The last draft was strewn about the room–the pages; the finaly galleys. I had six hours left, six hours to hand in the irreversible, the fianl corrections. My last chance to get the words and rhythms right. I had too many files on each chapter, couldn’t figure out which was actually the last draft. My filing system was of no help. As in Chapter Six had chaptersix.last; chaptersix.final, chaptersix.end.
Frantic now, I began printing out various versions from my two identical laptops. Just then, the phone beeped, meaning someone was at the front desk. The doorman said a package was on its way upstairs, something from Simon and Schuster.
My daughter went to the door, ran into my study, piles everywhere. Excited, she asked, "Can I open it?"
"Not now, Miranda," I said, I who am rarely rude to her.
Two minutes later, she reappeared, exultant. "Your book is done!" she said, handing me two white paperbacks--with large pitch black lettering bound in black. I grabbed them from her and fell into a moment of pure cognitive dissonance.
"It’s out? It’s a paperback?" I said to no one, since my kid had already dashed from the room. I am someone who sometimes is truly clueless.
Bewildered, I sat at my desk and read. The book was good. The book was done? No, gradually I realized that the book was not done. This version was the one I’d corrected months before, the pre-galleys. The copy sent out to hundreds of reviewers. The timing, in addition to being a shock, was a real gift as well.
For now I could see the actual final chapters. And reading them, seeing which ones worked. Chapter 16, which I had just been slashing and hacking away at, read as perfectly fine. This"paperback" gave me lots of clues about what to cut, what to leave in.
By dawn, my final revision was done. At 8:00 AM I carried the final pages, all 340, down to Rockefeller Center. There, R.B., an assistant to Simone, met me in the huge lobby.
"You don’t want to go up, " he whispered, meaning Simone was in a foul mood, but then when was she not? We two moved into a corner , talking conspiratorially.
I said, "R., it’s really great. I mean, I can’t believe I really wrote this book." Along with the 320 pages, I handed him ten pages of handwritten notes, noting each comma, semi-colon, every word change by line, number and page, so there would be no disputing precisely what I intended.
I’d gleaned that the copy editors shifted; I did not want any more: shifted. Discerning that the company was changing free lance copy gals, each with her own distinctive style, I was obsessive about exactly what I wanted and then after hugging R, I waltzed out to Sixth Avenue, happy. The book was in. It was good.
This all-nighter occurred in early April, 2000. Publication (pub) date was June 15th. But again, I was in for a shock, another of those body-mind blows that had punctuated the entire process, that had kept alive a line from Shakespeare: "The thousand shocks the flesh is heir to," what recurred after almost every interaction with the House.
One night, in mid-May, my in-house publicist called. Cindy was a woman sweet as she was equally zoned out. Calling, she said, to set up ONE reading for me in a small town-- Madison, Connecticut for July 19th.
"But don’t you think we need the whole schedule first?" I asked, "So I’ll move from place to place easily. I mean, what if I’m in Montreal, reading on the 16th?"
(I was still under the delusion that a book tour was being set in motion.)
"It’s a good store, " Cindy said.
"I don’t know..." I trailed off , trying to imagine building my entire summer around one bookstore in Madison, Connecticut.
"You saw the book?" Cindy said, interrupted my musing.
"Which book?" I asked.
"The finished book, " she said, vague and distracted.
"Piles of ‘em are stacked right under my desk, have been here for days," she said, waiting for my thoughts on the Connecticut gig. "Didn’t Simone send them up to you?" she asked.
"But It’s only mid-May" I said. "Pub date isn’t till June 15.
"They’re here," she repeated.
"No, nothing from Simone," I said.
"Oh," Cindy said, casual–casual about my finished book , piles of them under her desk, "I guess Simone is composing a letter to you. You see, she likes to write a good long letter to each author before she sends the first 2 copies."
The room seemed tilted on some odd angle. My baby was born, lying under someone’s office desk. I needed to see it immediately.
"Can I come right down?"
"It really has to go through Simone," Cindy said. She’d call her, call me right back.
But I was out the door before she called. It was spring. This was news to me since I hadn’t been out much in years, not to say: cognizant of the seasons. Yes, it was definitely spring as I walked along one street, zig zagging toward Midtown, planning to grab a copy. Suddenly, I felt sick and flopped straight down on the sidewalk. I was shaking.
`O great, ' I thought, `I’ll never get to see the book because I’m having a heart attack.' I tried to observe myself. The pounding of my heart was matched only by some peculiar problem with my vision. Not a heart attack; a stroke, I knew it. A stroke would reallybe a shame, right here on the street I thought, reaching my bag for the baby aspirin, when my cell rang. It took me too long to find it. When I did, no one was there.
