My decade in love, friendship, and publishing

It was in late January of 2010 that I quit drinking, which means that the close of this decade also means I’ve had almost a decade of sobriety. At this point I’ve been sober twice as long as I was drinking! The number of people in my life who knew me when I was drinking is not a small number, but it’s certainly not a majority. My wife and her family and most of my writer friends all have no experience of that side of me.

At this point, when I write about being sober, I think some people suspect I’m making it up or exaggerating it! Once, a friend of mine, who thought she’d discovered some inconsistencies in my sobriety narrative, accused me of ginning up the whole sobriety thing to get attention. To which I say…LOL.

In 2010, when I quit drinking, I was twenty-four years old, still living in Washington, D.C., weighed about 330 pounds, had never really gone on a date or been in any form of romantic or sexual relationship, and my publications were limited to a single short story in Nature. I’d written around a hundred short stories by that point, I’d gone to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop four years earlier, and I’d accumulated some four hundred or so short story rejections. I was about to be rejected by all eleven MFA programs to which I’d applied. I’d just come out as gay.

That year, I started my first novel, a science fiction novel for adults (to be finished the next year and promptly abandoned without revision). I also wrote twice as many words as I’d ever written in one year. I made my second significant short story sale, to Clarkesworld magazine. I tried to get a more permanent gig at the World Bank, where I was working, but my boss didn’t have the budget to hire me. If I’d gotten that job, my life might be totally different right now! The previous year, I had decided that if I was going to be a real writer, I needed to be a real reader too, so I had embarked upon a campaign of reading the classics. In 2010, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Bell Jar, Journey to the End of the Night, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, What is Art?, The Charterhouse of Parma, every Sandman comic, and every Dashiell Hammett novel. That was probably the most significant year of reading in my life.

In 2011, I moved to Oakland, CA. I thought I was quitting my job at the World Bank, but I ended up continuing to do consulting work for them, which I do to this day! I quit smoking. I finished that science fiction novel, and I began and finished a second one, a YA dystopian called This Beautiful Fever whose first draft I wrote in eight days! I wrote a lot of short stories. This was probably my best year for short stories, both in terms of production and in terms of the number that would eventually sell. I started hooking up with men in all the usual (oftentimes somewhat sordid) ways, but still wasn’t dating. Determined not to repeat the previous year’s I applied to 28 MFA programs! I spent five evenings a week hanging out with my former roommate, Brian, and became good friends with many of his friends and coworkers. We went to lots of house shows in Oakland’s twee-pop scene, but my fondest memories are just of hanging out in his house, chatting with whoever would come by. Nine years later, although many of those people have had children and/or moved away, I still count them amongst my close friends. I read True Grit, David Copperfield, Grapes of Wrap, Darkness at Noon, and Something Happened. I read every Adrian Tomine comic I could find. I started a life-long love of Emile Zola, going through Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, and the Masterpiece. And I read all seven volumes of In Search Of Lost Time, which was something I couldn’t quite believe even as I was doing it–this seemed so far from my usual interests (I was still writing mostly science fiction)–but which has shaped my life and my thinking and my writing immensely in the years since. Toward the end of the year, I got very into noir novels, and I got deep into the ouevres of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

In 2012, I was accepted to four MFA programs, and I chose to go to Johns Hopkins essentially because they offered me the most money. I started querying my dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever. I got a head of steam on a sci-fi novel for adults, only to abandon it after thirty thousand words when I realized the book was no good. This began a pattern of abandoning books at the one-third, one-half, and sometimes even 90% completion mark. I wrote another sci-fi novel for adults, Boom, that I’ve never shown to anyone. That fall, after moving to Baltimore from Oakland, I started hearing the voice of Reshma, the protagonist of my first book. She sort of popped fully-formed into my head. All through my first semester of grad school, I’d hear fits and snatches of her voice: a sort of angry running commentary on everything in the universe. I put off writing the book, because I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. Graduate school was fine. I turned in science fiction and fantasy stories into the workshop, and I didn’t suffer at all for it. My cohort and the year above were composed of some very talented and hard-working writers. But almost everyone was married or engaged, and I did feel a little lonely. The whole thing was a bit claustrophobic, just the same thirtyish people hanging out every day and exchanging the same gossip or telling the same stories about teaching our classes. It seemed to lack the vitality I’d experienced in Oakland. Not the fault of Baltimore, by the way! I was charmed by the city; it’s an extremely hip place to live, you have no idea how hip. But attending Johns Hopkins is not the way to experience that hipness. Looking at my records, this was the year I read Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, The Sportswiter, Things Fall Apart, The Feminine Mystique, The Pillow Book, and Revolutionary Road. I read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels this year. She remains a huge influence. I fell in love with and was charmed by Nancy Mitford. I read the collected poems of Larkin and Eliot. I still don’t know if I like poetry, but I at least like those two!

