The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing: On my forthcoming memoir, The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West (Putnam Press)

Tracy in MiajimaBeing a gaijin wife in Osaka, I can be pretty out of it. I’d never heard of “The Next Big Thing,” or even knew what a “blog meme” was, until the lovely Jocelyn Eikenburg set me straight.  She’s the author of the forthcoming book Red All Over, a memoir of finding love and home in China; about, as she has written, “what happens when you let go of every expectation you had about life, love and even your own wedding, and just learn to listen to your heart and say ‘I do’ to the people, places and possibilities that really matter.” Jocelyn has been one of the most enthusiastic and supportive friends and fellow writers I’ve met online since my unexpected book deal landed in my lap!

She’s also a smart and funny and a beautiful writer, and if you don’t know about her and her blog Speaking of China, then you are missing out.

As for this “Next Big Thing,” it involves answering a few questions and then sharing the love by tagging another writer you admire, which I do below:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, the basic idea came from my falling madly in love with the least likely person in the world: a Japanese salaryman who could barely speak English (and I spoke no Japanese).

The book is about what happens when you are a Boston-based, skeptical, plan-obsessed, feminist literary academic who meets the love of your life, but being together means you must give up every plan or goal you’ve ever had and essentially forfeit your own world for his.

Ultimately, though, it’s the story of finding love and meaning in a foreign language, as well as hope and happiness amidst the boatload of loss and confusion that we call real life. (Here’s the full overview.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Really??? I need to finish writing the book first before I can even start to think about this one. Now, if you’re asking what I’d want to wear on the red carpet, that’s another story. But don’t get me started, or I may just stop writing and click over to some online shopping sites, just to see what they….

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Good Shufu a true story about finding love, meaning, hope, and self in the least likely places in the world: the places we always swore we’d never go.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint in 2015. It’s represented by the very, very wonderful Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussuman.

And I’m still in shock and awe over all of this!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oooh, check back in, let’s say, 7 months? The full draft is due to my editor at Putnam, the incredible Sara Minnich, in January 2014.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing the book at the tail end of 4+ brutal years of fertility treatments and 2 pretty heart-rending pregnancy losses, all undergone in Japan (and I still speak virtually no Japanese). I hadn’t written anything—I mean anything—in a few years because of the stress of this medical issue. And then one day, just off the cuff, I sent a pitch to the editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog about the difference between the desire to have a biological child and the desire to be a parent.

She published the piece (although with a much different title than the one I had chosen), and a few days later, an editor at Putnam emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a memoir proposal. I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile! So while all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and hide from the world and my twice-daily-in-the-stomach-blood-thinner shots that my clinic in Osaka thought I needed to have any chance of sustaining a pregnancy, I signed up for a course on nonfiction proposal writing through MediaBistro, wrote a proposal and four sample chapters, submitted it to Putnam, and they offered me a deal!

I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile!

But working on this book has been one kind of godsend, because it has helped me cope with coming to terms with turning 45 and abandoning our medical quest to try to have a child—an issue I write about towards the end of the memoir.

As my husband says, “If we can have baby, that will be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you’ll always be the main course.”

So, despite some of the sadness of the past few years, how can I not feel like the luckiest girl in the world?

Now, I’m excited to introduce Kaitlin Solimine, another recent friend and fellow writer whom I’m honored to follow and know! She’s an award-winning writer about China, a former U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow, and the 2010 Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Most recently, she was the March 2012 guest editor for the magazine Cha: An Asian Literary Journal , and I got to hear her give an incredible reading from her forthcoming novel at the Four Stories Boston 2013 opening night, an MP3 of which is posted here. Rumor has it, she attracted some publishing interest at this event, which doesn’t surprise me one bit!

Writing & Laziness: An Apologia

And who ever died from not writing?

