Your first book is a success. No matter how success is defined, the specter of the second book looms large. The question you've been continually asking of your narrative—“What happens next?”—is asked of you. And it seems as if the story of your career is already written: success is followed by a fall.
In storytelling there's little drama in consistency. But your career is not apiece of fiction and there's no reason why a monotonous pattern of success couldn't be established. In manyways, the odds are in your favor. You're nolonger subject to the corrosive uncertainty of wondering if you're wasting your time. You have editors, agents and readers who want you to repeat your success. Perhaps there lies the problem: it isn't one of success, it's one of repetition. Writing is creative. Repetition is mechanical. Factories and assembly lines repeat. Artists do not. Should everything that was loved about your first book be avoided? To copy yourself is the surest way to devalue that which you've already written.
And so on, the second book anxieties rumble. For unpublished writers, the obstacles of a second book must appear like a distant and wonderful fantasy. That is because the challenge in being published the first time around is one of brute stamina, tolerating humiliation and rejection, and juggling jobs. The challenge of a second book is an intellectual one. You have too much time to think.
I decided to write Child 44 after months of pitching original movie and television ideas. As a remedy, I showed the book's outline to very few people, wary of having my enthusiasm whittled down by a thousand polite doubts. There is no greater enemy to getting anything done than speaking to someone reasonable. If your first book is an act of madness, stepping off a cliff without any idea if there's water underneath you, the danger with your second book is one of rationalization. You consider. You analyze. You search for a spot along the cliff face where you calculate the drop is shallow and the water deep. You consider some more.
I caught a quote the other day from the very wonderful Lee Child. He was asked if he had any tips for first-time writers. His advice was to ignore all advice. It strikes me that a first-time novelist will run with that sentiment, charging headlong into success or disappointment. A novelist writing his second book will spot the paradox of being advised to ignore advice. Should he disregard this advice also?
In the end, what's the worst that could happen? And even if the worst does happen, there's always book three. And everyone loves the story of a great comeback.
April & Oliver
Tess Callahan, 46
(Grand Central, June)
Born: Long Island; now lives in northern New Jersey.
Favorite authors: Amy Hempel, James Joyce, Gabriel García Márquez.
Career arc: From Bennington College MFA candidate to teaching and writing.
Plot: Two inseparable childhood friends are reunited after the sudden death of April's brother. Their lives have taken wildly different paths—Oliver, the responsible, newly engaged law student, and April, embroiled in abusive relationships and lost. Always drawn to each other, Oliver attempts to save April from her grief; it becomes apparent he has some demons of his own.
Author's toughest challenge: “I write to explore what I don't understand. Questions drive me, and answers are sometimes elusive. For me, the process is an open-ended journey, which means I have to observe without interference while my characters blunder toward their own discoveries.”
Publisher's pitch: According to publicity manager Tanisha Christie, “In this emotionally lush debut, Callahan presents a couple that is able to love and hurt one another with an equally violent and compelling force. It is simply impossible to turn away.”
Opening lines: “Long before dawn on the morning of the funeral, a rogue wind enters April's apartment, clattering the shells of her wind chime, causing her to bolt upright in bed. Night air seizes her. Her mind hurtles through darkness, not wanting to remember, but the realization gaining on her. It's today.”
Before I Forget
Leonard Pitts Jr., 51
Born: South Central, L.A.; now lives in suburban Maryland.
Favorite authors: “Stan Lee, Al Martinez, Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, Dave Barry, Herman Wouk, Joseph Wambaugh, Erma Bombeck.”
Career arc: From pop music critic to Miami Herald columnist to 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary.
Plot: Mo Johnson—a faded soul star of the '70s with early-onset Alzheimer's—takes his 19-year-old son on a cross-country road trip to visit his estranged father. Mo realizes the anger he carries over his father has everything to do with his struggles as a parent.
