My agent was about to begin shopping my collection of short stories to publishers, and I was nervous. More nervous than usual, which is saying a lot, considering I am a person who can catastrophize something as innocent as a ringing phone, imagining bad news on the other end. But when it came to the sale of my first book, my anxieties were not unwarranted. Short story collections are notoriously difficult to sell. The market for them is smaller than it is for thrillers or literary novels, and publishers are often reluctant to take them on. It can take months or even years for any book to sell, let alone a story collection, and there is no guarantee it will sell at all.
Years before, I had been a real estate lawyer, and I had watched people bury statues of Saint Joseph to help their homes sell. (The custom is so common you can buy a Saint Joseph home sale kit online.) Though an agnostic, I wasn’t above looking for divine help for my book, but I’m Jewish and didn’t feel comfortable appealing to a saint. Besides, I wasn’t selling a house. I asked friends for advice, and one told me her Jewish grandmother had recommended tying a red string around her wrist for luck. A bit of research confirmed the tradition, and I was off, reciting a protective prayer after attaching the string. I began saying the prayer every morning, sometimes midday, too, figuring if one prayer was good, many were better.
It wasn’t long before the string was put to the test. My agent sent the story collection out on a Friday, accompanied by a few dozen pages of a novel I was working on. The following Monday, three publishers expressed interest, and an agreement for a two-book deal was reached with one of them on Wednesday. The string had worked. I was going to be a published author. I couldn’t have been happier.
I was raised in a mildly superstitious home. Mention an item of good fortune, a healthy birth, for example, and my mother would say “ptu, ptu, ptu,” a gesture meant to symbolize spitting three times to ward off the evil eye. I had picked up that habit. And now I had my red string.
The time between the sale of a book and its publication can be long. In my case, a year and a half passed. I kept busy writing the novel. The publisher had seen only the beginning of the book. It had the right to accept or reject the finished draft, a worry-inducing proposition if ever there was one. I sent them the completed novel in May 2019, two months before the collection was to come out. Exhausted, I went on vacation to New Mexico. I soaked in mineral hot springs overlooking cliffs. The heat drained the tension from my body. Yet anxiety filled my thoughts. What would I do if the publisher didn’t accept the novel? My agent would shop it to other publishers. But what if none bit? The idea that years of effort could end up in a drawer was heartbreaking. Not to mention that I would have to pay back the portion of the advance I had received for the novel.
I got out of the water and examined my phone. Seeing an email from my editor at the publishing house, I sat down. The message was long. The editor complimented the novel and also suggested several revisions, ideas I agreed would make the book stronger. In the last sentence I found the words I was looking for: The editor said she was excited to publish it. That night, I celebrated with champagne. The red string had continued to work its magic.
As the publication date for the short story collection neared, my excitement grew, but so did my anxiety about how the book would be received. Publishing is a roller coaster. My book made one list of books to watch for but was absent from another. It received glowing reviews from some national outlets but was ignored by others. My literary idol wrote a blurb for the book jacket, while some friends were silent about it, and I didn’t know if they hadn’t enjoyed it or hadn’t bothered to read it. I wanted my book to be successful in every possible way. Great movies have been made from short stories. Brokeback Mountain was based on an Annie Proulx short story and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why not one of mine? Hope, I discovered, is free and seductive.
As my anxiety about the book ratcheted up, I continued to appeal to the red string. In addition, I began to bargain with a god I don’t believe in, promising charitable contributions in exchange for milestones I hoped the book would reach. When a success I wanted didn’t immediately materialize, I upped the charitable amount. But there were so many ways I wanted the book to succeed, I began to have trouble keeping track of it all and seriously considered setting up a spreadsheet. When things I asked for came to pass, I paid up. But when they didn’t, I began to wonder about the usefulness of the red string or my bargaining strategy.
Writers spend years toiling in garrets or some equivalent before being published. During that time, when I wasn’t busy fashioning sentences and paragraphs and imagining worlds that existed only as long as I continued to think about them, I had sometimes pictured finding an agent and selling my book. But I hadn’t thought much about what having a book out in the world would mean.
In the runup to the publication of the collection, I asked everyone I knew to preorder. I gave interviews. I shared my publishing news on social media, revealing the book cover and posting a schedule of bookstore readings. But the inescapable truth was that as a writer I had only so much ability to influence what happened after the book left my hands. That created stress that, at times, felt overwhelming. After the book came out, I became obsessed with checking Goodreads reviews, Amazon rankings, and Googling the title of the book to see who was talking and writing about it, celebrating when the news seemed good, mourning when it didn’t. I looked up libraries around the country to see if they had acquired it and if it was checked out. Each time I discovered my book had been borrowed, I got a hit of joy and relief. My book was being read. And yet it’s hard to imagine a less productive way to spend one’s time. Constantly searching for reassurance was exhausting, and not the simple triumph I had imagined publishing a book would be.
After the collection was released, I received wonderful messages from readers who had enjoyed it. One woman said the stories moved her so much she returned to her own writing. Connecting with readers in this way was one of the most meaningful parts of my publishing journey. Of course, some things I hoped for never happened. As I write this, none of the short stories has been turned into a movie.
Eventually, I stopped bargaining with god or appealing to the red string. I began to see both for what they were: ways to manage my anxiety. To feel that I was doing something, anything, in an area in which I had little influence. I also began to understand that I was looking for external validation when the most meaningful validation could only come from within me.
My novel, Other People’s Pets, came out in July 2020, the middle of the pandemic. And I thought I lacked control over my book’s destiny during normal times! Live events that were planned for the book migrated online or were canceled altogether. Bookstores and libraries limited their hours. I did everything I could to support my publishing team’s efforts, reaching out to my network to make sure they knew about the book, writing essays, and strengthening my social media presence. I hoped readers would find and enjoy the book, but I had little control over whether that actually happened. What I did have was the knowledge that I had written a novel only I could write, in the best way I knew how. It would have to be enough.