Author Ruth Galm received upwards of 60 rejections from agents for her first novel, Into the Valley. But she kept working, and after years of revising the book, it was plucked from the slush pile at Soho Press. Into the Valley comes out in August 2015, and it's already received a starred review from PW. Galm discusses the writing process, and persevering through rejection.
When I think of perseverance, how perhaps I persevered in the face of mounting rejection for my novel manuscript for Into the Valley, published by Soho Press this month, I feel no greater claim on this state than any writer I know who carries on doggedly every day. Publishing my debut novel took many years and pushed me from my 30s to my 40s. I can share a few particulars of the journey with the caveat that for some my path might seem like a cakewalk; that I do not presume to know any more how to persevere than the next. But I know stories from the trenches helped me in my most doubtful times, and so I will offer what I can with the disclaimers above, and the hope that it finds you recognizing the quiet, accretive strength of your own resoluteness.
Since I start most of my writing with images I’ll begin there: me hunched over a too-small table on a rickety chair bolstered by a pillow in a strange, sublet room. I was in this sublet having sublet my own apartment (a telling hedge now) after deciding at age 41 to move to a new city, only then to bolt from said new city after a few weeks and crawl back home with no place to live, no job. I was hunched at this too-small table that ruined my back and hips because the only way to block out the searing mortification of what I had just done—I was not eating or sleeping much—was to try and write. I see now that I wanted the move to erase all my perceived adult failures, the not publishing the novel at the apex (nadir?) of them. Please forgive the dramatic overtones, but I had a hard time walking down the street in this period. I felt my failure seeped out of me. A rancid combination of absent social markers—with the added delusion that publishing Into the Valley would have made up for them—that pulsed out in a stench to people around and announced my lack of worth.
I told someone that I could not possibly write during this time of disorientation and frailty. And that person said it was exactly what I needed to do because that was where my strength lay. So I sat down to the dwarf table and near-backless chair and took one last pass, with comments from a generous former editor, at the structure and pacing of the novel manuscript; I started a short story. This act in its way restored a non-shame to me.
A second image: the large table cluttered with beloved books and my laptop in my own apartment, after the sublets (plural) were finally up. The dozens of agent queries and independent press slush submissions having gone nowhere, which continued to feel like a verdict on my talent, although only one agent actually agreed to read the manuscript and only one independent press read the whole thing, both having mostly good things to say except that they would not take it on. I sat down at the big round table in front of the literature I hoped to be in conversation with and had to ask myself a question: did I want to stop writing? Did I want to stop writing since it was likely I would not get published. The answer was emphatic, kneejerk, maybe masochistic. No. No, I never wanted to stop writing.
And this is when I crossed to the other side. The side where I understood that I would write for myself, without the prospect of publication, and that publishing was a business separate from writing. The delay of not coming to fiction writing until my early 30s made it clear to me that without this vocation my life would lose its center. I could not imagine my days without puzzling out sentences and images, without laboring in the tradition of the great art stacked around me. I could not imagine, after three years of working and revising to get it where I knew it needed to be, changing any element of my unsalable, not-of-the-moment novel manuscript, not the spare style or the focus on landscape or the blankness of the main character “B.” And there I found myself as a writer.
This was a liberation. It opened me up to the absolute truth of writing for me, that craft and art matter above all else. That in their service, I love the actual hair-pulling, nail-biting process of creating prose. This has been the gift over and over. It brings me back from the continuing rejection, makes me want to cry in gratitude for the dark time of the too-small table and feeble chair.
And that is the same space I lived in for eight months until I found out that Soho Press wanted the novel. I had sent the manuscript to their slush pile, with a letter to Senior Editor Mark Doten, a former classmate at Columbia whom I knew in passing from workshop, and I understood finally in our conversation in which he told me the reasons he and Soho loved the novel that it was because I had remained myself, had written for myself, had kept myself as highest critic that they wanted and believed in the book.
And so to be publishing my debut novel at the age of 44 seems only the particular shape of my life, not so remarkable a thing outside our culture’s focus on youth and prodigy, just the timing that is exactly right. Any earlier version would not have been this novel, would have been a lesser craft. I will only write what stirs me, the way it stirs me, and getting that right will be guide and purpose to my days. Nothing else