I first connected with Sally Koslow when I was asked to read her delightfully funny The Late, Lamented Molly Marx for a possible blurb – a first for me – and I’ve been enjoying her insightful humor ever since. She’s dipped back into non-fiction with the publication this week of her fourth book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, about which Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, says, “This book is hilarious! I burst out laughing on page one, and it just got funnier and funnier. But Slouching Toward Adulthood is also hard-hitting and painfully insightful … Sally Koslow’s thought-provoking new book should be required reading for today’s parents and young adults.” Since I’m spending the day moving my firstborn into his first apartment, this one is timely for me! – Meg
Despite the fact that for the first two decades of my life I lived in Fargo, North Dakota, I felt born to be a Manhattan magazine editor and for years, that was my life. There was never a morning I didn’t want to go to work, especially after I climbed the masthead to editor-in-chief, working at McCall’s, a magazine which assuming they didn’t live in a Gulag, everyone’s mother and grandmother had read at some time. As I led a team of sharp, funny people, my responsibilities leveraged every talent God gave me, like the ability to walk in high heels and think in headlines and, thanks to literary sanitation police known as copyeditors, ignored skills I lacked, like mastering perfect grammar. Granted, the top job came with a heavy load, but I happily hauled it home every night, massaging manuscripts while my sons did their homework.
All was well until after eight years a celebrity knocked on our company’s door. Like Oprah, she, wanted an eponymous magazine. Quicker than I could say “loud-mouth media hog” a new boss reincarnated McCall’s as Rosie, kicked me upstairs and months later, out.
I felt mistreated and pissed, yet I got lucky and was hired to create a magazine for Lifetime television. From an office across town, I watched with whoops of schadenfreude as Rosie imploded in an incendiary lawsuit after only nine months. Meanwhile, building a magazine filled every creative pore: imagineering sections and columns, working with designers, ultimately hiring a staff and seeing “my” baby come to life. I felt wildly happy.
New magazines are fragile, however and after two years I was told by my boss that she wanted to try a different editor. I left the office blindsided and bereft as once again my identify was ripped away in a five-minute conversation. Finding another job at the top of the pyramid could easily take more than a year, if I could find one at all, since I was now in my 50’s. In magazine-land this may as well be 150.
Friends who’d gone through similar job loss encouraged me to enjoy my hobbies until the right job came along. Good advice, but I had no hobbies. All I’d done was work-work-work, raise kids, go running and see a lot of movies. I did, however, retain the interest that brought me to magazines– writing–though as I’d morphed from staff writer to editor, I’d had increasingly less time to write. As the big cheese, crafting my editor’s letter, tossing off titles and coverlines, and doing a final polish on another person’s manuscript was all the writing my schedule allowed.
As self-help, I looked for a writing workshop. I wanted nothing to do with writers aspiring to The Atlantic or The New Yorker—the last thing my battered self-esteem could have taken was to be exposed to people who might scoff at my women’s magazines experience. At a nearby Jewish community center, I found a workshop led by a gentle teacher who’d been a magazine-world friend. Others in his group were working on non-fiction—memoirs, mostly—but I declared that I wanted to start a novel, though I’d never written a word of fiction. The Devil Wears Prada had been workshopped in this very group and I thought it was time to share an editor-in-chief’s perspective, one whose magazine had been, say, taken over by a celebrity.
Shamelessly announcing “I’m writing a novel!” to everyone I met forced me into actually starting one. A few weeks later, at a friend’s book party, I asked her editor to suggest literary agents for my “book.” At that point, it consisted of 20 pages. I tucked away the agents’ names and kept going. Magazine work had programmed me to meet deadlines, I had plenty of solitary time because my kids were now grown up, and being in front of a computer was my default position.
Every few weeks it was my turn to submit pages in my workshop. Fortunately, the others writers and my teacher seemed to enjoy them, though when she critiqued my submission for the first time one woman choked out, “This is a b-b-beach book!” But she, too, soon grew to be a supporter and later, a good friend. These writers were encouraging and helpful and I flexed my editing muscles by giving their work no less scrutiny than the manuscripts at McCall’s. I also loved meeting people—old, young, and sometimes odd—whom I’d never have encountered in my magazine bubble. Workshops, I learned, can be healing.
When I reached 100 pages I was still jobless. Relocation held no appeal and every opportunity that came my way was in a place like Milwaukee or Kansas City. I decided to approach the agents whose names I’d saved. The second one I e-mailed agreed to represent me with the understanding that I complete the book before she shopped it around.
It took me about 18 months to finish. We called the manuscript Little Pink Slips and she offered it to publishers after Thanksgiving. Within a week an editor named Leona Nevler, famous for discovering the manuscript that became Peyton Place, bought Little Pink Slips for Putnam in a pre-emptive bid. Ms. Nevler had edited Grace Metalious, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley and Amy Tan. Now she’d be editing me. I could barely breathe when she invited me to lunch in early January.
Our lunch never happened. Leona Nevler died suddenly. Along with hundreds of authentic literary luminaries, I attended her funeral to pay tribute to this extraordinary editor.
Since that day I have felt as if Ms. Nevler has been an angel on my shoulder. Little Pink Slips was published in 2007 and garnered many foreign sales and a television-movie option. This allowed me to snag a two-book deal, which distracted me from searching for a magazine job. My second novel, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, was selected by Target as a Book Club Pick and became a bestseller–in Germany–which earned me my first royalty check. Target placed my third novel,With Friends like These, Target, in its Emerging Writers category. To be an “emerging” writer when I had at this point hit 60 made me grin.
Viking has just published my fourth book. This time, it’s personal. Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest is non-fiction, a hybrid of memoir and reporting on the lives of “adultescents” aged 22-35, giving voice to Baby Boomer parents’ feelings about their children’s wandering. Later in the summer, I’ll be polishing my fourth novel—I just turned in draft #1.
There are moments when I miss the camaraderie of magazine work, but what I failed to realized until a few years ago was that few of us have only one true path. Writing novels and juicy non-fiction–perhaps this is what I was intended to do all along? I hope to keep at it until I do it right. – Sally