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.
Team Prep also spent hours making gift baskets for book editors at women's magazines: translucent pink oversize Chinese-food cartons containing, along with Prep, items reminiscent of what teenage girls take with them to school: flip-flops, notebooks, Lip Smacker lip gloss. More than once my father asked whether this sort of promotion didn't make my novel seem, well, not particularly literary. And given that Prep is a sometimes dark book, with commentary on class and gender, what was up with the festive jacket? Not to mention those belts: real-life ribbon belts, identical to the one on the cover, created by a woman with an accessories company and intended to be given away free at readings—or sold on her Web site for an unabashedly preppy $36. Was I was selling out? I hoped so. I wanted people to buy my book. Like any writer, I wanted both financial security and the chance to keep writing books and having them published. Besides, the packaging of Prep may have changed the audience, but it never changed the book itself.
A few months before publication, I finally sent my parents two galleys. My father called me one Friday at 9:00 p.m. and announced that he and my mother were lying in bed side by side, reading their copies. It was a sweet and troubling image. But by then the situation had already spun out of my control. In November, Vanity Fair sent a crew of five to the St. Albans campus to take my picture. At one point I found myself heavily made up, wearing clothes that were not mine, surrounded by the photography crew, and reclining on a Latin teacher's desk. This is when the Latin teacher himself peered in the door, a not entirely readable expression—amusement? confusion? horror?—on his face.
Then, at last, Prep went on sale. It was a real book; you could buy it in stores. On the day of publication my sister, her fiancé, and a friend brought pink and green balloons to an Indian restaurant. When my sister explained to the middle-aged restaurant owner that I'd written a novel—and look, she just happened to have a copy—he seized it, held it aloft, and exclaimed, "You're a famous lady!" For dessert he brought me mango ice cream with a candle in it.
Soon after publication my editor, Lee, called to read me the review that would run in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The reviewer was a writer named Elissa Schappell, and although she didn't eviscerate Prep, she didn't seem to have actively enjoyed it. About the only thing she said that I saw as an unambiguous compliment was "Sittenfeld's dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn't wear a wire under her hockey kilt." When I repeated this to my boyfriend, he said, "That's hot."
To me, the Times review mattered more than all the others combined, and things seemed finished before they'd begun. "Who cares what Elissa Schappell thinks?" my boyfriend said, which did sort of provide perspective. It wasn't as if an official anti-Prep decree had been issued. Eventually that review forced me to realize that I had to be the one who decided whether my novel was a success or a failure; if I believed that only a publication or another person could legitimize my work in a way that felt permanent and satisfying, I'd be waiting a long, long time.
I should also admit that the Times piece didn't look as bad as it felt to me: it was a full page, it had a nice illustration, and it even got mentioned on the cover of the book review. Here's to skimming, I thought hopefully. A few days later my boyfriend found a gushing review online from the Rocky Mountain News. (How weird to think that a stranger in Colorado had read my book.) Then my father found another review online, this one from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and it included such words as "brilliant" and "superb."
Just as remarkable as the Star-Telegram review was the fact that my Luddite father had located it. A few months earlier, with my mother's help, my father had discovered Google—a wacky thing that, he explained to me, allowed you to summon up all sorts of information. With the publication of Prep my father became an Internet fiend, casually referring to obscure literary blogs (had I seen what they were saying about me over at Tingle Alley?) and checking Amazon every hour. He'd call and say, "You were at forty-two, but now you're plunging precipitously." Or, even better, "We're plunging precipitously."
Under normal circumstances I talk to my father about once a day; one morning during the height of Prep activity we'd spoken three times by 7:30 a.m. I was waiting for a New York Times profile of me to run that week, and because I was traveling and without Internet access, it did not seem unreasonable to call my father at 6:25 a.m. and have him check the Times Web site.
As it turned out, I liked that article. The photo, however, was almost as unflattering as it was large. The day I'd met the Times photographer had been bitterly cold, and I'd been wearing a fleece hat. I hadn't looked in a mirror or brushed my hair after removing the hat (for crying out loud, I didn't want the photographer to think I was vain!), so my hair ended up plastered unbecomingly against my head. I am sure it was the Times photo that prompted literally dozens of people to say to me at readings, "Oh, you're so much prettier in person."
I never got good at having my picture taken, though I did eventually learn to always bring along both a lint roller and a copy of Prep. During what turned out to be my final shoot, the photographer told me I seemed stiff and tense; having this pointed out did little to decrease my stiffness or tension. After a while he set down his camera and asked, "Why am I here?"
"I don't know," I said. Why were any of us here? I wasn't really in the mood for existentialism.
"You're not even going to tell me?" he said. "Man."
That's when I realized he meant the question literally. "Oh," I said. "I wrote a book."
My interactions with journalists were smoother (I've worked as a reporter, so I knew what I was getting into), but I still managed to be caught off guard by certain questions: "What's your favorite label, accessory, and color?" "Do you think more parents will name their daughters Lee now?" "How does it feel to know your obituary will identify you as the author of Prep?" Reporters frequently asked how autobiographical Prep was—after all, I, like my protagonist, am from the Midwest and attended an elite New England boarding school—and the answer I gave, in many different ways, was not very. I assume that my denials are what inspired my favorite headline, which ran in The San Diego Union-Tribune: "Author Not Neurotic Dork of 'Prep.'"
As Prep and I were written about in more and more places, people I knew began to ask me if I was famous (um, if you have to ask …), and also if I'd met anyone famous. The short answer to the latter question is no. But oh, the famous people I didn't meet! The best was Katie Couric; I never went on the Today show, or on TV at all, but I did hear that Couric had been sighted wearing the Prep belt. I also didn't meet Meg Ryan, who with Glamour magazine co-hosted a party to which I was invited; I couldn't go because I was giving a reading that night. And I didn't meet the Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon, who had someone call Random House to ask for a copy of Prep—but I consider it perfectly understandable that a person making $8 million a year would hesitate to spend $21.95 on a hardcover novel.
