My husband and I are both fiction writers. In order to earn a living we’ve taken on an odd assortment of freelance jobs over the years. We managed to raise two children this way, with me poring over supermarket circulars each week as I enthusiastically assumed the challenge of orchestrating a half-priced existence. We never felt deprived or poor, maybe because our sights were always fixed on the distant horizon, where success lay waiting for us. We went on like this for more years than I care to admit.
The cracks in the ceiling, the mismatched tiles on the bathroom floor never bothered me, nor did the fact that a Spanish restaurant in our neighborhood with a Health Department rating of C was just about the only place we ever went out to eat.
Heaving a succession of two pregnant bellies down the streets of Washington Heights for a period that spanned three or four years, I managed to find us a six-room rent-stabilized apartment, with a view of the George Washington Bridge, at a rent that the new landlord periodically wails to me in his shrill and whiny voice is “highway robbery.” True, our vacations in those horrible little cabins in Upstate New York were pretty awful, but the children never seemed to mind and Phil and I never liked vacations anyway: our happiest moments were spent pummeling sentences into shape on our respective laptops.
During this time Phil wrote eight unpublished novels; I wrote short stories, some of which were published in small literary quarterlies. For Phil recognition came in the form of awards and fellowships.
Then one day a literary agent from William Morris appeared in Starbucks, where Phil, who has earned more gold points than any customer in Starbucks’ history, was at work on yet another novel. She agreed to represent novel number nine, declaring that his was the most impressive literary debut she had seen in years. Less than three weeks after she put his novel up for auction there was an email from her reporting that an editor was offering to buy the book for something in the six figures.
Phil was on his way back from the dentist at the time and I called to tell him the news. Suddenly overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread, I asked him, Are you walking? Be careful! I don’t think it’s a good idea to be walking and talking at the same time! Stop walking! Stop walking! I want to talk to you, I said. Did you stop walking? Tell me you stopped walking! When he reassured me that he was sitting as still as the gargoyles adorning the gutter of the roof of the apartment building on 177th Street and Ft. Washington Avenue on whose stoop he was perched I told him how proud I was of him for sticking it out for so long. I feel like a proud mother, I told him. And I’m happy it was you before me, I said. I swear I am.
That was true. Phil had always taken his rejections a lot harder than I ever took mine. It was that tender male ego of his. And then, he had been at this a lot longer than I had been. After my parents guessed the ending of the “book” I wrote when I was in third grade there had been a long hiatus in my literary pursuits, whereas Phil had been writing fiction obsessively since he was eleven. His old girlfriend from college once told me that he used to bring his typewriter along with him whenever they went to the beach.
Phil wasn’t ashamed to admit that he was glad he was the first one of us to get a book of fiction published. Maybe you’ll be next, he said. Let’s hope you’ll be next. Then we talked about the money. I did a quick calculation and figured out that considering how I had been managing our lives these past years it could last us for a long time–long enough for us to quit our freelance gigs and devote ourselves fulltime to writing fiction.
We were both in our fifties then, too old, it surprised us to discover, to be excited by this amazing stroke of luck. Our main feeling was relief.
Over the years we had known other writers like us, writers who had persevered well past middle age. We had read their work. They had read ours. Many of them were talented. Others we thought were wasting their lives. They were temp typists with Ph.D.s, teachers who had contempt for their students; people who never gave their hearts to the things they spent most of their time doing: how tragic. Those were our unkind thoughts about them, and no doubt there were plenty who thought the same right back at us.
And Phil’s brother, the prominent cardiologist, and his brother’s wife, the renowned bioengineer, and his cousin, the economics professor emeritus, who at family gatherings were always asking genially, “How’s the book going, Phil?” What did they really think about us? What did they say about us on the car ride home? They must have wondered, at least. Now hardhearted professionals who expected books to make money were endorsing the idea that the reason Phil had never stopped writing was because he was good at it.
Long before my husband’s novel was published, friends and family who had read it kept on telling us that it was sure to be a best seller; and we detected many other signs that we were about to enter the Big Time. There was Phil’s gigantic advance; the pre-publicity that had yielded terrific blurbs from famous authors and a starred review along with an interview with Phil in Publishers Weekly; there was the fact that the publisher had paid to have his novel spend a month on the New Arrivals table at Barnes & Noble; book clubs had bought it; there was even going to be a Large Print edition of it so that people with bad eyesight would not be denied the pleasure of reading the book that, by then, everyone would be talking about.
I went around proclaiming we were going to be millionaires. I started thinking that it might be nice to have money. We could eat out at good restaurants, and maybe even order dessert. We could go on the kinds of vacations our friends went on. The day the novel “dropped,” industry lingo for when a book enters the world for the first time, we learned (“drop”—what a peculiar term for the fulfillment of a writer’s dream of a lifetime), I went to Home Depot and contemplated buying a granite countertop for $1500—and that didn’t even include a sink.
As it turns out, however, Phil’s book has not been the overnight blockbuster I had decided it would be. So now I find myself asking myself questions such as: Why did we go on the way we did for so long? Why couldn’t we have at least made some attempt to earn a decent living? And then the little deprivations we have endured for all these years (deprivations which before those visions of the millions that would be pouring down on us overnight I never realized were deprivations) starting sinking in.
My eyes are no longer fixed on the distant horizon now, and the mismatched tiles in the bathroom are driving me crazy. But I know this feeling of despair won’t last forever: I keep on telling myself that the novel hasn’t been out that long and perhaps it is a little premature for me to concede defeat. As for me, ever since I starting coughing up the three-dollar reading fee that most literary quarterlies are charging writers these days, the pace of my acceptances has been picking up. And Phil is well into writing novel number ten. He reads sections of it to me every night after his second or third stint at Starbucks is done and we have high hopes for it. And why shouldn’t we feel optimistic? We’ve been living off hope for so long. Why should we stop now?
Maxine Rosaler’s husband’s name is Phillip Margulies. The title of his novel is Belle Cora.