Before writing her debut novel, Prosper in Love, Deborah Michel spent years in the magazine world, as a New York nightlife columnist for Avenue magazine and, later, writing for Spy, Premiere, House Beautiful, Buzz, Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine about everything from the movie industry to interior design to which private jet Silicon Valley tech moguls favored. Another favorite author of mine, Claire Cook, calls the novel “smart, deliciously witty, and thoroughly engrossing … a richly detailed comedy of modern manners and the ways in which we complicate our own lives.” And Deborah’s story of how it came to be published will be heartening for anyone who is finding it takes more time than one might imagine to get a book out in the world. – Meg
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I got my first real job I already knew the most important thing about being a novelist. My dream back then was to write for magazines, and I started pitching story ideas to an editor whose name I got off the masthead of a magazine I saw in a doctor’s office. (Okay, so I didn’t have the prestigious career path thing totally figured out.) I had one idea in particular that I thought was just perfect for the magazine. The editor was polite and asked me to put my pitch in writing. When I hadn’t heard back two weeks later I gave him another call. He apologized: he hadn’t quite gotten around to it, he’d let me know in a week or two. Two weeks later, not having heard from him, I checked in. He’d been busy, asked for another couple of weeks, didn’t call. Again, I called back, and was put off—nicely. So it went, until a few months later he finally called me. “Was I happy where I was currently working,” he wanted to know. I was a secretary, sitting right outside the glass wall of her boss’s office, making a hash of invoices and contracts. “Um, why?” I asked, feeling my boss’s eye on me. I’d already been reprimanded for too many personal calls. The editor invited me to come in to interview for a position.
Later he told me he’d figured anyone that persistent would make a good journalist. The funny thing was, I hadn’t seen myself as that terrier-with-a-bone type. I was just following up. I believed I had a good story and that therefore the magazine must want to print it.
It wasn’t long before I tried to write a novel, but it was very long before I actually sold one. Embarrassingly long—it took more than two decades. When I finally told friends that I had a book deal, they invariably said, “You must be so thrilled.” Relieved was the truer, more accurate word. Finally! By the time Prosper in Love was making the rounds of agents (and please note the plural “rounds”—I tried with draft after draft) I knew a lot about publishing. I’d worked in magazines for years, had lots of friends who worked in book publishing, had several who’d published books. I’d even, in despair and loneliness, been through an MFA program. I had a card file box filled with agents’ names, contact info, and detailed notes on which writers they represented. I’d been at it for so long, with various attempts at different novels, that many of those agents had two or three agencies listed and crossed out, a record of their own career paths.
I took to heart the very nice notes from agents all along the way, telling me all the good things about my writing and that I was really very close. Plus, I had that magazine career to bolster my confidence: people had paid me for my writing. But while grimly proud of my perseverance, I was haunted by one very specific nightmare: that I was one of those sad cases, a writer who had no idea that she wasn’t good enough. Within one month, two separate writing friends told me they were afraid I might be the one in my generation who deserved to be published but for one reason or another never was.
It’s such a cliché: It only takes one. But that’s what happened: one (delightful! brilliant!) agent liked my book. In short shrift, three also delightful and clearly brilliant editors wanted to bid on it.
Fine, so it didn’t just “happen.” I had forced myself to sit down and take a hard look at what was in my manuscript after all those years, and had really tried to think about what wasn’t: what was in my head but which I hadn’t managed to get on the page. I wrote another draft. When I reread it, I felt, really for the first time, that I’d done my best, that it was all there, and that if this one didn’t sell, I’d put it away, satisfied with myself at least, and move on to the next one, which I’d actually already started between drafts.
As I struggle to finish that novel, what I try to remember when I sit down to write is not the hard-won knowledge about writing that comes from years of doing it, nor is it the joy and confidence that came from finally selling a book. Sometimes, knowing too much about the business can work against you. No, I take a deep breath and try to recapture that crazy, foolish, ignorant innocence that I had all those years ago, that belief that if I came up with something, people would want to read it—and that I shouldn’t give up until they could. – Deborah