Writing the stories only she can tell is a motivating force for Zoe Fishman. “My books have been, for better or worse, pretty autobiographical,” she says. Her third novel, Driving Lessons, being published by HarperCollins in April is about leaving a big city and moving down south, and she confirms it was definitely taken from her life. “In high school I didn’t have a car, my friends would almost always, begrudgingly, pick me up and take me out. I never really felt the need to drive. It never appealed to me. Plus anytime I got behind the wheel, I was told I was a terrible driver.”
But when Fishman moved to Atlanta, Ga. in 2011, pregnant with her son and living in the suburbs, she told her husband the truth: she wasn’t a great driver. He didn’t initially believe her. “You can’t imagine someone would be scared to drive if it’s second nature to you. He said, ‘let’s drive downtown’ and we got on the interstate.” Fishman says she was in tears and stopped driving all together after getting into a minor accident while five months pregnant.
Eventually Fishman overcame the driving fear, much as her protagonist Sarah does in Driving Lessons, but the experience stayed with her. “Writing this book was cathartic—it absolutely was. I had never been that scared of anything. For Sarah, it’s also her struggle. She’s asking the questions, ‘Who am I now? And what does it mean?’ ”
Fishman had a life in publishing for 13 years before she wrote her first novel, Balancing Acts in 2010 followed by Saving Ruth in 2012, both published by imprints of HarperCollins. “For me, writing was really the thing in my life that I always knew I was pretty good at,” says Fishman. “As early as first grade, I loved to read and tell stories.” She studied English in college and with the encouragement and help of a family friend landed her first publishing job.
“My mother’s old college roommate, Linda Grey, was the publisher of Ballantine in 1998. She helped me get my foot in the door, and I started out as the assistant to the audio publisher at Random House. From there I moved on to editorial.” Fishman left Random House to write for online sites BestSelections.com and Astrologyls.com which she did for a few years before returning to Simon & Schuster in the sub rights dept. “I learned about sales, traveled out of the country. It was amazing and it was an unexpected diversion from writing.”
Six years at Simon & Schuster, and Fishman moved to boutique agencies Lowenstein-Yost Associates and Nancy Yost Literary Agency where she handled rights and agented on the side. “I got to pick authors I liked and work with them one-on-one, pretty intensely. But I wasn’t writing myself and I missed it,” Fishman says. When a friend with an extra freelance project offered Fishman the opportunity to write two Bratz mystery projects, she “was so excited”, and says she learned a lot doing the Bratz books, especially since she feels that “plot is not my strength, and plotting mystery is no joke.”
After finishing the new writing project, Fishman traveled to Portland to agent at a conference and met Jeanette Perez, an associate editor at HarperCollins. The two formed a connection that would eventually lead to a publishing contract. “A couple of months later, Jeanette was in a meeting at Harper Collins with [president & publisher] Michael Morrison,” as Zoe tells it. “He had been my audio guy at Random House years before. They were discussing popular topics for women’s fiction and potential authors when Jeanette raised her hand and said, ‘I know Zoe Fishman and she’s writing.’ They said, ‘if she writes like she talks, it’s going to be good. Let’s give her a shot’.”
Fishman refers to the call from Perez as “the opportunity of a lifetime”. She wrote a proposal, pitched the book, and brokered her own deal. “It was one of those come-to-Jesus moments, where everything came together,” she says. “It was lovely.” Her years in publishing meant Fishman went into the role of author with realistic expectations. “I had seen my own authors and other agents’ authors stumble, through no fault of their own. I was presently surprised when Balancing Acts did fairly well. I felt the same about Saving Ruth. I knew it was small and niche, and it wasn’t going to be published abroad. But I had to write it.”
Today, Zoe Fishman’s a mother, author, and a transplant southerner (she moved to Atlanta in 2011) with Brooklyn roots. Her life has evolved from being the New York agent and editor. “Being out of the industry for almost two and a half years is strange. I don’t miss being an agent, but I do miss having the inside scoop.” After having her son, and settling into life in Atlanta, her goal of being a career author has cemented. “My dream of a sustainable writing career didn’t so much change as become even more important to me. I’ve always considered myself incredibly lucky to be a working writer, but being able to create my own schedule, and do what I love and express myself creatively while raising my son, Ari, is a tremendous gift. It is my sincere hope that I can continue to do so!”
Fishman is still up for change. She’s researching and writing her next novel, and this one, she says, is not culled from her own life. It’s based (loosely) on Alice in Wonderland.