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How My First Book Got Published

How many times do you really face a choice in life? How many times will you get the benefit of arriving at a crossroads, where you don’t have to fight the tug of rolling inertia, and your choice isn’t going to hurt someone you love?

Not many.

Make them count. They will define you.

When I left First Boston, I joined my girlfriend managing and writing a subscription-only newsletter on San Francisco politics. I was earning about one thousand dollars a month. At night I took my first class in creative writing at San Francisco State, a lonely commuter school of mostly part-time students. I continued to wedge one class a week into my schedule for the next seven years. You might think that I had an obvious topic to write about, bringing to school my incredible front-row perspective on the unique macho culture of global finance. But I went five years before it even occurred to me I could use that setting in fiction.

That wasn’t what serious fiction writers wrote about, and I wanted to impress my teachers. The writers and books they held up as role models didn’t go near the workplace. Minimalism was in vogue. Nobody wanted to read about the jobs we so wanted to escape from. Writing school was a window to leave that dull numbness behind. We were encouraged to find our material in our childhood, and in our family heritage, and in our travels abroad, and in our rocky love lives. My writing was decent, but it was severely handicapped by lack of material, because I didn’t have a rocky love life and I’d never travelled anywhere. I eked out some stories that later made it into anthologies and literary journals, but the going was slow. I didn’t know it was slow at the time. I thought that was the deal. Years passed.

I’d reached the upper-level MFA workshops, and I had a story due in two days. I had nothing to turn in. I didn’t have anything to write about because I’d spent my entire adult life hauling my ass off to one job after another. With deadline looming, I stubbornly decided I would write about that – about hauling my ass off to work at 4 a.m. in the morning. Something magical happened. I wrote a story in about twelve hours. I didn’t need sleep. And it wasn’t a straightforward confessional, memoir-story; it incorporated for the first time the wilder writing styles I loved – magical realism, absurdism, satire. These were writing tools that until then I’d never been able to control. But I found my voice in a topic I finally had something to say about. When I submitted it to workshop, I was dead certain everybody would hate it and find it inappropriate. It was everything serious writing wasn’t supposed to be – funny, bloated with overwritten sentences, and set entirely on the bond sales floor. These deficiencies were pointed out to me in class, but in the hallways later, classmates admitted they liked it anyway. It was different in a good way, they said.

The next few months presented me with the biggest crossroads of my writing career. This is the pattern of my life, both professional and personal: every time I am about to follow my heart, I am offered enormous temptation. At this point, I’d been a graduate student for five years and dreamed of nothing but getting a collection of my short stories published. I’d been talking frequently to my friend’s agent, and she agreed to represent me when I had enough stories together. I sent her this new story I was so proud of … and she never got back to me. No matter, because one of my earlier stories that had been published in a literary journal made it into the hands of an editor at a new imprint, Harper SF. He took me out for lunch at Zuni Café and intimated he wanted to publish my stories as soon as he got his imprint’s budget authorized by the parent conglomerate. With great excitement I presented this new story on top of my others … and two weeks later he told me he loved them all except this new one. I was confused how to handle it. Publishers had been rejecting my stories for eight years; finally one was interested, but not in the writing I was most jazzed by.

"I’m still waiting on my budget," he said. "Hang in there. It won’t be much money but we’ll get it done soon."

"I’d still like to include this story," I said.

"We’ll talk about it," he said, meaning not likely.

A couple nights later, I ran into that agent at a party. I cornered her and asked what she thought of that new story I sent her.

"I didn’t get it," she said.

"You didn’t receive it?"

"No, I received it, and I read it, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t engaged."

"Really? I was so excited about it. I was thinking of making it into a novel."

Seeing I was on the verge of making a big mistake, she tried to set me right. "It was one of the least interesting stories you’ve sent me."

I did want to make it into a novel. I’d scratched the surface with that story and I thought I could do a lot with the premise. My plan was to work on the novel while the short stories were getting published. But nobody else liked that plan. I sent the story to two other notable writers whose advice and encouragement thus far had been invaluable to me. I hung on their every word. They saw merits in the story but didn’t think I should go in that direction.

I think back and am so grateful the promised contract for the short stories never arrived. He never resolved his budget fight and a different editor took over the imprint. I’d resisted the temptation of a $300,000 salary, but I don’t think I was strong enough to resist having those stories I’d slaved over for five years get published. The minor ensuing praise would have locked me into that track forever. My writing would have gone in a different direction (but a well-travelled one).

Everybody I respected told me to drop the novel, but I couldn’t. All I had to go on was my memory of those magical 12 hours in which writing was no longer so painful, no longer so exhausting, no longer insubstantial. Would it happen again the next time I sat down to write? There was only one way to find out.

So I found a new agent, and with his encouragement I set to work on the novel. I anticipated the writing would take a couple years.

I was done in four months.

That magical thing kept happening.

My agent sent the novel to the one editor he believed would like it. He read it that night and bought it the next day. Then the Brits bought it, and the Germans, and the Japanese, and the Koreans, the Russians, the Italians, the Greeks, the Danes, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Chinese.

The success I’ve enjoyed since then has never resolved this underlying shame I carry that I’ve been writing books about topics that serious writers don’t touch. I have never quite gotten over that stigma. Most of my fan mail begins, "Dear Po, I never thought I’d want to read a book set in the business world, but I was at the bookstore and read a few pages and the next thing you know, I’m writing you."

But that’s the material life dealt me, and I was never going to be successful until I accepted it and worked with it.

Let me bring this full circle. I’ve found that a lot of people have the same stigma about the question of what to do with their life, the geography of their career. They fear it’s not a serious question, because it’s mostly about the job, not the heart, not character, not love, not issues that matter.

But it is about those things. "What Should I Do With My Life?" is the modern, secular version of the great timeless questions about our identity, such as "Who Am I?", and "Where Do I Belong?" We ask it in this new way simply because constant disruption in our society forces us to – every time we graduate, or get downsized, or move to a new city, we’re confronted with this version of the question. It’s a little more pragmatic and problem-solvy than its philosophical and religious antecedents, reflecting the bottom-line reality that we can search for our identity only so long without making ends meet. Asking the question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. Answering the question is the way to protect yourself from being lathed into someone you’re not.