I cut-and-pasted my previous post, about success and the myth of the writer who never stops writing, on my Open Salon (OS) page, and I got some interesting responses. One of my connections at OS–the always-thought-provoking Skypixie0–then emailed me to say he had posted something new he wanted me to see, about writing & obsession, and that garnered quite a few comments about how writing is an unstoppable force, an inescapable pull, for those who are “real writers.”

The whole concept of a “real writer” is a little tricky for me, at base I think causes more insecurity than is worth it, so this is what I wrote back to my friend Skypixie0, and I’ll post a copy of it here, too:

In response to the wonderful Skypixie0, his OS message to me in response to my earlier post about writing & success, and his latest post about writing & obsession.

Hi Sky,

Thanks for pointing me to your post in your message about being a “blog-whore”–which totally got a laugh out of me! I love your humor.

I do have to respectfully disagree slightly with one of the assumptions underlying your post, though, or maybe it’s more with the idea of the whole concept of “being a writer.” I don’t think a writer is writing all the time, just like I don’t think a doctor is doctoring all the time. No one does everything all the time. And sometimes I think we are concerned with figuring out what a “real” writer is in the hopes we can then label ourselves one (and I include myself in this concern too–as my previous post that you responded to shows, this was a concept I struggled with, and still do, a lot!). But I’m wondering why we can’t see writing like any other endeavor. There are people who write. When they are writing, they are writers. When they aren’t, they aren’t.  If they write for money and they do this as a career and continually, then the are writers by trade. But that’s not so different from any other profession (or passion, or hobby, etc), is it?

I know before I got my book deal and I was going through the hard time I mention in the post you originally commented on, I really tormented myself with the fact that I must not be a real writer because I wasn’t writing all the time, or b/c I couldn’t fit into the mold that said “you write b/c you must,” you can’t survive without writing.

(And on that topic, who ever died from not writing?)

Then I just said, screw it, who cares what I am. I’ll write when I feel the pull to and won’t when I won’t, and I’ll live with being a writer some days (or weeks, or hours), and not others. And I feel much better, and more normal, about the whole concept now.

Or maybe this is all just my way of justifying when I’m lazy and don’t want to write! As I said to one of my friends after my book deal came through, maybe my next book should be “Writing & Laziness: An Apologia.”

Busting the Myth of the Writer Who Never Stops Writing

And the Motherlode Pitch that Started the Essay that Started It All

In the comments to my post here, about how I actually got my book deal, Philomela asked how I ended up getting in touch with the Motherlode editor at the New York Times, KJ Dell’Antonia (who’s great). Here’s the story (with a rather long intro, which I explain at the end)!

Honestly, I hadn’t written anything for almost a year, given the rigorous treatments I was undergoing, the stress of the 2 miscarriages, not being able to travel back home to the US b/c of it all, the month after month of being crushed, etc., etc. I felt like I had no energy to do anything but just get up, go to the clinic almost daily (in Japan, most clinics don’t allow women to give themselves the hormone shots, so I had to go in for my daily shots), keep writing for my regular part-time freelance job (I write content and overviews about faculty research for US universities) and function, at least externally, like a relatively normal person. I felt awful about it, like I was going to go through me early 40s with nothing to show for it but a bunch of failures and heartbreaks, and no career or writing advancement at all. But one night, on one of the infertility forums I used, I saw a post mentioning a previous Motherlode column (which I mention in my pitch below), and it gave me an idea for a pitch. So I sat down and tried to start a brief pitch, and the whole thing just came rolling out of, and I sent it that night, and KJ kindly responded right away saying she really liked the idea and wanted to post my piece. And the process (the piece being posted on the NYT site, the Putnam editor reading it and getting in touch, etc.) just rolled on from there, taking me totally by surprise. Once I had some sense that at least a few people might be interested in what I had to say, it became much easier to write (although it was still hard while I was going through treatments, but at least it was now manageable). It was just too much, though, to write into the vacuum of not-knowing-if-anyone-would-read-it, while I was dealing with the alienation of 4 years of trying, and failing, to get pregnant.

