For most of us, simply selling a piece of writing is the ultimate reward after struggling valiantly against the publishing industry riptide. But for some, it gets even better. And every year, there are those lucky few who somehow manage not only to meet this milestone—through talent, persistence and (as they'll be the first to admit) luck—but to ride a wave of success and buzz that launches them into another realm.
We talked to seven breakout writers of 2004 who work in a number of different genres, from novelists to a newspaper columnist. We also offer up a list of other noteworthy success stories as the year comes to a close. Recognize a little of yourself in any of these folks? We bet you will.
Why himThe New York Times said of Conlon's debut book, the memoir Blue Blood (Penguin Putnam): "In terms of its ambition, its authenticity and the power of its writing, it's in a class by itself." The author combines a proud pedigree (he's a fourth-generation New York City cop) with an English degree from Harvard to turn gritty, you-couldn't-make-them-up tales into the stuff of literature. Conlon, 39, describes the book as "the ordinary things that cops see day in, day out. There's no great case, no great crime, no French Connection—it's the daily amazement of what it's like to do this job, tied in with a lot of my family history and the history of the city."
How he got here "I always wanted to write; being a cop came relatively late. I used to do freelance writing, and right after the Rodney King scuffle in L.A., a transit cop buddy of mine was talking about the stresses of the job, and he invited me to ride along with him for a couple of weeks. I wound up writing a story about it, modeled after Ian Frazier's books—a mix of first-person journalism with some broader history—and it landed in The American Spectator. I did more city and crime stories for them and then some for The New Yorker. And I saw that cops loved their jobs more than most people. So I thought, Why don't I get a job that I might like, and I'll also be able to write, without having to wait for three months to find out if I'll get paid? And it turns out, I love the job."
The year that was "I really didn't understand what my book tour was going to involve—sitting on a plane at 7 a.m. and finishing an interview at midnight. I'd been hoping to bring some of my partners out to Chicago and maybe I'd talk to a newspaper and then we'd have the rest of the time to run around and have fun. But no—promoting the book is a lot more work than I expected. I have events pretty much every weekend, whether it's radio or TV or phone interviews or a reading. I don't think I've had a weekend where I haven't had something. But you know, it's a good thing to have these problems."
Best part of success "That people are proud that I'm helping others understand what it is to do this job—how difficult, exhausting and humiliating it can be at times, and how amazing at other times. There are old guys who work with my uncle who come up to me and say, `This is the only book I've ever read.' And I like that."
The worst part "People calling the office with questions like, `Can I talk to you about my murder mystery?' It's a police station. It's a busy place. If you want to get in touch with me, call the publisher."
His writing routine "I actually have a horrible schedule as a police detective. I work two nights, then two days, and then I have two days off. I try to write during my days off, but after a day tour, I'm usually too tired to get anything accomplished. I used to be a lazy guy, and I really liked that. But you've gotta do what you gotta do."
Next up "I'd like to try a novel. Nonfiction is amazing, but somehow I think people don't consider it `true' writing unless it's a novel. So I'd like to try my hand at it. I also hope to keep The New Yorker as a home base. The great part of my job is how the stories just roll in. Things that I could barely begin to imagine happen every day."
Why her Winston, 42, took the chick-lit phenomenon and turned it upside down last spring with her debut work, Good Grief (Warner), a novel that dwells on the grieving process of a young widow. Good Grief hit The New York Times bestseller list the week of its release and was the BookSense top pick for March and April. According to The Washington Post, "Winston doesn't shy away from the pain of mourning, but she reminds us that we can still be funny, sarcastic, aware and smart, even when we're brokenhearted."
The year that was "It was busier than usual. Typically, I have no life—working on fiction in the morning, magazine articles in the afternoons and then editing by hand as a coffee shop troll until dinner. But a few months before the publication of my book, I went on a presale tour to various cities to meet with independent booksellers. Then the readings and promotion kicked in. Usually it's just me and the cat holed up for hours at a time, so I enjoyed getting out, especially visiting bookstores."
Best part of success "Just to hold the book in my hands. It's finished! Time to move on and write new stuff."
The weirdest part "Seeing my novel at bookstores alongside Tom Perrotta's new novel. He's such a great writer. And then seeing it shelved in the literature section after Edith Wharton. Wow. Two of my favorites."
Advice for new writers "Well, Woody Allen said something like, `Eighty percent of success is showing up.' That's really what writing involves, even when you don't feel like it, even when you're too busy. If all you can do is a little bit each day—say, 20 minutes—that's great. Also, keep the book Bird by Bird (Pantheon) by Anne Lamott close at hand. That's probably the most dog-eared, highlighted, beloved book in my office."
Next up "I have a two-book contract with Warner, so I'm at work on my second novel called Happiness Sold Separately. I'm also publishing essays and short stories in various magazines in upcoming months."