Author's toughest challenge: “I wrote this story to scare myself, the thought being that if I can cut close enough to the bone of my own irresolution, apprehensions and fears, I might just unsettle (and interest) a reader. The thought that Alzheimer's can strike you in middle age I found particularly terrifying.”
Publisher's pitch: Agate president Douglas Seibold calls the novel “sweeping, ambitious, yet accessible—an in-depth anatomy of black fatherhood and a brilliantly plotted multigenerational road story spanning rural Mississippi in the '40s, South Central L.A. in the '50s, the '70s soul music scene and present-day L.A., Vegas and Baltimore.”
Opening lines: “He forgot. That was how it started. He took a wrong turn somewhere—never did find out where—on a route he had driven three times a month for five years. Three times a month from his home in Bowie, up to Shucky's, a restaurant and bar in Fell's Point, a couple miles and a world away from the tourist traps of the Inner Harbor.”
Rakesh Satyal, 28
Born: Cincinnati; now lives in Brooklyn.
Favorite authors: Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Dawn Powell, Lorrie Moore, Gish Jen, Toni Morrison.
Career arc: From Doubleday editorial assistant to Harper editor to writer.
Plot: Kiran Sharma, a 12-year-old living in suburban Cincinnati, spends most of his days dancing ballet and playing with dolls to escape the rejection he faces at school. One day he has an epiphany: What if he is the reincarnation of the gender-bending Hindu god Krishna? He proceeds to model his life on Krishna's while struggling to reconcile his sexual confusion with his potential godliness.
Author's toughest challenge: “I wanted to portray humorously yet honestly the struggles of a sexually conflicted Indian-American child, and there was only so much cultural and artistic precedent from which I could draw. So the challenge was blending humor, ethnicity and fiction without the narrative seeming contrived.”
Publisher's pitch: “Part Jhumpa Lahiri, part David Sedaris, yet with a distinctive, unique edge,” says publicist Craig Bentley. “Blue Boy presents a new perspective on Indian-American life that is at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving.”
Opening lines: “I'm surprised that my mother still doesn't know. Surely she must notice her cosmetics diminishing every day. Surely she has noticed that the ends of her lipsticks are rounded, their pointy tips dulled by frequent application to my tiny but full mouth. Surely she has noticed that her eyeshadows have been rubbed to the core, a silver eye looking back at her from the metal bottom of each case.”
Emily Chenoweth, 36
(Random House, May)
Born: Columbus, Ohio; now lives in Portland, Ore.
Favorite authors: “Oh, the hardest question. Some of them: Joan Didion, Dawn Powell, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Amy Hempel, Jane Austen.”
Career arc: From Quaker school teacher to bartender to grad student to magazine editor to freelance writer.
Plot: A family visits a New England resort in the shadow of the mother's fatal illness. During a single week they welcome a procession of visitors for a poignant celebration of a too-brief life.
Author's toughest challenge: “On second thought, maybe this is the hard question. I think I sometimes struggled with sitting by myself in a little room, writing about imagined lives, when it seemed as if everyone else I knew was out in the world, living actual lives. And for a little while the challenge was not spending all my time reading D-Listed.com.”
Publisher's pitch: According to editor Laura Ford, “This debut deftly explores a family's struggle with love and loss, as a summer vacation becomes an occasion for awakening rather than farewell.”
Opening lines: “By the time Helen comes in from her run, the first sparks of dawn, pale orange and chilly, are reaching through the bare trees in the backyard. On the other side of the fence, across a gully cut by a thin creek, the neighboring hospital puffs steam into the morning. From its vents and chimneys and pipes, clouds rise, catching light in their curling forms, turning pink and then fading to white.”
How to Sell
Clancy Martin, 41
Born: Toronto, Ontario; now lives in Kansas City, Mo.
Favorite authors: Knut Hamsun, Celine, Charles Lamb, Cervantes, Dostoyevski, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Proust, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Doris Lessing, Emmanuel Levinas, Sarah Kofman.
