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 dont have to fight
the tug of rolling inertia, and your choice isnt going to hurt someone you love?
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 wasnt what serious fiction writers wrote
about, and I wanted to impress my teachers. The writers and books they held up as role
models didnt 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 didnt have a
rocky love life and Id never travelled anywhere. I eked out some stories that later
made it into anthologies and literary journals, but the going was slow. I didnt know
it was slow at the time. I thought that was the deal. Years passed.
Id reached the upper-level MFA workshops, and I had a
story due in two days. I had nothing to turn in. I didnt have anything to write
about because Id 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 didnt need sleep. And it wasnt 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 Id 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
wasnt 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, Id been a graduate student for five years and dreamed of nothing but
getting a collection of my short stories published. Id been talking frequently to my
friends 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 imprints
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.
"Im still waiting on my budget," he said.
"Hang in there. It wont be much money but well get it done soon."
"Id still like to include this story," I
"Well talk about it," he said, meaning not
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 didnt get it," she said.
"You didnt receive it?"
"No, I received it, and I read it, but I didnt get
it. I didnt understand it. I wasnt 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 youve sent
I did want to make it into a novel. Id 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 didnt 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. Id resisted the temptation of a $300,000 salary, but I
dont think I was strong enough to resist having those stories Id 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
Everybody I respected told me to drop the novel, but I
couldnt. 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 Ive enjoyed since then has never resolved
this underlying shame I carry that Ive been writing books about topics that serious
writers dont touch. I have never quite gotten over that stigma. Most of my fan mail
begins, "Dear Po, I never thought Id 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,
Im writing you."
But thats 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. Ive 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 its not a serious question, because
its mostly about the job, not the heart, not character, not love, not issues that
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, were confronted
with this version of the question. Its 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 youre