A BANNER YEAR
Here are a few more writers who enjoyed a stellar year in 2004: Lynne Truss Who knew a diatribe on English grammar could shoot to the top of the bestseller lists? Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Gotham Books) had us giggling about the misuse and abuse of commas and exclamation points. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason A wild chase through the Princeton campus interlinked with an unraveling medieval puzzle, The Rule of Four (Dial Books) gave The Da Vinci Code a real run for its buzz this year. The publishing world will be watching for the next collaboration between these two college chums-turned-authors. Erica Kennedy Her debut novel, Bling (Miramax), was this summer's favorite beach read. Kennedy's now being touted as a Jackie Collins for the hip-hop era. Ken Silverstein His book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor (Random House) grew like a mushroom cloud from a 1998 feature story in Harper's, scaring up rave reviews from The New York Times, Time magazine and The Boston Globe. Rachel Cline After a decade struggling as a Hollywood screenwriter, Cline scored when her debut novel, What to Keep (Random House), was coined "chick lit for smarties" by Entertainment Weekly. Cline's now working on a memoir and a second novel under contract with Random House. Robert Kurson His nonfiction adventure story Shadow Divers (Random House) earned this debut author a long ride on the bestseller charts—along with a cool $1.5 million for the movie rights.
Why him Almond's food memoir, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (Algonquin Books), got some serious buzz this year, and it wasn't just a sugar rush. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the author's homage to candy as "gonzo food writing at its best." Almond, 37, says, "The book is half candy porn, half candy polemic. It's about my personal obsession with candy, the history of the candy bar (as a cultural artifact) and a breakneck tour of America's surviving regional candy bars, including the Valomilk, the Twin Bing and the blessed Idaho Spud."
The year that was "Discombobulating is probably the best word. I spent five weeks on the road, doing readings and eating insane amounts of candy, then topped it off by attending the All Candy Expo in Chicago. I loved every minute of this, but I'm happy to be home, sitting my ass down to write again."
Best part of success "People—total strangers—send me candy. I cannot begin to explain how cool this is. I've also totally dug reading people's Freak Testimonials on candyfreak.com, because they're like these little bursts of obsession and memory, which are—when it comes down to it—the essential building blocks of good writing."
The weirdest part "Other than the candy, I'd say it's just seeing how people react to your work. The thing about Candyfreak is that it's the kind of book that triggers a lot of memories. So, in some sense, readers are writing their own lives into the book. That rocks, unless you run into the sort of reader who's filled with hatred. That does not rock. Then again, that's what art is supposed to do—elicit strong reactions."
Advice for new writers "One, don't try to have `style'—just tell the truth. Two, love your characters (whether fictional or not) at all times. Three, slow down where it hurts. Four, worry about the stuff you can control (your own work) not the external crapola."
Next up "A collection called The Evil BB Chow and Other Stories. Algonquin will publish it this spring. I'll be back out on the road, hopefully with some candy in tow."
Why himI Dream of Microwaves (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a collection of short stories about a struggling immigrant actor slugging his way through an assortment of weirdly awful jobs. Rahman's breakout book caught the eye of People magazine critics: "Rahman riffs on the absurdity of assimilation, but this isn't just another immigrants-have-it-tough book. He assembles an almost deafening echo chamber in which pulp collides with the lofty." Rahman, 34, also snagged the attention of au courant Interview magazine, which profiled him modeling swank Hugo Boss menswear. Rahman's originality and flair for chronicling contemporary life leave his readers dreaming of more than microwaves.
On choosing to write short stories "To be honest, I don't think I ever made that decision until I was halfway into it, and by then it was too late to stop. I'd just sit down to write a new story and feel compelled to tell it in the same voice about the same character. I love both the freedom and the constraints of the form. There are, I think, fewer expectations placed on you, so you can take the sort of risks with language and narrative that you perhaps wouldn't take within the more coherent framework of a novel. Anyway, that's the semismart answer. The real answer is probably because novels scare me."
The year that was "It's been strange, for sure. I feel like I locked myself up to write the book and now that I've been let out for good behavior, the only thing I can think about is locking myself up again."
Best part of success "Being able to use the word `success' in conjunction with myself in a nonfictional setting."
The weirdest part "Having to start the next book from scratch. I feel like I'm back to where I was before I started Microwaves, only I now know a couple more things, and I have a book to show for it."
His writing routine "Coffee, cigarettes, crumpled pages, frustration, satisfaction, more of the same. I do like to reward myself. If I write a couple of sentences that I'm happy with, I'll smoke a cigarette. If, at the end of the day, I'm happy with what I've written, I'll buy myself a beer. If I'm having a bad writing day, I won't let myself smoke or have a beer. It follows logically that my best writing days are the unhealthiest ones."
Advice for new writers "Don't compromise your vision, but check your ego in at the door. Read everything you can get your hands on."
Next up "A novel, I guess. At the moment, I'm completely intimidated by it. I can't even think that far ahead."
Why her Who could resist a book with a name like Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood? (Regan Books). Some of the buzz surrounding Gillespie's debut work included Vanity Fair's take: "Riotous NPR commentator Hollis Gillespie, 42, alias Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch, shares rib-cracking funny tales of life on the road with her bomb-building mom and trailer-salesman dad." Then there was a celebrity-worthy appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno in March. Gillespie's irreverent wit and hilarious observations are reverberating far beyond the trailer park.