Career arc: From graduate student to jewelry store and wine bar owner to chair of the philosophy department at the University of Missouri.
Plot: A young man goes to work for his brother at a high-end jewelry store in 1980s Fort Worth, Tex. There he gets his first hard lessons in love, sex, beauty, fraud and... how to sell.
Author's toughest challenge: “Beating alcoholism.”
Publisher's pitch: Says senior editor Lorin Stein, “This tour-de-force has already won raves from the likes of Zadie Smith, Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen, who called it 'dity, greatly original and very hard to stop reading.' A fast-paced, funny, squirmingly dark exposé of the jewelry business and the human heart, this autobiographical novel captures the sleaze and exquisiteness that underlie true luxury. It also captures the high-end salesman's desperation to seduce at all costs. You'll never look at an engagement ring or a Rolex the same way again.”
Opening lines: “Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother's black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old, but the first time I considered jewelry was the morning I stole my mother's wedding ring... It was white gold. It was the only precious thing she had left.”
Jack Wakes Up
Seth Harwood, 34
(Three Rivers Press, May)
Born: Boston; now lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Favorite authors: “Lawrence Block, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O'Connor, Denis Lehane.”
Career arc: From options trader to librarian to Iowa Writers' Workshop to teacher to podcaster to published crime writer.
Plot: When washed-up B-movie star Jack Palms agrees to show some high rollers a good time, he finds himself caught in the middle of a Bay Area drug war... and it'll take the performance of a lifetime to get him through it alive.
Author's toughest challenge: “Learning that authors can't always take the traditional route. Even with an MFA and published stories, I had to create my own audience to get noticed. I bought a microphone, started serializing my novels as free podcasts and built a solid fan base.”
Publisher's pitch: According to acquiring editor Julian Pavia, “On the surface, Jack Wakes Up is a joyously pulpy summer blockbuster, filled with shady villains, drug deals and explosions. But start to look a little closer and you realize that what really makes it tick are the fresh, three-dimensional characters and the pitch-perfect noir prose.”
Opening lines: “Jack takes out a cigarette, his one of the day: the one he smokes with his cup of coffee in the morning, the one that reminds him where he's been. He kicked the junk three years ago, one thousand, sixty-six days exactly, and hasn't had a drink in two years. No cigarettes either, just this one every morning.”
The Jump Artist
Austin Ratner, 37
(Bellevue Literary Press, May)
Born: On the Cuyahoga River; now lives in Brooklyn.
Favorite authors: Joyce, Chekhov, Calvino, Frost, Terry Pluto (The Curse of Rocky Colavito).
Career arc: From medical student to writer.
Plot: In September 1928, in the Alps of western Austria, a young Jew stands falsely accused of patricide. He must endure prison and a grueling trial, and he must re-create himself years later in Paris, through the art of photography and love.
Author's toughest challenge: “Enjoying myself. I try to worry and regret whenever possible. If I get the sense I might be about to enjoy something, I try to reconsider it in light of human mortality. I'm told such crepe-hanging is encrypted guilt, but I have trouble remembering guilt. Maybe remembering is the hardest thing.“
Publisher's pitch: “The Jump Artist is vivid psychological fiction based on the true, and largely unknown, story of renowned photographer Philippe Halsman, a man Adolph Hitler knew by name, whom Sigmund Freud wrote about in 1931 and who put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life magazine,” says assistant editor Leslie Hodgkins.
Opening lines: “10 September 1928, the Zillertal, Austria. Eduard Severin Maria, one of the elder Princes of Auersperg, led a hunt that day in the valley. His horse fell and was later found beheaded in the grass. But Eduard gave little thought to his horses. The Auerspergs took greater pride in their hunting dogs.”
The New Valley
Josh Weil, 32
(Grove Atlantic, June)
Born: Southwest Va.; now lives in New York City and Virginia.
Favorite authors: Russell Banks, John Cheever, J.M. Coetzee, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, Harold Pinter, W.G. Sebald.
