Kafka described writing as “utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” And it’s true enough that the most wrenching part of the creative struggle must be endured alone, often miserably. But communal midwifery often follows—assistance from a coven of trusted voices that writers rely upon to get to the finish line.
But what happens when a book reaches that finish line without its author? It wasn’t a question I’d envisioned confronting when I met Sarah Coleman. A respected film/photography critic and mother of two, she initially struck me as astute, intense, and reserved. But the preface she crafted in a 2009 historical fiction seminar that I led knocked my socks off. Based on the life of sociologist/photographer Lewis Hine (1874–1940), it actually opened on Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), the brash, gay champion of photographic realism. I urged Sarah to keep going and invited her into a Brooklyn writing group I was forming. She was an Upper West Sider but joined despite the commute.
During the next year, Sarah’s novel evolved into a dual narrative about Hine and Abbott. But in 2013, her agent urged her to make the novel exclusively Abbott’s. Abbott stole every scene, with her hardscrabble origins and a creative wanderlust that carried her from 1920s Paris to ’30s New York and into artistic battle with Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz. Sarah reworked her novel, and her agent sent the manuscript out in late 2014.
There were regretful refusals. In a historical fiction market dominated by novels about female partners of famous men (think The Paris Wife, The Aviator’s Wife), a gay woman taking on the photographic establishment was a tough sell. “The irony,” Sarah quipped. “If only Abbott had been Man Ray’s straight lover instead of his lesbian protégé...”
Then, in August 2015, as our group prepared to reconvene, Sarah sent me a heart-stopping note: “I got a cancer diagnosis this week. It is lung and liver.” The prognosis was devastating, yet still Sarah thought of her book. “I’m going to work on the novel,” her email concluded. “I’m very close to finishing a full rewrite.”
Over the course of the next year—and a battery of tests and experimental treatments—Sarah trekked to our meetings, sometimes needing a nap upon arrival. In 2016, her agent resubmitted the final revision of her novel as The Realist. Once again, the rejections streamed in—again so laudatory she made them fodder for a satirical piece we workshopped: “I can easily see this book sitting on the shelf next to such classics as I, Claudius; Midnight’s Children; and Wolf Hall,” her imaginary editor crowed. “That said, I am not going to throw my hat into the ring on this one, because—I’ll just put it bluntly—the book is not fuckable enough.”
In early 2017, burned-out by cancer therapies and editorial rejections alike, Sarah announced that she was self-publishing. It was a race against the clock. She selected a London-based private press, SilverWood Books, perfected the cover, and obtained rights to her favorite Abbott photos. The last time I met her, we discussed the book’s website, launch party, and a new clinical study she’d enrolled in. A few weeks later, she’d left the study but was thrilled with her novel’s progress.
Thanksgiving arrived, and we learned that Sarah was in hospice, though she was fighting death tenaciously. “I think it’s her book launch party [that] she doesn’t want to miss,” her husband texted.
Sarah passed away on Dec. 3, 2017, a week before copies of The Realist arrived at her apartment. At the memorial service, our group wept together, then assembled, as always, to workshop—only this time, we were workshopping Sarah’s now-orphaned novel’s future. Over Kleenex and laptops, we plotted carrying on. We had a common purpose: to celebrate The Realist and launch it into the world. And celebrate we did.
The launch party featured a cabaret singer and champagne cocktails. Copies of the book flew off the sales table. The word spreading part has been harder, though we’ve landed pieces in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Common, and are planning events in the New York area. Whether or not this boosts sales, there is comfort in knowing that just as we were there after the “cold abyss” of The Realist’s creation, we are here to launch The Realist after the loss of its author.
Jennifer Cody Epstein’s third novel, Wunderland, will be published by Crown in 2019.