When Fatherhood and Your Debut Novel Coincide
Having a Child is Good for a Swelled Head
No one had ever needed to get something to me so quickly that they were compelled to send someone biking across lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. But after I sold my first novel, this ocassionally happened. A sweaty cyclist would buzz my door and I’d appear in my pajama pants to sign for copyedits, jacket designs, and eventually a check or two. I’m a real author, I hoped to indicate. These pajama pants are vital to my creative process.
On good days, I’d believe it for a few hours. On bad days it lasted only a few minutes. Sooner or later, however, the feeling would always evaporate. If I spotted a tweet from a literary scout or a Facebook message from a bookseller, I’d feel briefly authorial again. But the next day, these dubious achievements seemed as fictive as the events in my novel.
“Does it feel real yet?” my editor asked after she messengered me an Advanced Reader’s Copy. For weeks I carried the ARC with me everywhere, reading it on the subway, imagining that fellow riders might remember it in eight months when the book actually went on sale.
One night I brought it with me to show an old friend. I’d expected to feel proud when she oohed and ahhhed but instead I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her thinking that I had, as my late-grandmother would have put it, “got the big head.”
For ten years, the majority of the success I’d experienced as a writer had been internal. I’d learned to take pride in crafting a nice sentence, even if no one else knew about it. But suddenly satisfaction did not have to be its own reward. Now I could Google for compliments anytime I wanted. And so I Googled. A lot.
On the flipside, back when I was writing for myself, my failures were private. Bad paragraphs, or chapters, even whole manuscripts could be buried deep inside a folder-tree. But now the words “Uncorrected Proof” glared up at me from the ARC to remind me of the egregious errors inside already being shipped around the country.
As I tried articulating this egotism rollercoaster to my friend, my phone buzzed. It was my wife, Leah, calling. Excitedly she asked if I might be thinking about heading home soon? I ran back to my apartment to find her standing in our bathroom holding a pregnancy tester at arm’s length.
“Your book pubs at the end of March,” she said. “I think we’re OK.”
It hadn’t been my first thought, but I’d be lying if I’d said it wasn’t in the top five. Leah, an editor herself, was right on the money. Soon a doctor confirmed that our baby would likely arrive just a few weeks after my novel hit bookshelves. We were told to keep the news to ourselves until the end of the first trimester. When my publisher asked me if I’d travel across the country to promote the book for a week in early April, I asked Leah what we should do.
“Say yes,” she said, “We’ll figure it out later.”
I wish I could report that the worries about fatherhood swept the worries about publication from my mind, but the truth is that there was just a second completely unreal thing floating around in there. I was going to be a father. I was going to be published. That these two things would coincide, six months in the future, was like multiplying two imaginary numbers and getting an answer that was just as imaginary.
I sought advice from a colleague, John, the father of two daughters who still made time to write. What I could expect, now that we were expecting?
“The timing is perfect,” he reassured me. “Being a father will keep you grounded.”
Grounded sounded good—the ground being the thing my big head was steadily lifting me away from. The ground being a place where my child would be, eventually, crawling.
Neither book nor baby felt much more real in October, when I went to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference. There I saw a mountain of copies of my book for the first time and a sales rep told a room full of people that she’d literally eat a copy if it did not make it onto an Indie Bestseller list. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but now I was determined to be on it—for the sake of her digestive health if nothing else.
After that, Leah practically had to jam my big head into our rental car. We headed to visit friends who had just gotten home with their newborn daughter after an unimaginable 38-hour labor.
I asked the new father, Keir, how he was handling everything.
“Last week I was freaking out,” he drowsily confessed, “Scrambling to finish this project, thinking I wouldn’t have any time anymore. But it’s been fine. I got up early and worked for three hours this morning. Everything I do now, I’m doing for her.”
I felt much better. For one thing, he didn’t have time to waste anymore on something as masochistic as scanning Goodreads reviews. Better yet, I imagined, when I sat down to write next April, would the mere presence of my child fill my fingers with newfound purpose?
