There are a few important calls that authors hope to get in their career. The first is from an agent. I got that call from the lovely and wise Jennifer Schober of Spencerhill Associates several years ago when she read Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter, told me that she loved it, and that she wanted to represent me. Like a starry-eyed little dreamer, I assumed the next call would come quickly after that. You know, the call from the publisher who loves your book and wants to buy it? But that call didn’t come for a long time. When it did, I was ecstatic, but that’s another story.
The story I want to tell today is about a different kind of call. One that–in its own way–means as much as all the others.
Now, some of you may know that I write romance novels under a pen name; I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America. And I dutifully volunteer to judge for the RITA Awards and the Golden Heart Awards that are the highest honor in the genre. What I do not do, however, is take any notice of the day on which the nominees are to be announced. I know some authors get pretty worked up about such things, but I always assume I’m not going to win anything and that if I ever do, I’d rather it were a happy surprise.
So, when I got a phone call early this morning, I ignored it. I was still getting breakfast together and I always worry that I’m going to answer a business call when I’m not in the right mind-frame or not near my desk and then I won’t sound crisp and professional. If I was dimly aware that the call was from RWA, I assumed it was about my dues being late. Right. So, the point is, I didn’t answer the phone.
I just went on blithely with my day, preparing for a call with my editor. At some point, I went through my email and saw a strangely worded note from RWA about how they wanted to converse with me. It sounded stern. Now I wondered if this might be about the recent complaints I made regarding rules of the published author’s network mailing list. Remembering that I had business calls to make later in the day, I decided not to put it off and quickly returned the call.
What happened next I don’t remember very well because my whole system got a jolt when the very nice woman on the other end of the line told me that one of my books had been nominated for a RITA award. I short circuited. Vibrating with excitement, I think I told her that I loved her! Then I asked her which book, assuming it was one of my romance novels.
She attempted to answer me, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to actually hear anything she said over the thump of my heartbeat in my ears. So I asked her if she would repeat everything from the beginning. She laughed, promised that she wasn’t punking me, then told me that Song of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter had been nominated for the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category.
That’s when my excitement turned into something deeper and more emotional. My eyes flooded with tears because it was the last thing I expected. I’d entered other books in the RITA but not that one–my publisher did it. Of all the books I’ve written, that Song of the Nile should be the one to get me a RITA nomination was gratifying in a way I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain.
You see, I had a lot of confidence in my first book. I’d spent years researching it, editing it, polishing it, perfecting it. I was never afraid to show the world that book; I couldn’t wait for people to read it!
Not so for the sequel, Song of the Nile.
An author’s sophomore novel can break a career. It’s an awkward period of an author’s writing development; she’s outgrowing her old skills and replacing them with newer shaky ones. For me, the sophomore novel also represented the first time I was writing historical fiction to a deadline. What if I simply ran out of time to research? What if I got things wrong? (I did.)
I had other fears, too. It isn’t common to write historical fiction trilogies about the same woman, even if she is a queen. It’s even less common to infuse serious historical fiction with touches of magical realism, and I knew there would be a lot of goddess magic in this book. To make matters more difficult, I was injured through most of 2010, and had to write Song of the Nile on scraps of paper and in weird positions because I couldn’t sit upright at a desk.
That would be enough to put me into a blind panic about this novel, but I had bigger problems. I knew that this was going to be a very dark book that would include a shocking rape scene and Ptolemaic incest. In my heart, I knew I had very good reasons for including these things in my novel. But I also knew that the change in tone was going to disappoint and alienate some readers. Reviewers might hate it! I could very well ruin everything by telling a story about women that I didn’t have the talent to tell.
In short, this book laid me bare and left me vulnerable. It’s hard to let the world see you that way. For it to merit the praise of my peers–that rare nod of acknowledgment from the RITA awards–puts my struggle with this book into a new light. The tsunami of congratulations and warm wishes from my friends and other members of the writing community have me floating on air.
Saying it’s an honor just to be nominated is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are also true. There’s no way I’ll win the award. I’ve seen my competition. I’m not even sure I would be rooting for me! But seeing my name on the same page with them is humbling and gratifying and an experience I’ll never forget.