Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between.
Nancy Thayer is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Hot Flash Club, The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again, Hot Flash Holidays, The Hot Flash Club Chills Out, and Moon Shell Beach. She is also the author of a new June release, Summer House. She is the mother of Samantha Wilde, whose debut novel, This Little Mommy Stayed Home, comes out on June 23. Nancy lives on Nantucket. You can visit her website at www.nancythayer.com.
Your Life Is Not a Novel. Or Maybe It Is!
By Nancy Thayer
I wrote the first six chapters of my first published novel with a pencil on a six-by-nine notebook while I was in Helsinki, during the one hour my two small children napped behind their closed bedroom door in a Spartan fourth-floor concrete walkup.
I’m writing this on my Imac in my study with a half-moon window looking out over Nantucket harbor.
I’ve published nineteen novels, a few short stories, and two commissioned novellas. I’ve made my living writing novels.
Because of my books, I was kissed by David Niven in Hyde Park, and shown through Charleston by Virginia Woolf’s niece. Because of my books, I met the love of my life.
I’ve also been rejected, snubbed, and insulted because of my writing.
So, on the whole, I’ve been lucky.
My first published novel was Stepping, a novel about a woman with two stepdaughters, two small children, a professor husband, and an almost lover. The woman’s cooped up in an apartment in Helsinki without a television, radio, record player (it was 1978), or toys, and her husband is always off being feted for being a Fulbright scholar.
A lot of the novel was autobiographical, but a lot of it was not. I did have two stepdaughters, two small children, and a professor husband but I certainly had no almost lover. I invented him to add spice and drama to the less sexy themes of domestic difficulties. Zelda, the main character in Stepping, was like me, only better. She was funnier, nicer, and she remained married to her husband. I was cranky, terrified about money, and about to be divorced. No one would ever confuse my novel with my diary.
As it turned out, people loved my book because the scenes of domestic difficulties were honest and often funny, in that so tired-you’re-hysterical way. Stepping was published the year I was divorced. I got a letter from a mutual acquaintance who’d read the novel and was furious at me for having an affair. I considered telling her what Sylvia Plath said: Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. I didn’t answer her, but I did realize I needed to take care when writing an autobiographical novel.
I started writing in the 60’s, in a world that was different, especially for women, from today. It took me a long time to learn to honor my background, my own history, my own voice.
When I graduated from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1965, I received what I like to call my “Male Chauvinist Before the Dawn of Feminism” degree in English literature– without having to read one book by a woman.
In 1978, Tillie Olsen published book entitled Silences. It included a survey which showed that in the English language, one out of every twelve writers was a woman.
And these were my female role models: Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Louise May Alcott, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bowen, Lillian Hellman, and Katherine Anne Porter.
All of those women were either unmarried, or married but childless.
I’d read lots of books about bull fighting and war and young men coming of age, and I was tired of all that. I wanted to write about the lives of ordinary women, because ordinary life can be as miraculous and challenging as crawling across a battle zone on your belly, and in ordinary life you do it all over again, day after day.
During my twenties, I taught freshman English at various colleges and wrote short stories and got rejected and slowly, slowly began to get published in literary reviews. When I was 29, a New York agent liked my first novel and sent it around to several New York publishers. Half of them said they loved the action but hated the lyrical passages. The other half said they loved the lyrical passages but hated the action. When the agent gave up, I became depressed, introverted, and convinced that I was ugly and stupid. But oddly, I never stopped writing.
Then I gave birth to my children, a boy, then, a girl. They were funny, healthy, interesting babies. They made me happy and they gave me material for my books, and they helped me find my voice. They gave me the courage to write about ordinary life. I wrote Stepping. It was my most honest novel, and my first book sale. I was 34 when Doubleday bought my novel, 35 when it was published.
And it was wonderful. Doubleday gave me a party in New York. Redbook condensed the novel. It was published in England and other countries. I got amazing letters from readers. A major movie producer optioned it.
A whole new life began.