The year that was "It was a total bipolar coaster. The book seemed to shoot right out of the gate like a rocket, starting with the Publishers Weekly review, which was so wonderful I just had to lie down right there on the floor and cry. I tell you, a funny thing happens when you're editing your first book (or it could happen with all your successive books, too, but I've done only the one so far): It's so picked apart and examined, bisected and trodden upon, that you get so sick of it, you're certain there's not a single person on earth who'll find it interesting. Then people do, and it takes you about a month to stop asking, `Really?' "
Best part of success "The best lesson about having reached this point is the implosion of the `finish line' fantasy. There's no finish line. You've been put in the running, and that's all. If you're lucky, that's where you'll stay. It's really good to know this; that all any of this really amounts to is an opportunity to keep working in a creative vein. That right there is the reward."
The weirdest part "Where are my groupies? I would've thought there'd definitely be big crowds of groupies by now. I have a whole list of petty services for them to perform to prove their loyalty to me."
Advice for new writers "Here's what happened to me: I tortured myself for years for not `starting my book,' when the damn thing was written already! It was in notebook after notebook of journal entries I stored at the bottom of my closet. From those entries came my columns, and from my columns came my NPR commentaries, one of which a publisher heard and asked me to send more stories. I e-mailed him a file titled `Big Ass File o' Stuff' and was informed I had a book there. I swear this can't be unusual. So my advice is this: Stop stressing over the book you `need' to write and find the one you already did."
Next up "My next book, due out next year, is titled Confessions of a Recovering Slut and takes up where my last one leaves off, after having bought my very own home right smack in the middle of a crack neighborhood. By the way, they never did find the rest of the body to match the severed head in a plastic sack they found on my street."
Why him Of all the motorcycle-riding vicars in England, it's surely safe to say that only one has written a bestselling juvenile novel. Not that G.P. Taylor, 46, rides a motorcycle anymore—he sold it to finance the self-publication of Shadowmancer, a rollicking thriller with religious overtones. Shadowmancer's brisk word-of-mouth sales caught the attention of British publishing house Faber and Faber, which published the nov el and, within weeks, had its next No. 1 bestseller. Those impressive numbers prompted Penguin Putnam to offer Taylor a six-figure deal for U.S. rights. The novel quickly hit No. 1 on The New York Times children's bestseller list, as well—and Taylor, a man of the cloth who's held jobs ranging from Sex Pistols roadie to riot policeman, was on his way to literary stardom.
On becoming a writer "I'm a writer by accident—this is what makes people a bit fed up with me. I was challenged by a woman to write a novel, and I just thought, Maybe this is where I'm supposed to be going. So when I was a bit bored one morning, I just sat down and went for it."
The year that was "It's been a very heady year. Lots of TV, lots of interviews. The `Today' show, People magazine and Entertainment Weekly—it's been a bit of a roller coaster. It was all quite haphazard at first, because my novel's success took everybody by surprise—the coping mechanisms weren't in place. But since being taken up by Penguin Putnam, things are extremely well organized."
Best part of success "The most exciting thing was having the opportunity to come to America and visit lots of bookstores. I enjoyed meeting the booksellers—especially the independents, who really were interested in me as a person and as an author, and who knew an awful lot about writing and about books."
The worst part "Stalkers! I met a woman at a book signing who had every press cutting from every paper I'd ever been in. And then she invited me home for a cup of cocoa. I expected to walk in the house and see full-sized pictures of G.P. Taylor on the walls. And strangers come up to me and ask about my children by name. I just say, `They're fine, they're great, yeah.' But I'm an ex-cop, so I look 'em up and down and think, `Could I take this guy out?' "
Advice for new writers "Try to think of new ways of publishing books. We all follow this pattern of, oh, we must be published by a mainstream publisher. Why? You know, Mark Twain published himself. We ought to get away from the mentality of the million-dollar advance and major publishers and all that."
Next up "Wormwood, the second in my three-volume series, is a novel set in 18th-century London. It's a thriller about how people cope with the end of time. And it's a completely different story from Shadowmancer—far faster paced, less allegory and more action."
Why him Neil's journalism career took off in the fast lane this year when his "Rumble Seat" column, a weekly commentary of cars and culture in the Los Angeles Times, earned the 44-year old writer a Pulitzer Prize. The announcement accompanying Neil's award described his work as "one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations."
The year that was "It's been wonderful finding an audience as keen and appreciative, and as demanding, as the L.A. Times readers. The year has been rather surreal, as I've gone from absolute obscurity to only relative obscurity."
Best part of success "Access. Getting through to busy people when I'm on deadline. It's also nice to know people are reading."
The weirdest part "It's sometimes difficult—no, always difficult—living up to the expectations that others have for my work. Their praise and interest raises the bar and, week in, week out, reaching the bar can be challenging. I never feel as smart or as good as people say I am. All writers, I imagine, feel this way, since they're so contemptuously familiar with their own work."
Next up "I have a book deal, a TV project, a couple of long magazine pieces and—back there on the far left burner—a play that has nothing to do with my day job. Can't wait to get to it."