Magazines that in the past had repeatedly rejected my freelance pitches now wanted me to write for them; the editors seemed only dimly aware that we'd had previous contact. Similarly, I received warm e-mails from guys I'd once had crushes on, most of whom had at the time taken a thanks-but-no-thanks stance on dating me. And I was hearing from Groton teachers and classmates, from childhood babysitters and old co-workers, from friends of friends and complete strangers.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, early one evening, my four publicists and my editor's assistant called me on speakerphone: Prep had hit the New York Times best-seller list. We'd all been exchanging daily e-mails containing an increasing number of exclamation points, and on the phone we squealed profusely. The following week my agent negotiated a two-book deal with Random House. My advance, to put the matter delicately, was more than $40,000.
I was still teaching one class, and my students, all ninth-grade boys, greeted Prep with equanimity. Early on they isolated the dirtiest page (315, apparently). And they were amused that Entertainment Weekly gave Prep a B. "It's just like you gave me on my last paper," one boy said. Another asked, "Did you know there was an article about you yesterday in The New York Times?" (Yes, I told him, I did.) But the truth is that my students cared far more about when their papers were due and whether I'd graded their vocabulary quizzes yet. Prep really captured their attention only when I agreed to bring in pizza if it became a best seller. This caused them to be even more obsessed with sales than my father; although I told them that rankings changed just once a week, they asked about them every day. I finally did bring in some pizza, which they scarfed down, and party hats, which they wore enthusiastically; then we went back to talking about Great Expectations.
A few times I got another teacher to take over my class and I left town to give readings. My first was in Philadelphia, and Team Prep came down from New York for it. Afterward we all went out for margaritas, and I felt, in the best possible way, as if I were in an episode of Sex and the City. In Cincinnati I saw my dentist and my pediatrician, along with many former teachers; as my first-grade teacher watched me sign books, she exclaimed, "Curtis, your pen grip is terrible! I can't believe I let you get away with that." In Madison, Wisconsin, a pleasant-seeming black woman asked me an entirely legitimate question about the depiction of race in the book, and as I gave five different clumsy answers, I blushed more deeply than ever before in my entire life. In Kansas City my uncle Howdie sat in the front row and kept raising his hand.
I've heard that giving a reading compares to having a wedding in both festivity and stress, and I don't think it's a coincidence that during this time I decided I'd like to elope; I can honestly say that for me, worrying was the defining experience of Prep's publication. I worried about remembering the names of people I knew. I worried about writing something cheesy in books (why, exactly, had I chosen "Happy reading!"?) or coming off as cold if all I did was write my name. Initially I worried both that no one would buy my book and that I'd lose my privacy. When it started to sell well, I worried that sales would fall; that I would say something dumb in an interview, or be misquoted to seem as if I had; that I would appear snotty because I couldn't keep up with the e-mails and letters, and the invitations to speak, and the requests, already, to write blurbs myself.
Without a doubt, Prep's success was gratifying. I had wanted it. But I felt as if someone else's life, with its own set of obligations, had been superimposed on mine, and I was trying to live both of them. Twice I almost missed a flight that left right after my English class. Tracking my reviews and Amazon ranking became repetitive and meaningless, though it was also addictive. Sometimes I'd go online looking for new reviews and actually be surprised if none were there—I mean, not even one? In Omaha or something? Reading and talking about Prep felt boring, and yet almost everything I was doing was Prep-related. I had no idea how long the momentum would last—whether I should settle in for the long haul or enjoy its ephemerality. And I had no idea, as if this would have any bearing on anything, how long I wanted it to last.
By April, which was the month Prep slid off most best-seller lists, my life was back to normal: I was spending my afternoons alone in my apartment, receiving few phone calls or FedExes, and no bouquets of flowers. The fact that things were quieter allowed me to read more carefully the letters and e-mails I'd previously only skimmed. "This is the first fan letter I've written since I wrote to Maria von Trapp in second grade," one started. Another said, "I myself am a 17 year old girl (unfortunately I only go to public school), but it was very easy to relate to Lee. I finished the book last night (I could barely put it down) and thought about it before I went to sleep and first thing when I woke up." A third: "i am riveted and heartsick that i cannot spend more time with lee fiora. i have never heard anyone so accurately describe my teenage years."
I am not one of those novelists who feel certain that what they do is meaningful and important. The truth is that sometimes I can't remember why I decided to become a writer, and that when my boyfriend and I have arguments about whether writing fiction has any point, he's the one who argues that it does. These comments from readers made me feel, at least for a little while, that I agreed with him.
At the same time, consuming as it became, I never saw Prep's success as that big a deal. The book did well for a first novel, in early 2005, in the United States. This loomed large to me, which is not the same as looming large. And if I ever forget Prep's relative insignificance, reminders are plentiful. In April of 2004, when I went to see a guy at H&R Block who does my taxes and told him I was a writer, he said, "What, you're writing the great American novel?"
"Actually," I said, "Random House will publish my first book in 2005."
"What's it called?" the guy asked.
"Prep," I said.
We were sitting in a long room of desks and computers, surrounded by other people working on taxes. More loudly I said, "Prep."
More loudly he said, "Crap?"
"Prep, as in prep school!" I finally exploded.
A year later, when Prep had sold 100,000 copies and my life had changed greatly, or perhaps not much at all, I returned to this guy. Midway through our session he said, "You wrote a book or something, didn't you? What's it called?"
"Prep," I said.
The guy squinted at me. "Crap?" he asked.