In 2013, during winter break, I wrote a first draft of Enter Title Here, which would eventually be my first published novel. Aside from one realist story I wrote for my MFA applications (to prove to application committees that I could do it!) it was the first sustained work of realism I’d ever engaged in. Writing that book was so easy that it was incredible, and that very easyness made it difficult for years after for me to write another novel. Through a complicated series of introductions and events, I got my first agent that year. This Beautiful Fever had been sent out to 95 agents at this point, but I finally got one offer, and that shook loose a second offer from a different agent, and I went with the second one. I spent the remainder of the year doing revisions on the book with this agent. During this time, I wrote my fifth book, another realist novel, which was an interesting idea, but somehow never came together. That fall, I wrote my sixth book, a contemporary YA about a troubled starlet who starts hearing the voice of God, (working title: On My Knees 4 U). And, incredibly, I wrote my seventh book too, a weird crime novel about a sociopathic mom who schemes to get her daughter into a school for talented and gifted kids. My YA dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever, went on submission. At some point, it’s hazy exactly when, I became close with a very talented writer, Courtney—a former graduate of Hopkins–who’s become one of my closest friends. This Beautiful Fever was rejected by five editors, who seemed to universally agree that my protagonist was too pathetic (a lifetime problem for my writing!), but I didn’t much care because I’d polished up Enter Title Here, and my agent loved it. We decided to put it on submission in the spring. This year I pitched my first article to a publication: a piece to Salon on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat (which would later, though I didn’t know this at the time, become the basis for a hit sit-com). When I sent in the article, Salon decided they didn’t like it and killed the piece. This mild rejection touched off my first major depression: two months of utter blackness. Although it’d begun with rejection, my depressed thoughts centered primarily on my loneliness, and how I was never going to find love (I still had never really gone on a date. I’d tried online dating, but somehow never connected with someone–I’d just chat and chat and chat and eventually the conversation would peter out). JHU offered free counseling, so I signed up for that. I started antidepressants. And after the depression lifted, I seriously started doing the online dating thing. A roommate told me that he always asked people out within the first ten messages in an exchange, and I was like, “Wait, you can do it that soon?” and he was like “Yeah, there’s no point in just chatting endlessly”. Armed with this knowledge, I started asking dudes on dates. The third or fourth of these guys was someone who loved movies and graphic novels and science fiction and also was extremely new to the dating thing. We became each other’s first milestones for many things! I remember that winter we watched Ellen Page’s emotional coming-out speech, and we both cried and held each other. I stopped being able to write science fiction stories, and I began turning in realist stories to workshop. This year I got really into German literature for some reason. It was more playful than French literature, but it was also about more serious subjects. It seemed to combine psychological penetration with a sense of fun! I read Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Skylark, Beware of Pity, The Man Without Qualities, Radetzky March and Every Man Dies Alone. I also read Mrs Dalloway, A Simple Plan, Gone Girl, Les Miserables, The Interestings, and The Magicians.

In 2014, I sold my book and graduated from my program on the same day! I broke up with my boyfriend! I moved to New Orleans, and, after giving it up as a bad thing, I moved again after six weeks to Berkeley (best decision I ever made! Two months after selling my book, I lost my acquiring editor at Disney. I started having problems with my agent, who disliked both of the novels, the sociopathic mom and the teen starlet books, that I’d written the previous year. I know, the honeymoon period was short. I moved in with Sasha, who’d soon become a very close friend, and spent lots of time with her very off-beat hippy friends. I came out once again, as bisexual, and started going on dates with women, which, let me tell you, is a very different game from dating men! I got extremely depressed and went into therapy (again) and increased my antidepressant dosages (again). I was still writing and sending out short stories and by this time had sold stories to most of the smaller pro sci-fi journals, including several stories each to Nature and to Orson Scott Card’s magazine. I also sold a weird realist story (told in the form of a chart) to The Indiana Review. This year I also met another person who’d become a close friend, a fellow YA writer, Erin, though it’d be years before we would truly reconnect. This year I read Doctor Zhivago, The Corrections, Tom Jones, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Sarashina Diary, and Dangerous Liaisons. I got into Yasunari Kawabata, who I still think has written some of the most beautiful books in existence.

