Liz Rosner’s post today first appeared on her Redroom Blog, and I asked her permission to rerun it here this week, in celebration of one of the resurrections of the title: her novel, Blue Nude, is just out in paperback! I read this stunning novel earlier this fall, and found it to be a lyrical exploration of how we – as individuals and as a society – move past our separate histories and toward a shared redemption. It’s been listed on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Notable New Books by Bay Area Authors list. Her stories – in the blog and in the book – are as moving as they come. – Meg
For many of us, writing–not to mention publishing–may feel like a matter of life and death. In my case, the past two years have been a period of grappling quite literally with both, and winning two big prizes at once: my own restored health after breast cancer treatment, and the resurrection of my out-of-print second novel.
Here’s the story, in hopes it might inspire others who are facing life-threatening illnesses and/or a loss of faith in the writing life. On my 49th birthday, new year’s eve in 2008, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I later discovered that I carry the genetic mutation called BRCA-1, which guarantees a rather high risk of developing the disease, it seemed that my fate had been inscribed all along; it was simply a matter of timing. My mother had died of breast cancer in 2000, so my anxieties about survival were elevated even further. As readers of my novels The Speed of Light and Blue Nude already know, much of my writing reflects an exploration of my inheritance as a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, so it seemed doubly ironic that now I was dealing on a physiological level with my legacies as well.
Allow me to note that my two book deal with Ballantine Books came about in the year 2000, just months before my mother’s sudden death. The actual publication date of Speed , September 4, 2001, meant that 9/11 was the first day of my book tour. Need I explain? Cancellations everywhere. My agent said to me: “Well, we’ve lost momentum, and we’ll never get it back.” The tears I might have shed stayed caught inside, as I felt forced to acknowledge losses so much greater than my own. So what if I’d been waiting my entire life for this moment? Death and devastation were ruining the lives of thousands, even millions of others. It took me almost a year to realize that this pattern of deferring to the pain of everyone else was a perfect echo of my entire childhood; nothing I suffered could ever begin to measure up to the vast traumas endured by my parents. I was supposed to be grateful to be alive. No disappointments were important enough to capture anyone’s full attention when epic tragedies deserved all of my sympathy.
The good news? The Speed of Light garnered prizes in the U.S. and Europe, was translated into nine languages, and was optioned for a film by Gillian Anderson, who was determined to adapt and direct her first feature film. Sales rose and fell and rose during the next nine years, almost always in direct correlation with some news flash from Ms. Anderson. The book “still has legs,” as they say in the business. The film remains “under development,” with the option renewal money keeping me afloat.
Fast forward to the publication of my second novel, Blue Nude, in May 2006. Warned by just about every writer I knew to be wary of the “Sophomore Syndrome,” I dared allow myself to hope that the book would defy those expectations and prove even more successful than my first novel. Friends joked that as long as a world war didn’t break out within a week of my publication date, I’d be in great shape. Having been orphaned at Ballantine no less than three times, I was now under the care and guidance of Random House executive editor in chief, feeling blessed by his approval and support. Or so I thought.
Homeland security and world peace notwithstanding, the book received some rave reviews and was purchased for translation by one of my nine foreign publishers. No film option, no prizes, but terrific recognition as one of the year’s best books by the San Francisco Chronicle, and status as a national bestseller. When I found out that my editor was retiring, and that Random House had decided not to print the paperback edition of Blue Nude due to mediocre sales at Borders and Barnes & Noble, I began to feel the shocking pangs of loss yet again. My second novel went out of print, and as far as I was concerned, it had died of unnatural causes, and without an obituary.
In May 2008, and despite my new agent’s suggestion that I give up on any hope for a paperback edition until I had a new manuscript to pitch, I requested and won reversion of rights for Blue Nude. All it took was a letter from an attorney who specialized in intellectual property (since my contract had stipulated this option was available to me). With my rights in hand, I was blessed to have the biggest and best champion of my novels on my side: Dan Smetanka, former executive editor at Ballantine, who had been the one to acquire my work in the first place, back in the year 2000. He had never given up on me, and as an independent editor, now proceeded to pursue some of his own leads for a possible paperback deal.
Meanwhile, my cancer diagnosis grabbed and held onto center stage. I went through two surgeries in February 2009, and began chemotherapy in late March. The day came when I felt it was necessary to shave my head so that I didn’t have to watch my curls fall out in terrible clumps. Looking into the mirror, I saw the face of my father as a concentration camp survivor. Genetic history was rising to the surface all over again. I drove into the hills of Marin to visit a friend who had survived two bouts with breast cancer. We sipped tea together. She told me I looked like a Buddhist nun.
Driving back downhill from that visit, I received a cell phone call from Dan Smetanka. He insisted that I pull over and park the car before he would talk to me, so I did. “Blue Nude has a paperback deal with Simon and Schuster,” he said. I had nearly forgotten such a thing was possible. Can you picture a bald woman by the side of the road, sobbing behind the wheel? Can you spell the word miracle?
Blue Nude is itself the story of a resurrection, about a return to life by way of artistic collaboration, a healing of history that is both personal and collective. When the paperback comes out in September 2010, it will have a beautiful new cover, and an astonishing second chance, against all odds. My cancer is gone now, and my hair has grown back too. I’m nearing completion of my third novel, “Electric City.” We’re alive. – Liz