I was holding the small, red Nokia when it rang again, which made my body leap up as if to the sky, meaning into that ozone, what’s become of NYC ceiling. I felt more violently ill, certain that no, I wasn’t having a heart attack, not a stroke. The moment of death was closing in on me.
"Simone wants to send them herself. In a day or two," Cindy said, nonchalant.
"It’s okay," I said. "Can’t talk now."
Couldn’t talk and couldn’t walk. People were looking at me, casually annoyed, as if I was one of the homeless slowly returning to the streets of the Upper West Side. I was on Broadway, almost blocking the door to a vitamin store. I slithered a few feet, too shaky to stand. No power in my legs . Cramping starting in my feet, what had been happening for months, especially after all nighters. Cell phone still in hand, I dialed a doctor, one I’d hadn’t seen for years. The pill guy. That I remembered his number was a hopeful sign. "Come on over, " he said.
I made it to my feet, then into a cab to his office. "Panic attack" he said, writing a prescription for xanax, once my drug of choice. "Start with two a day, max" he said, giving me 15 pills, .05 mg each. The pharmacist next to his office was taking forever. I forgot about the book. My entire existence depended on getting hold of those pills.On the taxi ride home I put two on my tongue, tried swallowing. The bitter taste brought back my xanxed married days, often alone in the heat of Jamaica with my pills. I couldn’t collect enough saliva to get them down. My tongue was layered with the boat-shaped pink items, which I sucked on as they dissolved, slowly. I then concentrated on making little swallows. By the time I was home, I had managed to get down most of what had been solid in my mouth.
My heart slowed down, immediately. My legs and feet were not clenching. My hands were not shaking. The book seemed very far away. The doorman, Ralph, smiled and started to chat. I noticed that he looked barely familiar, a man I’ve chatted with daily for years. I was not having a stroke; not a heart attack. Nor was I near death, quite miraculously. But of course, I wasn’t anywhere near life, either. I felt no anxiety, true, but equally I had no interest in anything. In this distanced mood I logged onto Table Talk.
I read through the posts I had missed all day, and then, succinctly I told my internet friends what I just said here. Betsy Lerner, agent and writer, went bezerk.
"You are in the game. You do not bow out of the game by doubling your meds. Trust me on this she said, and then said (typed) a lot more about why taking drugs was no way to greet publication and "she should know." After a few paragraphs of her words, I felt mildly ashamed but still extremely grateful for the 13 remaining pills. I intended to stay in the twilight zone until the book arrived, whenever that was, whenever Simone remembered to write her "special" letter and send it.
The world kindly receded until 10PM on a Thursday night when the doorman rang up and I ran down. Once back upstairs, alone in the living room--my daughter and Eddie out at the movies, I ripped open the package.
Two books and a big white envelope. I opened the letter which consisted of a large white post card: "Congratulations, S." was scrawled on it.
The front cover photograph looked far better than imagined. That photograph I was sure had been taken in Cambodia looked enough like Jerusalem after all; the title was printed perfectly, ditto my name in gold. The shape of the book was a nice surprise too---elogated, taller than most books, more rectangular than square. It was, the word that leapt to mind, really handsome.
The inside lay-out was more picturesque than in the "paperback", with the faintest photo of the Wailing Wall underlying each separate section. The pages, far too yellow, were as expected. The font was even smaller than in the galleys. There were more lines per page and more words per line as I quickly assessed. That’s why, including the index, it came to only 304 pages. Not 320. But it was here. My book, finally done, I did it!
I was alone with this it, this object of desire I’d spent a lifetime dying to hold, a lifetime certain I never would. I adored the dreaded cover. I loved the photograph of me, small, on the inside of the back cover. It was in color. I looked pretty and interesting, with my Susan Sontag hair, what I had pictured for decades. I was siting on my window ledge, looking bohemian and casual, happy and direct, a photograph of my best self credited, rightly, to my daughter.
I opened to random pages and found that it was just what I had written. Each line, shifted a few thousand times, was correct. I didn’t spot a single typo. The table of contents was perfect.
Excited, I read a paragraph here, a paragraph there, amazed that it was done. I was wide awake, dimly aware that this was a moment no one had prepared me to expect. Was it right to be all alone? Would it be far better to have someone with whom to share this occasion? Then again, solitude, or being alone in relation to my book, was after all, how it got done. These moments of me meeting my own creation, now its very own self, seemed right. A book; its own being.
"I love you, book" I said, dancing across the room, ecstatic. "I Love You, Book," I repeated about twenty times, which is just when Eddie and my daughter ran in. Each grabbed a copy. "Nice" my daughter said.
She then put it down on the couch and began describing a convoluted plot of the Eddie Murphy movie she had just seen, wanting my attention. "Not now, " I said to her, glad to have an adult who’d get the import. "Small type," my ex said. " Any typos?"