Career arc: From farmworker to filmmaker to carpenter in Scotland, photo assistant in Africa, Fulbright researcher in Egypt and writer in Virginia.
Plot: Set in the hill country between West Virginia and Virginia, three novellas examine the strength and fragility of familial bonds that run through the lives of three different men in rural America.
Author's toughest challenge: “Trying to write a novel while isolated in an oasis village in rural Egypt, crippled by a busted back: dust storms boiling and electricity shot, flies in the eyes and loudspeakers blaring cacophony from five different mosques. Either that or trying to write in New York City.”
Publisher's pitch: According to publicity director Deb Seager, “From an award-winning young author whose strong, masterful and tender prose is reminiscent of the early work of Rick Bass, Richard Ford and Jim Harrison.”
Opening lines: “It was the hay bales that did it. The men and women who knew Osby least, who nodded at him from passing trucks or said 'Hey' while scanning cans of soup in the Mic-or-Mac, they might not have seen the change come over him. The few who knew him a little better would have noticed Osby's usual quietness grown heavier, that he stuffed his hands in his sweatshirt pockets a little more often.”
A Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick, 60
Born: Charlottesville, Va.; now lives in New York City.
Favorite authors: Ian McEwan, Shirley Hazzard, Jane Austen, Henry James, John O'Hara, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, John Irving, Annie Proulx, Peter Carey.
Career arc: “Twenty-five years in advertising. Fired at 53, the way advertising people are, and pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.”
Plot: A wealthy man in rural Wisconsin, 1907, advertises for a “reliable wife.” A young woman with a questionable past responds, and arrives there with a plan to become a wealthy widow. What she does not know is that he, too, has an agenda.
Author's toughest challenge: “I find most contemporary fiction to be all context and no content. I wanted to write a story with a real plot, in which, like Austen, all the happiness comes at the last second. I wanted to touch people's hearts. I wanted a book that would linger beyond the last sentence.”
Publisher's pitch: “A beautifully written page-turner that evokes Brontë, du Maurier and Hardy,” says publicity director Michael Taeckens. “It's a classic tale of love, madness, passion and murder, filled with twists and surprises. Will appeal to readers of The Thirteenth Tale and The Crimson Petal and the White.”
Opening lines: “It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o'clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.”
Repeat After Me
Rachel DeWoskin, 36
(Overlook Press, May)
Born: Kyoto, Japan; now lives in Manhattan.
Favorite authors: Anna Akhmatova, James Baldwin, Alison Bechdel, Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, Tony Kushner, Annie Proulx, Leo Tolstoy, Chris Ware.
Career arc: “Received Hello!Kitty diary. Wrote poems. Read. Wrote. MFA. Taught, wrote, addressed, stamped. Fat rejection folder.”
Plot: Aysha is a 22-year-old New Yorker, teaching English to foreigners and putting her life back together after a nervous breakdown when Da Ge, a young Chinese student, walks into her classroom. Their exhilarating romance offers a glimpse of life and loss between languages.
Author's toughest challenge: “Spending decades in the bat cave revising is often a horror for me. But beautiful books, writers and my students keep me engaged. Writing lines is fast work; getting them right takes a lonely forever. When the words say just what I mean to have said—I'm ecstatic.”
Publisher's pitch: “Funny, irreverent, and touching, Repeat After Me is a manic story of love and misunderstanding, of fantasies and frenzied cities,” according to publicist Francesca Sacasa. “A prize-winning poet, DeWoskin is a sharp new voice among female writers: witty without being dry, emotionally stirring without being sentimental.”
Opening lines: “I met Da Ge on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 1989. New York was orange and confident then, leaves breezing the curbs and towers poking above the skyline. I was teaching English as a second language when he arrived two weeks and fifteen minutes late.”
|Smith's Child 44 was published by Grand Central last April to glowing reviews (including a starred PW). His next, The Secret Speech, is due from Grand Central in May.|