The Perils of Literary Success

Her novel, unexpectedly, became a best seller. Then the fun began

For a period of months last fall and winter, when I was twenty-nine, my life turned into an implausible movie about being a writer. In January my first novel, Prep—the story of an Indiana girl who goes on scholarship to an elite New England boarding school—was published by Random House. Over the next several weeks Prep became a New York Times best seller, Paramount Pictures optioned the movie rights, and foreign rights were sold in thirteen countries. On one especially surreal day I found myself on the fourteenth floor of the Random House offices in midtown Manhattan, drinking champagne. It was three-thirty in the afternoon.

Maybe the way to say it is not that my life became a movie but that I became a person I would probably have found odious not long before—less because of the book's content (in such scenarios the book is always peripheral) than because of the supremely cute pink-and-green grosgrain-ribbon belt (embossed, no less) on the book's jacket, because of the blurbs (so thoughtful and eloquent! so varied and plentiful!), because of the many articles about me in which I made little jokes and told little anecdotes and just generally talked about myself ad nauseam.

That Prep would receive such attention had by no means been a foregone conclusion. In June of 2003 my industrious agent, Shana Kelly, submitted the manuscript to fifteen editors; one made an offer. Later, when people asked how I'd chosen to go with Random House, I would admit that the decision hadn't actually been that difficult. My advance was $40,000, which seemed pretty good to me. But it also was well below the amount that, one imagines, will induce a publisher to seriously promote a book because it can't afford not to.

Still, I was excited by the thought of no longer having to use air quotes when referring to myself as a "writer" working on a "novel." But then I learned that Prep wouldn't be published until January of 2005, which made me both impatient and nervous. I suspect that every writer has had the experience of looking back on work that once seemed perfectly acceptable and feeling appalled. What if, in the intervening eighteen months, I turned against Prep? I wanted it published before I grew enough as a writer to realize how bad it was!

Meanwhile, my editor, Lee Boudreaux, wanted time for Prep enthusiasm to build inside Random House and, ideally, to translate into enthusiasm in the outside world. She also wanted to avoid publishing in the fall of 2004, when I'd have to compete for review space and display space with, say, Philip Roth. She proved to be right on both counts. Some of the other great things about Lee were that she shared a first name with Prep's protagonist and that she got excited only in good ways and never in bad. One afternoon I sent her an especially neurotic e-mail explaining how I'd look at a particular section of the manuscript and think, Can this be cut? Is this truly essential? And then I'd think, Of course it's not essential! It's a novel! The whole thing can be cut!

Lee's reply started this way: "Have a martini."

I have been asked many times if I'm shocked—"shocked" is the word people use when they're not beating around the bush, though some are more euphemistic—by Prep's success. Clearly, in the interests of modesty and good manners, I am supposed to say yes. The real answer is sort of. I realize that just because your agent and your editor have gotten excited about your book doesn't mean that it will become a best seller, any more than your parents' thinking you're pretty means you'll win a beauty pageant. But I also suspect that anyone who's ever had a best seller has heard thunder in the distance ahead of time; certainly thunder sometimes comes without a storm, but rarely does a storm appear with no warning at all.

In June of 2004, seven months before publication, Lee called to say that Random House would be printing advance reader's editions, or AREs—galleys with colorful covers resembling those of finished paperbacks, the extra care and expense an indication, presumably, of the publisher's high expectations. (Much of publishing, I now know, is about signs and codes that people in the industry send to one another.) I received Lee's message about AREs while I was in Cincinnati, my home town, where my father was seriously ill in an intensive-care unit. We couldn't use cell phones inside the hospital, so I stood in the courtyard, where patients and visitors smoke next to no smoking signs, and listened to the voice mail. Then I went back up to the waiting room where my mother, my siblings, and family friends sat. My editor had just called, I announced, and she'd said—then I couldn't remember the phrase "advance reader's edition"—she'd said something really good was going to happen to my book! And it had to do with the cover! Everybody cheered. As anyone who has spent time in ICU waiting rooms knows, they're not places where much cheering occurs.

Later in the summer, when my father was out of the hospital, I read aloud to him effusive e-mails that Lee had forwarded from sales reps. I still hadn't let either of my parents read the book. (It had sex scenes! Plus, I didn't want to give it to them while enough time remained for them to suggest changes.) When the blurbs began arriving, I read those to my dad too. The one from Wally Lamb, which said "Sittenfeld is a rising star," made him cry.

And then, in late September of 2004, something happened that made me realize my luck was not just good but extraordinary. On a Tuesday afternoon I returned from St. Albans School, the Washington, D.C., boys' prep school where I was in my third year as a part-time English teacher, and found both a phone message and an e-mail from one Jynne Martin, at Random House. Jynne was going to be my publicist, she said, and so was someone named Kate Blum, and someone named Jen Huwer, and someone named Jennifer Jones—their boss had assigned all of them to Prep. Later, when total strangers told me I had a good publicist, I'd think, You have no idea. As Lee put it, "No one but you and Kitty Kelley has four publicists."

Eventually, on blogs and on Amazon, people railed against Prep as a "corporate hype job." I can't disagree. But I think the hype got going for the amazingly uncynical reason that people who worked at Random House enjoyed reading the book. I also think the relative modesty of my advance ended up helping me—no one who read Prep would be burdened by the suspicion that it hadn't been worth, say, half a million dollars.

My publicists, who called themselves Team Prep, were all younger than I was, and all extremely on-the-ball. To evoke Prep's boarding-school setting, they sent out a letter featuring their own high school photos (they were, they explained, sacrificing for the cause) along with information about me presented yearbook-style: activities, superlatives, senior quote. I'd given them my Groton class of 1993 yearbook, and they copied a particularly grouchy-looking class picture from my junior year. They also copied a picture of the boy I'd liked, whom I'd thought I was identifying for Team Prep's entertainment rather than for public consumption; I was mortified when I started being congratulated on my excellent taste in crushes by members of the media who'd received the packet. Surely, I thought, this never happened to Virginia Woolf. But as luck would have it, when I anxiously notified Crush Boy, he didn't mind at all; if anything, he seemed disappointed to find out the novel wasn't about him.

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Curtis Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, will be published by Random House in January. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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