In the second trimester Leah felt better and the sonograms looked increasingly baby-like. We learned that we were going to have a boy. Each week we’d check TheBump.com to see what kind of fruit was the same size as our son: a banana, a pomegranate, a papaya. I read up on what was happening in there: my son was forming taste buds, nipples, eardrums. It began to feel a little more real.
At night I read him The Wind in the Willows and felt grounded. But each day my head swelled right back up. A messenger biked across the East River to deliver a finished hardcover. An actor I’d seen on television was selected to read the audiobook.
But none of that came close to what happened when I ventured to a photoshoot in Tribeca for a fashion magazine that wanted to include me in their list of 2013’s Most Beautiful People.
Some millenials dressed me in a polka-dot Fendi suit and Gucci loafers and told me to try to look like I was melting onto a table. “You’d better get used to this,” they advised. “This sort of thing will probably be happening all the time now.”
I was sure they were insane. But then a week later I spoke with someone about modelling eyeglasses for an ad campaign. A month later I went to meet with a producer about a possible reality TV appearance.
My head fully swelled into a hot air balloon and I wondered if soon even my son would be able to bring me back to the ground.
Late in February, I flew to Kansas City to attend a national independent booksellers conference. As soon as I landed in Missouri, Leah called, sounding worried.
“I was at the gym and I felt something.”
“Did it feel like a contraction?”
“I don’t know. What’s a contraction feel like?”
“I don’t know.”
She called the doctor, who told her to go home and get some rest and call if it started to feel worse. I told Leah I’d fly home immediately, but she talked me out of it. Everything would be fine, she said. All the air went out of me. The birth was no longer unimaginable to me. In fact, I couldn’t stop imagining it—missing it.
I soon sat in a conference room three times the size of the one in California, totally deflated. Dave Eggers was somewhere on the other side of the room. A woman wandered by my table looking interested. “Curtis Sittenfeld,” I read in disbelief off her nametag.
Holy shit, I thought. This is for real.
I twiddled my thumbs while a mile of booksellers lined up to see the author next to me, Ruth Ozeki, who talked with each of them like they were old friends. They all had stories about how much her earlier novel had meant to their customers. Someone’s mother had read it on her deathbed. She appeared to remember every bookseller, every sales rep, every reading, and every bookstore cat in the country.
As Ruth rested her cramping signing hand, we made small talk. Nobody was lining up at my table. She kindly reassured me that the first book was the hardest. This was the same thing people kept telling my wife about giving birth.
“Oh, what’s your book about?” people would ask as they came by to look at the unshrinking pile beside me. I stammered and sweated and wished I was home.
March arrived, and I thought Leah would pop any minute. I couldn’t see how we’d make it another month. “First babies are always late,” friends told us. Others told stories about cousins born in parking lots and on highways, three weeks before they were due. Meanwhile my son was the size of a pineapple, a butternut squash, a pumpkin. He was kicking and rolling around. There was no denying his reality now. One night, after reading him Harry Potter, I pressed against Leah’s belly and asked my son to please wait until I got back to be born. Leah faked a squeaky voice in response, “I’ll try dad!”
Launch day arrived and I saw my book on a real shelf for the first time. It was a moment I’d been imagining since I was a child, back when I used to go to libraries and bookstores and find the J section and slip my finger in the space I hoped to someday fill. Now I had.
That night, 36-weeks pregnant, Leah introduced me to the crowd.
“Just like a child, “ she said, “It takes a village to raise a book.”
Indeed, the room was filled with friends who had workshopped, fact-checked, and edited me. Who had consoled and encouraged me. They were my book’s family; they would be my son’s family. When I got up in front of them and began to read I kept imagining a pumpkin, listening too.
At six o’clock the next morning I was on a flight to Mississippi to begin the tour. I was supposed to be promoting my book, but I spent 90 percent of the time talking to the people at Square Books about their children. Everyone was eager to give advice. “You’re going to think you’re not that important at first, because you can’t feed him like his mother,” one bookseller father of three advised, “Your job is just to be there.”
