Saturday, June 02, 2012

Oprah and Me

I just found out yesterday that Oprah is reviving her now several years defunct Book Club. And the moment I saw the post on a friend's Facebook page, I felt overcome by a very old and powerful feeling.

You need to understand one thing at the outset: Oprah and I go way back. It was over a decade ago, back when I was fresh out of graduate school, living in a one bedroom apartment at the beach in San Diego, that our story begins.

I had written a novel as my thesis at the University of Washington called Paper Rain. It was my first novel, and I just knew that it was going to catapult me to literary fame and fortune. I found the contact names and addresses for nearly a hundred editors and agents, and I wrote to them. All of them. And some of them wrote back.  But none of them wanted my novel. After months and months (and so much wasted postage), I sadly gathered these missives into a binder which I titled, Paper Rain on My Parade.

Having once believed that Paper Rain would put me in the company of the literary greats I admired (and maybe even into a bigger apartment), I now suspected that it was more likely that nobody but my family would ever read it (and that I'd be writing at my kitchen counter for the rest of my life). And so I made a few hand-made copies. I printed the pages on beautiful paper, which I tore at the edges. I bound them with jute. I autographed them. And then I gave them away. But I kept one, and this is the one I sent to Ms. Winfrey. This was our first correspondence.

I sent it unsolicited with a letter lauding the brilliance of not only my novel, but also my lasagna. (Remember, back then, her book club met over dinner at the author's home.) I actually wrote something to the effect of "I don't have a table" -- which I didn't -- "but I have plenty of dishes.") I did not include an SASE (Why bother? She'd want to keep this treasure wouldn't she?) And then I waited.

Months passed, no phone call. No announcement on my TV in that wonderful whooping voice she reserved for announcing her Book Club picks. But then one day, miracle of miracles, she wrote back! (Or rather, her producers -- or maybe the unpaid intern who opened her mail -- did. And she also sent back my lovingly hand-crafted novel, despite the lack of postage paid.)

I had been heart-broken by my myriad rejections from agents and editors ("just not for me," "we do not feel strongly enough about this project,"  and my favorite "we publish only biographies of opera singers."). And now this. Et tu, Oprah? Et tu?

But always tenacious and hopeful, I persisted. And eventually, all that hard work paid off. I got an agent (though she also couldn't sell Paper Rain), wrote another book, published some books, won some grants, and all the while there was Oprah. Oprah was picking a book a month at that point. Books that were about to go out of print. Books by authors like me. There wasn't a single person I talked to who didn't say, "You should send your book to Oprah." Though I couldn't bear to tell them that I already had.

Then there was what I like to think of as the 6-Degrees-to-Oprah phenomena. Someone I knew knew someone who went to her gym in Chicago. Maybe she could just slip a copy of Nearer Than the Sky onto her treadmill? And then there was our friend who went on Oprah for Dr. Phil's therapy boot camp...maybe he could just hand her the paperback of Undressing the Moon? (Forget that he was there to deal with his own emotional issues. What about my book??!!) Of course, neither friend went through with it. But then -- serendipity! My friend's friend WORKED for Oprah. Specifically for her Book Club. And she did pass along my work, all three novels, and I waited for the call that would change my life.

But then came along two men who would change my life forever: Jonathan Franzen and James Frey. (And yes, I still hold a grudge.)

First Jonathan Franzen, when honored with Oprah's coveted seal of approval, poo-pooed her and her low-brow audience. I'm certain you remember this? I do, because after this, the Book Club came to a nearly screeching halt. And then she started only picking books by dead authors. (I was pretty certain I was really out of the running now.) But then a few years later she chose A Million Little Pieces. And the author, James Frey, was alive! But alas, his not-so-true, true-to-life true story became another thorn in Oprah's side, and she returned to her reliable dead authors again. And we all know what happened after that. 

Since then, I've gotten a table, and those dishes I was so proud of have long since been donated to Goodwill. I have also written five more novels...though none of them have yet thrust me into those literary realms I once dreamed of. I have moved from that little apartment, though I do miss it sometimes. We could hear the ocean from our bedroom window and the mourning doves perched in a tree outside. It is with fondness now that I recollect hammering away at the keyboard at the tiny kitchen counter where I worked. Because I was writing, and that is what I love most to do.

I've also long since given up the silly notion that literary fame and fortune should always come quickly. I have accepted that I am a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of writer. I am grateful for my struggles. And I am even more grateful for the longevity of my career. With or without Oprah, I will keep writing books until the day I die.

But Oprah's Book Club is back. And I know exactly what that feeling is...the one creeping up my back as I type. It's that jingly feeling you get when you've got a plastic cup full of nickels at the slot machine, the scritch-scratch of your nail as it scrapes away the gold foil from a tear-off ticket. It's possibility. And there isn't anything in the world better than that for a writer...or for anyone...than this. She's going to make the careers of some very fortunate authors. And for the rest of us...well, we'll just keep writing and dreaming.


Atushaf said...

You're so damned talented even your blog is brilliant. You don't need Oprah!

T. Greenwood said...

Thank you, Atossa :)

grahamophone said...

If I thought it would help, I'd say you could write my biography for that one publisher. Alas, just replace "novel" and "publisher" with "audition" and "theater" and our stories are pretty much the same. I'm just starting on "Grace" now. Cheers, and keep on keepin' on! CG

T. Greenwood said...

Thanks, Christie. And isn't that the strangest focus (not strange bad...but oddly specific?) I think they were called Baskerville...wonder if they're still around!