved to the States.) It wasn’t the most relaxing sabbatical, but the break gave me the time and distance I needed to assess my writing career, which had not been going well. Sales were disappointing, and writing had stopped being fun. I was in a rut that I seemed unable to escape from. My publisher kept asking for the same kind of novel, time after time; every attempt to develop or expand the scope of my books was met with polite but firm editorial disapproval, and vague references to “readers’ expectations”. I had left my job as a corporate lawyer to write full-time some years earlier, and the additional pressures caused by that decision had squeezed any last pleasure remaining out of the act of telling stories.
With my fourth novel completed, though, I was out of contract. And (the bar exam having been successfully negotiated) I had also resumed my legal career – which meant, glory of glories, that writing had become a hobby again. Better still, I was free to write whatever book I liked.
I took a deep breath, and resolved to try and write the sort of book I had dreamed of writing for years. I wanted to tell an ambitious, big, complex tale – the kind of story that a reader could disappear into. And so I put my first four books out of my head and set off on this new journey, writing as if this book were my first. I got up at five o’clock every morning and wrote for two hours while my family slept. It was a slow process – painfully slow, sometimes – but I rarely missed a day. Even if I only wrote a handful of sentences, every morning my collection of words grew a little more. There were the usual moments of crippling self-doubt, of course, but on I stumbled, a few paragraphs at a time, and the story gradually took shape. Characters materialized; ideas coalesced. I took my sweet time, and I had a ball. After five years or so, I had produced a novel – or something approximating one. It was so different from anything else I had written that it really did feel like a debut. If nothing else, it represented a fresh start. After a few epic rewrites I sold worldwide rights to A Good American to Amy Einhorn Books in 2010, and the book was published a couple of weeks ago. It’s my first book to appear in the United States, and so I have been christened a debut author once more.
If there is a moral to this story, I suppose it is this: write the book you want you to write. The chances are that it will be far better than any other book you’ll produce. A Good American was the book I always longed to write but never could, and perhaps because of that it feels like my first novel. In fact, it feels like a whole new career. I feel very lucky to have been given a second chance. – Alex