In 2015, I suffered incredible writer’s block. I can’t count how many books I began and abandoned. Nothing seemed worth writing. I had a two-book deal with Disney, but had a terrible time trying to get them to agree to any of my ideas for the second book. My agent finally sent them a copy of This Beautiful Fever, and my editor liked it, but the acquisitions committee shot it down, saying a dystopian novel wouldn’t sell. All I heard in my head was the voice of my editor and my agent, shooting down everything I was working on. My middle-grade novel went on submission to a very small round, but got rejected, and my agent sort of lost interest in it after that, and I was mostly focused on trying to write or think of some follow-up to my young adult novel. I would say that at this point, I had real, classic writer’s block. I’d sit down and write, and everything would look like total garbage, and I’d delete everything. I just felt so empty of every possible idea. This was the year I stopped trying to write every day: it felt like there was no point. After a hundred rejections from him, I sold my first story to John Joseph Adams, which felt pretty good. I MET MY FUTURE WIFE, RACHEL, AND FELL IN LOVE AND KNEW ON OUR FIRST DATE THAT WE WERE PROBABLY GONNA SPEND OUR LIVES TOGETHER FOREEEEEEEVER! That was pretty cool. I went to Burning Man, which was cool, but not really for me. I read Thucydides, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Crime and Punishment, and a bunch of the less-silly Dialogues of Plato. I also got very into ethnography, and I read some great ethnographic studies of, amongst others, fashion models, working class college students, elite students vying for management consulting jobs, and working-class black men who are burdened with outstanding warrants. I read two excellent Jo Walton novels: My Real Children and The Just City. She is truly a treasure.

In 2016, my writer’s block continued apace. I am not kidding when I say this writer’s block consumed years of my life! I went from writing four novels in one year (2013) to being able to write basically nothing in 2014, 2015, and 2016. I just felt totally unmoored. I had no idea what I wanted to write. I tried everything, every form, every style. It was all just odious to me. This culminated in a terrible depression in the beginning of the year, which resulted in my antidepressant mix changing once again. However, in April of that year, as I was coming out of the depression, I wrote the first scene of what would eventually become We Are Totally Normal. The difference between the composition process for this book and for Enter Title Here could not have been more different. Where ETH just flowed from my fingers, We Are Totally Normal took a lot of doing. I actually deleted that first fragment, thinking it was a false start, before going back and recovering it and doing some more work. When I sent it to my agent, he was extremely enthusiastic about the book and did one revision with me before forwarding it to Disney. Sasha, my roommate, left for law school. I moved in with my wife and proposed to her a week later, which was about one year after we’d met. I sold a story to the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy! Huge milestone for me. Oh, and I almost forgot, my book came out! It did okay, I think. It was reviewed in the New York Times. Lots of people hated it and hated my protagonist, but fuck them. It also touched lots of people. I read The Caine Mutiny, The Bostonians, A Little Life, Bonjour Tristesse, and Brideshead Revisited. I got very into superhero comics and, after reading All Star Superman, I developed a surprising fondness for Superman. I re-read the whole Honor Harrington series, a military science fiction series David Weber, and I also reread In Search of Long Time. I read all six books in Trollope’s Palliser series. I love Trollope. He’s incredible. The perfect mix of romanticism and realism. I got very into late 20th century realism, and I read several works of realism from America (The Rise of Silas Lapham), Poland (The Doll), Britain (four novels by George Gissing, who I now adore), and Spain (Tristana). I started listening to audio books, which nowadays constitute well over half of my reading.

In 2017, after several months of considering it, Disney rejected We Are Totally Normal (then called Tell Em They’re Amazing) and, deciding that they didn’t see a future with me, they cancelled my book contract. My agent, who’d formerly been enthusiastic about the book, now thought it wasn’t salable and urged me to abandon it. When I told him I wanted to send it out anyway, he dropped me as a client. I revised the book (changing the hook, admittedly, to make it significantly more marketable) and sent it out to agents. After just a week of querying, I ended up with my current agent, who sold the book to Harper later that year. I also got married! It was really nice. I liked being married. Living in San Francisco changed my life in a number of ways. One was that I was no longer living with roommates, no longer had that built-in community, and needed to start making friends and finding my own way in the world. Although I had many friends and acquaintances, I felt like I didn’t have enough intimates, and during this time I tried to focus on deepening some of the relationships in our life. ALSO RACHEL MANAGED THROUGH SOME CRAZY MIND TRICKS TO PERSUADE OUR LANDLORDS TO GET A LITTLE KITTY AND WE NAMED HIM SCHUBERT AND HE IS JUST SO CUTE, WE PICK HIM UP AND CUDDLE HIM ALL THE TIME. I still was having trouble writing, but not quite as much. I read The Secret Agent, Evicted, The Emperor of All Maladies, Lord Jim, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read every novel and most of the short stories in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ouevre. I got very into 18th century literature, and I read books by William Godwin, Samuel Richardson, Denis Diderot, and a few others. I got into neoconservative riters, of whom most weren’t very good, but I did quite enjoy Norman Podheretz’s Making It. I’m a sucker for any book that has the unvarnished truth about literary lives and literary ambition. I got into reading about the Soviet Union and read books about the revolution, about the gulags, and about the Terror. I read a few books about painters and visual artists, of which the best was a biography of Joseph Cornell called Utopia Parkway. Man that dude was a weirdo!