Anyway, I belabor this point a bit because as a writer I’ve heard a lot of people say that what makes a writer a real writer is that they just write, no matter what–they just keep going. And that just hasn’t always worked for me. Maybe I’m not a real writer; maybe I’m just someone with something to say who managed to interest an editor at Putnam and hopefully will interest a few more readers. But either way, I’d like to reassure people that sometimes (or at least this time), it’s not only the people who manage to write faithfully every day who get a book deal. Sometimes (or at least this time), it’s the people (or person) who fails miserably at that but who still has moments where they (or she) pulls through and it ends up working. For me, they key was to never give up completely, but to recognize that sometimes, with writing, things move or succeed when you least expect them to, and go nowhere when you most feel like they should be moving.

OK, now for the copy of the Motherlode pitch, in case it’s interesting or helpful to anyone:

Subject line: Motherlode pitch – Closed to Adoption: A Moral Failure?

Dear Ms. Dell’Antonia:

I know from reading your Motherlode posts that adoption is an issue close to your heart and that you are interested in blended families. Ours is culturally blended—in more ways than one: liberal American Jewish writer (me), and traditional Japanese salary-man (my husband).

We’ve also been blended, to some degree, on the issue of adoption, and I’d love to write a post for Motherlode about this topic, “Closed to Adoption: A Moral Failure?”

I was originally open to adoption and my husband, in whose culture adoption is extremely rare, never has been.  Now, as we near the end of 4 years IVF and other fertility treatments (all done in Japan, where we live, and where I don’t speak the language…stories for another time) and my 44th year, we are preparing to move on and live childless.

I’ve accepted, without even too much of a fight, my husband’s feelings that adoption just isn’t for him.  But my willingness to accept this—to prioritize my marriage and being a wife over the possibility of being a mother, to admit that I also to a great degree feel a much stronger urge to have our biological child than to have a child at all—makes me call into question a whole range of issues.  Chief among them is: Am I less entitled to mourn not having a child if I am not willing to do anything it takes to become a parent?  Is it some sort of moral failure to long for a biological child but not an adopted one?

Been thinking about this issue for years, ever since my first IVF round ended in a lost heartbeat at 9 weeks. But I’ve been thinking about writing about this issue for a while, too, ever since I read the blog’s “A Roadmap for Life Without Children” by Shelagh Little, or more accurately, since I read the passionate responses Little’s article engendered, especially her statement, “After not being able to have children for so long, I am ambivalent about adoption and parenthood in general. I admire people who have adopted children, but it is not for me.”

At 444 comments, her piece—and this statement in particular—was one of the most hotly-debated posts on the blog.

Would you be interested in a post written by me that explores this issue more fully?

More about me, and links to clips of mine, are @ http://www.fourstories.org/about_tracy_slater.html

Many thanks for considering this, and warm regards,

Tracy Slater

Biology & Longing: The New York Times Piece that Started It All

In an earlier post, I explained that this piece, which appeared in the New York Times Motherlode blog, was the catalyst for my book deal:

Biology & Longing

I’ve always respected rationality, mistrusted pure instinct. But when I fell in love with my husband, it was visceral: a deep, other-worldly kind of burn. It was also illogical.

We had spoken just a few, broken words.  I knew none of his native Japanese. While he could read English well enough to earn his Executive MBA in Boston, he was far from fluent. My mother, whose own logical plan for me included a nice Jewish doctor, helpfully pointed out the irrationality of our relationship.  My life was centered on writing and literature—in English. I was left of liberal. How could I possibly marry a traditional Japanese salary-man who barely spoke my language—and who would surely return to Asia, post-MBA?

Almost eight years later, I’m still absurdly in love with him, we still share neither linguistic fluency nor political leanings, and I still cannot logically explain our bond.