"Didn’t study it yet," I said, my energy dissipating. There was a vibe of indifference in the room now, what definitely seemed wildly contraindicated. Maybe there was a little hostility from my ex too, who’d been writing his book since we married a century ago. I guess this is a private matter, I decided.
"The other book" my husband said, lifting my competitor’s month's old book, "His cover isn’t as good...(he was thinking outloud)...Yours is a nicer shape.... But his font is darker and larger.. So, his is the easier read."
Then he yawned and started in on the Eddie Murphy plot, too.
'Good God,’ I thought, `how did I get into this family?’ With that silent query, I grabbed both books and went to my study. "Leave one here," my ex yelled, "Why are you taking both of them? Hey, I want to look too."
I shut the study door and flopped on my daybed, the site of so many years, so many revisions. I flopped down, suddenly in an entirely new relation to the book–because I started reading it. "I love you book" dissipated entirely, replaced, that twenty minute delerium, with : "No, Impossible: I did not write this."
I’d been reading the Elements of Style for the first time. I was impressed by the call for short sentences. In addition, one of my biggest phobias in all the thousands of re-writes was to not repeat words. Now I found incredible run-on sentences everywhere. And words that repeated and repeated-- within the same paragraph, if I was lucky. Within the same sentence frequently, that a creeping hysteria began to engulf me. As was my long habit, I immediately went about making corrections, deleting this word or cutting one sentence into two. I was using a blue pen on the book, when the panic I felt on the sidewalk recurred.
This time it was not heart attack/ panic attack, not stroke but a panic of futility and humiliation. Because, as I put down the pen, I realized just how ludicrous, how far far too late was this editing mania. There would be no more corrections, I knew, sunk in terrible shame. Reality dictated that nothing more to rectify this maimed thing, its horrid yellow pages, tiny print, and simply terrible writing.
How did the packed words so change from the lovely white "paperback"? Was it the crammed tiny print that made this book seem so much worse? No, I decided. It was the book itself. The more I read, the worse it got. The more I read, the more I saw words recurring as if I was a writer who stuttered on the page. The more I read, the longer each sentence seemed to become. In fact, I’d scan each page, but couldn’t find not even one short sentence.
Not one that would qualify as decent writing according to Elements of Style, and by now, that’s all I was skanning for. I remembered Janine, so very long ago, trying to find one sentence that worked. Five years ago she had known what I knew now, for the first time, knew for sure: That I cannot not write to save myself, not even to save the Middle East, Israel or the peace process. I was a woman who had been deluded; I was a woman who couldn’t write worth a damn.
After what felt like hours in this state, I called Daphne, one od whom had given ne a great blurb, a woman who’d read the book long ago, when, I was sure, it had been far better. I’d re-written too much. I’d lost all perspective. I’d gone crazy on the page, repeating words after an entire year spent, so I had believed, in deleting all repetitions.
I had been, I had always been insane and now I had proof. This sudden revelation was now going to be shared with the entire world. Every single person who picked up this book, and after finding the requisite magnifying glasses, would know that this woman does not know the elemental rules of writing. She is so crazy, this author, she can’t write a sentence that isn’t one long run-on. And then she packs that endless sentence with six identical words.
"Daphne!," I screamed, "I can’t believe this." I didn’t ask if she was free to talk, I just began reading her two of the more offending paragraphs. She asked me to read it again, slowly. Daphie was quiet. This is a woman who is a genius with words, one of the great wordsmiths. What was she thinking in her silence? Was she busy trying to figure out how to get her great blurb off the back, just as I was wondering how in hell to stop the presses?
"I would never have written, I read, a sentence, then another. For a moment I thought , of course, that I did not write such sentences. "It’s not obvious, " Daphie said. "It’s nothing awful, " she repeated. "It’s acceptable. It's good."
During the next two weeks, I talked to no one. I did not keep a date at Central park with the editor of Ha’aretz, who I later found had left sixteen messages. I would not say hello to the Israeli ambassador to Jamaica, who was in my house, meeting my ex, wanting very much to congratulate me. I would not speak to anyone except the writing group gathered around Betsy Lerner on Table Talk, she who had just published a book about how to write and how to get published. I lived on the Internet and my brightest recurring thought was that the three of us, me Olivia and Eddie, would move to Australia immediately.
And then, somehow, I came to my senses, rising into my better mind, slowly re-finding my best image of that book, which I began to love all over again. It was fine. It was great. True, since now I read it all the way through.
Only later I learned that this completely distorted shame is what many authors feel when there is a first book but no word on what anyone else thinks about it.
Pub date is not like Opening Night of a theater's play; you do not have a crowd at Sardi's waiting for those midnight reviews. You may get not many reviews ever. However this shame and mis-reading I found are common to authors with our first, our most beloved books.