In 2018, I wrote the first draft of a novel for adults (current working title The Lonely Years). This would be, I believe, my eleventh novel (I think I’ve left one book out of this chronology). Rachel and I started trying to have a baby, which made me really anxious and panicky, and led to all kinds of feelings being stirred up, which led me into therapy yet again! Ugh, I hate therapy. Stupid therapy. I got back edits on We Are Totally Normal and when I took a look at the manuscript again, after eight months away from it, I realized that the book wasn’t very good! I mean, I still think it was good enough for Disney and my former agent’s purposes, but the story was completely all over the place! Nothing fit together very well at all! I set aside the draft that had sold, and I rewrote the entire book from page one. I also sold a story to Asimov’s, another long-awaited first, after fifteen years of submitting. This year, I reread the entirety of Robert Caro’s ouevre. I think he’s the finest living American writer, and he definitely deserved the Nobel more than Bob Dylan. I read, for some reason, a lot of novels by Michael Connelly and Scott Turow. I read the entirety of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was fabulously written and had some wonderful stories and analysis, although I do wish I retained more of it! I got really into Somerset Maugham, whose work always startles me with its baroque and outlandish elements, which are usually mixed into the most prosaic set of characters and events. I listened to at least twenty Donald Westlake novels, including most of his Parker series. I’m still not sure what the appeal of those books is. They’re just straightforward heists, but somehow they’re very fun.

Finally, we’ve landed in 2019. I expect nobody has read this far, so I’ll bury my most momentous news here. I rewrote my novel for adults at least four times, top to bottom, and between this and rewriting We Are Totally Normal, I felt my writer’s block fade to nothing. I’m not sure what happened. I think I just got a better idea of what stories I want to tell and how to tell them. In the process of pitching We Are Totally Normal to agents, I also realized…you can’t just write a good book, you also need to stir up excitement about the book. So I lost some of that feeling of, well, what’s the point of writing: it’ll never sell anyway. Now, when I write something, I always try to include some hook, some way of selling it. Which is not to say that everything sells, but more things do! I started this year with three or so months of depression, which only lifted once I started exploring the idea that I might be transgender. This is something I had thought about years previously, at the beginning of this chronicle, but had dismissed, because, well, I hadn’t dated anyone, I hadn’t done anything, I didn’t know myself. But now, as I started to revisit those ideas, I felt a growing sense of, well, almost…like…euphoria? It’s something I’ll struggle to understand for a long time, I think: being trans still feels weird to me, but it has undeniably improved my life and my mood. I’ve been dressing as a woman and using female pronouns in my private life for six months now (my wife has been very supportive, and we’re more in love than ever), and now I’m going to start being more open about it online. I don’t feel as blocked anymore. I’m out there, I’m writing. Now that my novel for adults is off with my agent, I’m working on the first book in a fantasy trilogy that’ll explore the fucked-up morality, especially re: caste and social heirarchy, in the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. My hero is Karna, obviously. I’m excited about the book! Though who knows what’ll happen with it. I’ve also written a bunch of short stories this year, but none have sold yet. Life is good. But it’s also full of ups and downs, and who knows what’ll happen next? This year, I read so many domestic thrillers! I love domestic thrillers! If I’m ever trapped on a desert island w/ only one genre of book, I want it to be the domestic thriller. They’re just so claustrophobic and twisted. I also got very into true crime: Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City were the standouts here. I read a ton of self-published legal thrillers: Victor Methos was the best of these writers. I got really into Ibsen! Why did nobody tell me about Ibsen! He’s a fantastic writer. His characters speak with so much power, but they always feel quite real. Oh, and I read all five volumes of Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. This 18th century Chinese novel is about a thirteen year old boy who loves women and longs to be one…is it any wonder that I adored it?

Oh, and we also got a dog. Lara. She is cute too. And she and Schubert, our cat, tolerate each other surprisingly well.

One thought on “My decade in love, friendship, and publishing

  1. ds

    What a beautiful, sad, unparalleled, euphoric path you walk. It’s a wonder to witness. Thank you. Your dispelling of writer’s block gives me hope! And I look forward to reading about the fucked up morality in the epic someday. Love,

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