Leslie Lehr: You Can’t Fail Until You Quit

Today’s guest author, Leslie Lehr, is the author of the literary thriller What A Mother Knows, which Caroline Leavitt calls “achingly moving suspense drama…with a ray of hope like a splash of light, and a knockout ending you won’t see coming.” Leslie’s prior books include Wife Goes On, 66 Laps, and three nonfiction titles. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love column and Huffington Post Parents. She was the screenwriter of the romantic thriller, “Heartless” and wrote “Club Divorce” for Lifetime. And her story below is one of the most extraordinary I’ve featured on 1st Books. – Meg

What a mother knows coverMy mother waved across the duck pond to where I was pulling my daughter’s wagon. “You have a phone call,” she shouted. “I’ll watch the girls.” My other daughter stopped peddling her tricycle at the sight of Nana in the park.

I ran back to her condo, expecting an emergency. The caller was still on the phone. He congratulated me on winning a Gold Medal from the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society, then invited me on an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans.

I thought it was a prank. “Who is this? And how did you get my mother’s number?”

To this day, I don’t remember how he found me so far from home. I do remember the fat file of rejection letters from agents whom I’d queried about my first novel, 66 Laps.

I had already published Welcome to Club Mom, a sentimental series of rants. And I’d been writing screenplays between film production jobs before staying home with the kids. But I never considered being a novelist until I read a popular book that pissed me off. The narrator left too much unexplained. I thought I could do better.

I gave myself nine months. If I could birth a baby in that time, surely I could birth a book. If not, I would go back to a real job, even if it meant never seeing my kids awake again. I scrimped to pay for preschool three days a week. I developed a rabid hatred for Stephen King, who insisted that real writers wrote every day. Who changed his babies’ diapers? I wondered.

LEHRauthorphotoWhen I finished my manuscript, the hard part began: selling it.  My father once told me “you can’t fail until you quit.’ And I did not want to fail. I also did not want to self-publish – it’s hard enough to sell books the old fashioned way. I needed an agent.

I spent an entire week on my query letter. Then I started mailing it out. I found an old Jimmy Cliff tape with a reggae song called, “You Can Get It if You Really Want.” It became my mantra. After a dozen submissions, it was playing in my head so much I sang it as a lullaby to my kids.

Finally, I dared myself to enter one contest. The application sat on my desk for weeks. The night before the deadline, I splurged on the entrance fee. Once the prize date had passed, I figured I’d gambled and lost.

Until that phone call.

A few weeks later, I flew to New Orleans for the Words & Music Conference. It was my first solo trip since having children – it felt like a fairy tale. When I looked out my penthouse window at the riverboats on the Mississippi, I was Cinderella.

During lunch the next day, gale force winds rose outside. Hurricane Georges was upon us. The conference was cancelled and my dream of meeting an agent was dashed. But I couldn’t bear to go back to the pumpkin patch. So, as the city was evacuated, I ran to the Pirates Alley office to leave a copy of my manuscript. By the time I’d scrawled a polite request to pass it on, sirens were screaming outside. Inside, it was quiet. Too quiet. I hurried downstairs to find the doors had been locked. No one knew I was there. I screamed until someone heard me and found a key.

I ran past storekeepers boarding up windows in the steamy French Quarter all the way to my high–rise hotel. My clothes clung and my makeup melted as I stumbled over the cobblestones in high heels. Cars piled high with suitcases blocked the hotel entrance as locals seeking higher ground moved in. The taxis were gone and the airport was closing. I had to get home to my girls.

I hitched a ride with the only vehicle heading out – a van transporting an elderly ambassador for the Vatican. I agreed to be his airport escort in exchange for the ride. As the airplane wings lifted up, the airport lights shut down.

With the seal of contest approval, agents offered to read my work. But the Pirates Alley folks had come through. When I returned the following year, I didn’t rate the royal treatment – someone else got the penthouse. But I felt like a queen, meeting my new agent and my editor from Random House. My novel would be published within months.

When I was awarded the medal that night, I broke out in tears. A jazz band played at the reception in Jackson Square. But all I could hear was my Jimmy Cliff tape.

But you must try, try and try, try and try
You’ll succeed at last