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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Sloane Crosley, Writer

"I always wrote, always kept notes for a novel, but making it my full-time job was a glacially paced process."

People tend to assume that I worked in publishing until I felt secure enough to publish my own work and, now, that I wrote nonfiction until I felt secure enough to publish fiction. But it wasn’t like that. I always wrote, always kept notes for a novel, but making it my full-time job was a glacially paced process. I suppose it began when I was in Seattle on book tour, combing the New York Times best-seller list for a book I was publicizing, and I saw my own name followed by the title of my first book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. It didn’t even register at first. We see our own names every day, even if it’s only on our mail. But then the yelping started, followed by the jumping up and down. When I got back to New York, everyone in the office asked me if I would be quitting my job.

That was April of 2008, and someone asked me that question every single day for the next two years. But I wasn’t ready to go (or making nearly enough money — Cake was a paperback original, and I got a little over $20k for it). Publishing houses make fact sheets for marketing meetings with almost every piece of information you could hope to know about an upcoming title. I would walk into a meeting and see my book and corresponding sales numbers listed under the “comparison titles” section. This is flattering in theory, but imagine everyone you work with being handed a printout with your salary on it. Once there was a fact sheet for Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House with my name on it three times: as a blurber, as a comp title, and as the would-be publicist. Another time, just before my second essay collection came out, I pitched a newspaper editor a collection of short stories I was publicizing. He told me point blank, “I have room for one, yours or his.” I told him I’d have to call him back and never did. Much as I adored my job, I didn’t sign up for this Sophie’s Choice Lite crap.

I used vacation days to take meetings in L.A. and bombed them all. All writers worth their salt feel like slight frauds, but I didn’t have room for the normal insecurities because I was too busy being insecure about even calling myself a writer while I was still a publicist. I only knew how to sell other people as writers, not myself. Every producer and executive wanted to know where the slightly cracked, sardonic woman from the essays went. I couldn’t turn off the publicist and send the writer out. There is no Dana, only Zuul! Meanwhile, most of my authors couldn’t have been classier about it, but two of them whose novels were floundering screamed at me — one to my face in a restaurant, the other in the form of an email, cc’ing half the senior editors at Knopf.

One night at home, I looked up from a pitch letter I was writing and spotted a beautiful old edition of The Tales of Guy de Maupassant that I’d bought at a used bookstore years ago. I opened it to “The Necklace” and started reading. I reread it two more times. There’s something in that story — classic but misunderstood, heartbreaking and brilliant but also accessible and contemporary — that took me back to a time before the essay collections and the articles, before Vintage Books, before my first job, before college, and which reminded me of how much I loved fiction. Not that I had forgotten. But you spend a decade cutting movie trailers, you stop watching movies like a normal person. It’s hard to describe, but I’d say reading “The Necklace” just silenced everything. Can a story hug you? Would you want it to? This one did. It’s not even close to my favorite short story but I knew almost instantly that not only did I have to quit my job but that I’d begin a novel with characters inspired by this short story. I knew the title, too. The Clasp.

When I quit, I printed out every pitch letter I had ever written, just in case I needed them someday and because apparently I am a hoarder. There were 200 of them, and I plopped the pile down on my boss’s desk and said, “Well, that’s where the third book went.” I don’t regret pouring that creativity into them. I did it for books and people I will admire forever. I did it because it made me who I am, and I did it because I was being paid to do it. But I knew I had made the right choice to leave, looking at that pile, knowing that the next 200 pages and the next 200 after that would be mine.