But I wasn’t there. I was in Oxford, Boston, Seattle, Colorado, D.C…. in each place I’d try to talk about what I’d written, but end up blathering about my son. I didn’t care about the size of the crowds. I kept one hand on my phone at all times. Beneath my feet, I could feel the ground just fine.
Back in San Francisco I saw my friend Keir again, his daughter now six months old. I thanked him for the reassurance back in October, about still having time to do work.
“I said that?” he laughed. “I must’ve been tired. I don’t know why I’d say that. It’s totally not true. Getting work done is practically impossible now.”
Oddly, I no longer cared. And when I reminded him then of the second thing he’d said, about how it was all for his daughter now, he smiled. “That part’s right.”
My son kept his word and stayed put until a few weeks after I got home. He was born a healthy weight, a little on the long side—and with a head size in the 98th percentile.
That morning I watched my son’s skin go from blue to pink under a heat lamp. Watched him get his first bath and have his first meal. Changed his first diaper and put him down for his first nap. Each of these firsts held the promise of many more to come. Sometime that same day, my publisher announced they were buying my second novel, but my arms were too full to get to Google and see if anyone else cared.
With my son’s big head in the crook of my elbow, things did come into perspective. A long view of things returned. Making him had taken us the better part of a year—raising him would take the rest of our lives. There was plenty of time to be anxious about that, and very little time to be anxious about tweets with a half-life of minutes, or search results that would vanish in days. Good or bad, my reviews would be forgotten inside of a week. My son was here to stay.
Recently I spoke with author Courtney Maum, who is writing a guide to surviving your book deal. After I told her about my adventures in pre-publication publicity and expectant fatherhood, she filled me in on what the process was like for her, promoting her first novel while pregnant.
She agreed that it helped to have something important on the horizon besides the book, and recalled that, awash in “awesome hormones” she slept better and felt less anxiously than she had in ages. But while I chose to bring up my arriving child at every possible opportunity, Courtney’s pregnant belly was a topic of conversation no matter what. She described having to “forcibly steer” the conversation back to her book and away from discussions of daycare and proper swaddling technique.
And once the baby arrived, a whole host of new challenges: touring while still physically recovering from the pain of birth and the subsequent post-natal vitamin depletion. Plus working out breastfeeding and pumping scheduling nightmares. I’d been free to jump from plane to plane with a single carry-on bag with a blazer and a few pairs of jeans. She needed an updated wardrobe for a changed body.
As stressed as I was in those months, I never had to interrupt my editor mid-meeting to pump in her office. I never had a Salvation Army Santa hand me the pouches of breast milk I’d dropped on a Midtown sidewalk in my rush to catch a train.
These same kinds of things would happen all the time to Leah in the course of the year that I was coming down from my own publication, and the most I could do was try to be there for her during all the highs and lows, just like she was there for me during mine.
It has been five years. Our son is no longer a baby, but heading to kindergarten, and reading Elephant and Piggie books to himself at night. We have a new daughter; I’ve written a second book. When I go back to the J section of a bookstore now, sometimes I’m there and sometimes I’m not. I’ll still stick my finger in to say I’ll be there again soon, and be gone again later.
No writer wants to admit that books can be forgotten, when in fact nearly all of them ultimately are. That’s why it is so terrifying to want to write one—accepting its creation is also accepting its passing. But we write more. We hope that even after we’ve been remaindered, our words live inside of readers, however many or few, even if we may never know how, or how much, it has changed them.
“What impact do you hope your words will have on the future?” a reader asked me, sometime later, as I traveled to promote my second book. I thought about it for a long time. It was like being asked what I hoped my child would grow up to be. I wanted to tell him that I’d like my words to become president someday.
But really what can you hope for, besides that they’ll be healthy, have good souls, and be happy?
To be big-headed even when, maybe especially when, no one else is looking.