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When Personal Isn’t Good Enough: Just Keep The Rejection Letters Coming

Rachel Howzell Hall writes about how she coped with rejection while battling cancer—and ultimately found a publisher for her critically acclaimed Detective Elouise Norton series.

“… too upmarket for the kinds of African-American fiction we have been publishing successfully…”

“…what sells for us right now is the hard-hitting Sister Souljah type material with a street lit feel to it.”

I received these emails from editors during one of the roughest periods of my life.

Throughout my pregnancy, I’d been battling a rare kind of breast cancer. Three months after our daughter was born, my husband, a digital web designer, was laid off from his Hollywood dream job. I’d return to my full-time job after maternity leave and had insurance—but his insurance covered my ongoing cancer care. Back on the first anniversary of September 11, I’d published my first book and now, a year later, my literary agent couldn’t help me land a new book deal.

I kept writing, though. Optimistic even as I received reams of rejection letters.

In 2007, an MRI caught precancerous calcifications forming in my allegedly-healthy left breast. My agent and I amicably parted ways—there wasn’t anything she could do. I didn’t write “Sister Souljah-type material.” To New York, my experience—my life as an African-American—wasn’t enough.

Black but not black enough.

You may recall this time in literary history. The Coldest Winter Ever, one of the bestselling novels back then, became the novel to imitate. Every other novel written by a black author featured gangstas, hustlers, hookers, junkies, New York, Chicago, Detroit, snow, weed, conspicuous consumption, sex, poverty, more snow, and guns.

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Great for those authors.

I grew up in one of the roughest parts of Los Angeles, with roving LAPD helicopters and gunfire and alleys. In junior high school, on my way to metal class, two girls confronted me, the skinny, four-eyed honors student wearing dingy white that day, and demanded to know what set I claimed. My dad had two jobs, my mom worked and cared for four kids. I watched cheese in hot skillets not melt. (Some of y’all know what that means). My ‘urban’ credentials? Got ‘em.

Books and words served as therapy for me. Any time life became too loud—and life was deafening sometimes—I slipped into a story. There, I met different people, visited places I’d never go, watched someone else experience hardship and triumph. Did all of this without a second thought about the author or the setting.

As a professional novelist, I’d been told only a few readers were interested in the stories I wanted to write. That ‘they’ wouldn’t get me, that my characters would scare ‘them.’ This was a curious thing to me, a black woman who had cut her reading-teeth on the misadventures of kids in Castle Rock, Maine; who rooted for an Italian mob princess named Lucky Santangelo, who swooned over CIA analyst Jack Ryan.

Readers could relate to kids scared of demonic clowns in sewers with eyes like dimes, but they’d be terrified to read domestic stories featuring black characters in Los Angeles? Really?

I wept in my husband’s arms every time I received rejection letters that went beyond, ‘No, not at this time.’ Those letters that told me that my book, that wasn’t authentically black enough threatened to destroy me. This rejection cut in places that a surgeon’s scalpel couldn’t reach.

I contemplated doing something else. Taking up guitar. Focusing on my day job … After that 24-hour fevered funk ebbed, I picked up the pen again. Someone out there would understand that in Los Angeles, palm trees, blue sky, and the Hollywood sign co-existed with bullets whizzing and with school mates’ blood brightening the back of bus benches. No snow needed to describe the despair in Nickerson Gardens or the Jungle. Writing the Black Experience was not One Thing just as the White Experience was not One Thing. Ask those kids from Castle Rock, that Italian mob princess, or the spy at Langley.

I self-published the two stories I’d been shopping. Though they were far from perfect, these novels helped me find and hone my voice. Cancer freed me—having faced the worst, I could now say, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I channeled all that I’d experienced in life—good, bad, and awful—to create my avenger, my bigger, braver self.

My agent and I cleaned up Land of Shadows and sent it out on submission. Meanwhile, life as a survivor happened again, and I found myself in yet another surgery suite. As I recovered, the rejections rolled in. But one morning in June, during a post-op doctor’s appointment, my cellphone rang …

A young editor at Forge had said ‘yes’—to Lou Norton, to my voice, to my experience of being a black Angeleno with working-class roots and a music playlist filled with Elton John, L’il Kim, Prince, and Air Supply; with a library crammed with Dostoevsky, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Michael Crichton. She got me. Readers did, too.

Being rejected stung, though. Still does. Through that pain, I learn, I listen, and I keep writing. I may put my pen down out of frustration sometimes, but then that day passes, and I pick that pen up again.

I’m a survivor from generations of survivors, and I’ve got helluva story to tell.

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