A year into our marriage, after numerous tests certifying his reproductive perfection at 36 and my dismal potential at 41, other dissimilarities emerged. I had always been uncertain about kids, but my love for my husband transformed my doubts into a longing for our child—a different kind of other-worldly burn. I had also always believed genetics were irrelevant, that to become related by choice was one of the loveliest human acts. In fact, one of my own parents never bonded with one of my siblings, who found home with a foster family. I knew first-hand that DNA doesn’t equal love.

My husband also deeply wanted a baby—with our genes. When he told me this, it made sense: adoption is very rare in contemporary Japan, where bloodlines are usually held sacred. (When Japanese children are orphaned, they are almost always taken in by extended family. Even donor eggs are banned here.)

My reaction to my husband’s feelings surprised me, though: relief. Once he articulated them, I realized that I too had faith I could love a child if it came from inside him and me, but not necessarily through other means.  My beliefs about genetics, apparently, did not hold up when facing the terrifying leap into parenthood.

Now, after over three heartbreaking years of trying to conceive, two miscarriages, and countless injections to compensate for my poor procreative profile—all endured in Japan, where I barely speak the language—my feelings have not changed, despite frequent prodding by well-meaning loved ones that “perhaps we should just adopt.”

At times, I’m slightly horrified by myself. What kind of person, I wonder, goes to such lengths over DNA? In my harshest moments I think, doesn’t the obsession with genetics underlie some of our worst human catastrophes? If I love my husband—surely no biological relative—so deeply, couldn’t I love an adopted child just as much?

I’ve found comfort from women in my “Over 40 and Trying” online groups who face similar struggles, including much confusion from others over why they “don’t just adopt.” But occasionally, it feels like in these forums, too, there’s an unspoken hierarchy of who’s willing to go the furthest to be a mother. Who’s open to donor eggs, sperm, or embryos? Who will pursue adoption after one failed IUI?

One friend found something similar in the adoption community: are you willing to adopt an older child? Another ethnicity? A special-needs kid? What does it say about you if you’re not?

Another friend explains, it’s just “instinct.” Some people have the instinct simply to parent, with or without a partner; some to birth a baby; some to have a child genetically theirs and their beloved’s.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to meet our baby.  I have an inexplicable but strong, clear sense that our baby exists, that this is what it has asked us to go through in the effort to meet it, and that this makes it all worth it—even, strangely, if our baby never actually arrives. Perhaps my sense is just the remnants of a heartbeat lost at nine weeks, or of embryos that never grew past the brief first sparks of life. Perhaps it’s just my imagination.

Maybe, in nine months, when I reach the age at which my husband and I have vowed to stop trying, I’ll feel differently. Maybe I just can’t conceive of trying to adopt while trying so hard to conceive. But I don’t think that’s it. My longing, so fierce that sometimes I can barely move, is not necessarily to be a parent in the abstract, but to love and parent our biological child. Irrational? Perhaps. Shame-worthy? Sometimes I think so. But still deeply, instinctually true.

—-

PS. In case readers are interested, I just posted the pitch that preceded this essay here.

How’d You Land that Book Deal?

And the Essay Version Submitted Vs. the Version Accepted

People have been asking me lately how I actually landed my book deal, especially since the book is still only partly written, so here’s the basic story:

Mostly, I just got incredibly lucky!

Other than that, the story is that last year, I wrote a short piece for the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog, and an editor from Penguin’s Putnam imprint read it and contacted me, and invited me to submit a memoir proposal. After my heart resumed beating from the shock, I worked my tail off for a few months, took a MediaBistro’s online course in both the nonfiction book proposal with the incredible Jill Rothenberg and memoir writing with the incomparable Kelly McMasters (both so worth it!) and then submitted the proposal. Putnam then asked for more sample chapters, and I produced the first 4 chapters of the book. Then they offered me the deal!

Stay tuned for the announcement in Publisher’s Weekly, forthcoming later in January. In the meantime, here’s the New York Times online piece that started it all, in the version I submitted to the Motherlode editor, and in the version the New York Times published (but please forgive the title – it wasn’t the one I chose!).