IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Best Friend Became My Professional Rival
Helene and I met as dorm-mates at Kalamazoo College over 20 years ago. We quickly discovered that we had a lot in common -- for example, we'd both written for our high school newspapers. We discovered that we'd been at the same high school journalism awards ceremony where my feature on shoplifting had received an Honorable Mention, and Helene's story had won first prize.
Although we were both aspiring writers, we weren't competitive. Helene wanted to pursue journalism or be a drama critic, while I had my heart set on fiction, which she said she couldn't write. I shared every piece of writing I produced with her -- the romance novel that I wrote in high school, the minimalist short stories written for a class, and much, much later, the first draft of a novel that I wrote about an all-girl punk rock band in South Carolina, which she really liked. She sent me her poems, the corporate newsletters she produced, and her articles about Irish musicians.
Helene was my first, most enthusiastic reader, my go-to person whenever I had publishing news. No one was more thrilled than she was when I sold my first novel about an expat American who loses custody of her only child to her Japanese ex.
I thought that Helene would always be there, waving her virtual pompoms, popping those virtual champagne corks just for me. But then, a couple of years ago, she decided to write a novel herself.
It was a fantasy, she told me, something with fairies. Of course I wanted to read it, although I was convinced it would be hard for her to find a publisher. After all, the market was glutted with fairies and pixies and other supernaturals at the time -– one reason, I supposed, why I couldn’t sell my contemporary, realistic multicultural YA novel.
I read the fairy book. I thought it was good, but it needed some work. I sent her some comments, and got back to work on the umpteenth revision of my own novel. Meanwhile, Helene was exchanging manuscripts with people she’d met online, reading piles of YA novels that she checked out of the library, and making friends with famous writers on Twitter. She joined some online groups and found more critique partners. She had a full-time job, but she somehow found the time to write and revise and write.
“I’ve written something else,” she emailed shortly after I’d returned the fantasy. This one, she told me, was a contemporary YA novel. How could she write so quickly?
“Send it along,” I said.
As I started reading, I was like a deer in headlights -– sick with envy, but so enraptured by her words that I couldn’t tear myself away. Clearly, Helene was on a sharp learning curve. This book was way better than the fantasy novel. I blazed through it in a day, barely able to put my e-reader down. She’d taken up a high concept theme, and written a deeply emotional story. It was good stuff. It would be published for sure, I thought, with a sinking feeling.
See, I wanted Helene to be successful, but I wanted her to struggle, just a little. I wanted her to pay her dues like I had.
My first published story had appeared in the final issue of The Left-Footed Wombat, a 7-page photocopied zine. Over the years, after enduring hundreds of rejections, I’d worked my way up to university-funded literary journals and glossy monthly magazines. I did time at a writer’s conference with Adirondack chairs, and another held in a Dutch castle. I’d workshopped.
My first published novel, (which was actually the third one I’d written, not counting the two category romance novels I’d attempted previously), was sold by my third agent to a small, but respectable press run by an iconic feminist writer and her husband. The book had done pretty well for a small press book, especially in Russia, but it hadn’t made any of us rich. I might have been able to buy my family a new sofa with my book earnings, but it’s not like I could quit my day job.
Helene wanted more –- a flashier agent, a bigger publisher, a better book deal -– and she wanted it now.
“Yeah, good luck with that,” I thought.
She told me that I needed a better agent, and a better attitude.
At first, I brooded. But then I admitted that she was right. All the how-to-be-a-writer books say “Shoot for the top!” Maybe I had been wrong to send my story to The Left-footed Wombat. Maybe it was foolish of me to stick with my agent when the agent herself said, “I wouldn’t blame you if you looked for someone else to represent you.” I couldn’t help feeling that Helene was just a little impatient with me. I pictured her heaving a sigh, rolling up her sleeves and saying, “Here, let me show you how it’s done.”
And show me, she did.
While I banged my head against the wall, Helene wrote. In seemingly no time at all, she’d produced yet another novel, this one even better than the last. Helene, who’d taken up fiction on a whim, was clearly a natural. I was now four years into my own second novel, and, nowhere near pleasing my literary agent or the handful of NYC editors we’d tried in the first round of submissions. Even though this was all I’d ever dreamed of, I was obviously not meant to be a novelist.
She entered and won writing contests that I had also entered and lost. It was Michigan High School Journalism all over again. I still sent her my work, but now I had to join the queue behind her other new writer friends –- stars and soon-to-be-stars whose photos appeared in Publisher’s Weekly –- and with the characters of the novels she’d created.
Through an online auction, she attracted an agent who sold her novel for four times as much as I had gotten for my first novel, in a two-book deal. Yes, I was happy for her, but also, just a teeny tiny bit jealous.
I started looking for a new literary agent, sending out dozens of queries. Helene recommended me to her own agency, which turned me down. Degraded by the rejections flooding my in-box, I gave up and submitted the novel about the all-girl punk rock group on my own. And…I sold it. If not for Helene’s enduring enthusiasm for this book and for the competitive spirit that finally kicked in, the novel probably would have stayed in a drawer forever.
In the future, I may once again be jealous of her reviews or awards or sales, but I’ll remind myself that in addition to our Michigan heritage, our shared history, our love of Emily Listfield’s It Was Gonna Be Like Paris, and our foreign husbands, we have something else in common: We both write YA. I’m hoping that she’ll publish many more books, and I’ll try to keep up.
As it turned out, Helene’s debut and my punk rock novel were published within a couple of weeks of each other. I dedicated my book to her, as I’d been planning all along, ever since I’d first written it. And when I received my signed first edition of her book and flipped open the cover, I was deeply moved to find that she had dedicated her book to me.