The Final Countdown

It’s been a long winter, and somehow it’s now April, with just under a month to go until The Leavers is out on May 2.

Over the past few months, I’ve been steadily crossing things off my pre-publication to-do list. Essays written, pitched, and sold. Book tour and other events planned – check out the video I made below announcing some of the dates and cities! Newsletters, thank you cards, e-mails, and invitations sent and in the works. Q&As and interviews completed and scheduled. Bookmarks, postcards, and other promotional materials created. Website and social media updated. I’ve even bought a new dress and a pair of shoes.

BOOK TOUR!

Of course, these next few weeks are going to coincide with a big freelance editing project, and I’m moving apartments the day before the book launch (note to self: next time, don’t do this), so I’m surrounded by piles of boxes as I alternate between excitement and sheer terror on what feels like an hourly basis. You spend seven years working on a book and think that’s it, the bulk of the work, but then comes publication and the aftermath. A whole other unknown.

So, I’m taking deep breaths and looking forward. See you on my book tour?

Galleys Are Here!

I tore open an envelope with my galleys and jumped up and down waving them in the air and screaming incoherently while alone in a dirt field full of sage and prairie dogs.

an orange book with white text that says The Leavers: a novel by Lisa Ko on a purple and white printed cloth

Reading my novel in actual printed book format (because it’s an actual printed book!) is so different than reading it in a very long Word document. It feels… real.

I dedicated the book to my grandmother, who had a difficult life and a grade-school education. We didn’t share a language in common, so we couldn’t write letters or even speak on the phone.

What she and so many other women, especially women of color, went through and fought and pushed against so I could be here today, writing and publishing a novel, choosing whether or not I want to get married or have kids, has kept me going so many times when I’ve doubted my work. And now I get to trace my finger over her name, in print, at the beginning of my book.

Her name. I put it there.

Wow.

Imposter Syndrome

frontcover

The Best American Short Stories 2016 came out last week. One of those best American short stories is mine.

When I first got out of college, I used to buy the annual BASS anthology every fall. I’d read every story closely, as if they contained the secret to greatness, and if I learned that secret, I could be a great writer, too. I took notes. I marked those books up. After I read each story, I’d immediately read the author’s bio and the accompanying short essay in the back, about the story’s inspiration and process. Some stories took years to write. Years? I’d think. I don’t have years to spend on a story!

Fast forward two decades. My story in BASS, like my novel, ended up taking years to write. Years, years, years, years, years, years. Although I wrote the first draft of the story in less than a week in 2010, I revised it, on and off, for four years after that. What I didn’t mention in my short essay was that the story had been rejected more than 25 times before it was finally published in the literary journal which made it eligible for consideration in BASS. I didn’t mention that I was that close to throwing the story out forever. Or how I had workshopped it in my MFA program and my professor said it was all wrong, and the story should be written completely over, told from the point of view of a character who was not even in there. I didn’t agree. Yet every time I revised and resubmitted, I’d always remember his words and I would doubt myself. Huge, enormous gobs of doubt.

How can you trust your own mind? that doubt said. What makes you think you know what you’re doing?

*

I’ve reached a point in my life that I never actually believed would happen. I’m 40 years old. I’m a bonafide adult grown-up. I have a story in the same anthology I once considered a template on how to write. I never thought that I would have this writing career, this surprise success, my community and my relationships. For so long, having any one those things seemed impossible.

But despite this—or because of this—there’s a part of me that is still afraid.

That I have no right to be writing or publishing.

That I am a fraud.

That I won’t be able to write and finish and publish another novel—not only was this my lucky break, it was my only break.

That people will realize I don’t belong here: in this anthology, on those bookshelves.

These voices are so old, telling me I’m not enough. I know their origins and their reasons and why they linger. I even know what to do with them and how to fight them, or listen to them.

In a way, rejection is easy for me—25 rejections for one story? Why not 26?—because I’ve been so accustomed to it. But what about acceptance?

*

My copy of Best American Short Stories arrived at my artist’s residency in New Mexico yesterday, more than a week after the book’s publication date, forwarded from my apartment in New York.

I tore the envelope open and the first thing I felt was trepidation. Fear of embarrassment. (What if the story sucks? Maybe I had forgotten.)

There was my name on the back cover as one of the contributors.

backcover

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. Instead I put it down, put on my shoes, and went out for a walk. (You wouldn’t believe how gorgeous the skies are here in New Mexico, and the mountains…)

I came back, made a cup of tea, washed the dishes, checked my email, sent out a text, wiped down the kitchen counters. I sat down again.

story

I opened the book. And I saw my name there—in the table of contents, my short essay, my story. My name, my story. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and there it was. Still there. Really there. Then, I started to read.

Best-Laid Plans, or How It All Went Down in a Month

piles of paper with printed text and post-it notes laid out in three rows on a gray carpetediting chapters, December 2015

I’m a planner, a chronic list-maker. I use a paper planner, a digital calendar, and make weekly/monthly to-do lists on my laptop and daily lists on post-it notes that I stick on top of my paper planner. (I love the satisfaction of crossing things off.)

When it came to the novel I’d been working on since 2009, you better believe I was planning. In fact, I’d had to let go of a lot of planning in order to get to the final draft. Early, wildly optimistic, and possibly delusional plans were to finish it in two years, then three, then maybe five. Around the four-year mark I stopped labeling folders and Word documents with names like “novel-final.doc” and “novel-finalFINAL.doc” and “novel-FORFUCKSSAKEFINAL.doc.” I just put in all a desktop folder and called it “X.”

I let go of a lot of expectations, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how this next year would pan out. After a year of hardcore edits, I was planning on sending the manuscript out to my trusted readers in the spring of 2016. I was planning on spending this summer editing and polishing. I was planning, hopefully, by the fall, to start the process of finding an agent and eventually, a publisher.

On February 29, I accidentally left my cell phone in an AirBNB in the Bahamas, flew back to NYC, and eight hours later, checked my email to find a message from Barbara Kingsolver’s assistant saying they’d been trying to call me all morning, and to please call her office immediately. It was about the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, which I’d submitted a draft of my novel for on a whim back in October and figured I had no chance of winning. I called, using my boyfriend’s phone, and Barbara told me congratulations, the decision was unanimous, they loved my novel. I won the award, and with it, a book contract. What? Whoa.

I was too jet-lagged to feel much for the rest of the day except a dazed shock, but that night I woke up at 5 am and was like, Wait. Holy fucking shit. I mean, I’m 40 years old, I’d been working on this book for nearly seven years, thinking about gradually moving from the writing and editing phase to the business phase in the next year or two. I hadn’t expected it to happen so fast. All of sudden, it was time to build a new website, find an agent, take an author photo, start editing for publication, not to mention get my phone back – as soon as possible. It was time to stop dreaming about the book someday being out in the world, someday being read by others, and planning for the reality of being it out in the world – by next year. I’ll be writing about the journey as it happens.