Booklife Essay: Luck’s Child by Marly Youmans

Marly Youmans has published young adult, genre, and literary fiction in a variety of publications and in book form for publishers including Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Penguin, and many others. Her essay here, originally published in the appendices to Booklife, reminds us that some elements of a career are out of our control.

This week as the book tour winds up, I’m at the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, the Chapel Hill Comics Shop, and Manuel’s Bar in Atlanta. Check the schedule for more details. – Jeff

Although the daydreams of a young writer seldom involve bad luck but are castles in the air, pleasantly sprinkled with stardust, she soon becomes acquainted with many inhabitants of the Land of Luck, some of them lovely and some twisted and harsh. It is impossible to live a writer’s life without some meeting up with bad luck. It is possible to create one’s own good luck.

Bad luck arrives in the shape of those things that happen to books that writers have not caused and cannot control. Bad luck is random, sometimes catastrophic, a source of frustration, and hard on unfortunate souls who have a too-permeable skin that refuses to transform into protective chitin. In my experience, such ill luck can come from any or many directions — as, poor book design, a publisher who collapses and slashes imprints and cuts staff, an editor’s private woes that spill over into work, and events of historic scope.

In 2001, bad luck swirled up around a book of mine called The Wolf Pit. First, the editor departed the house unexpectedly, leaving the unfortunate book an “orphan” up for adoption. Second, the book was postponed until mid-September. It made an appearance in the world not long after 9-11, a day
of destruction that made worrying about a new novel feel silly and wrong. Bookwise, the result of such an event was to launch a craze for nonfiction books about terrorism and the Arab world and to put a tight squeeze on the review space available to novels. Third, the book appeared on the publisher’s fall list in the wake of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Franzen and his encounters with Oprah — or his Bartleby-like refusals to encounter — seemed to consume much of the remaining oxygen at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

While two out of those three happenings are a bit unusual, the fact of uncontrollable bad luck is common among writers. If I look around at friends, I see one writer with an especially memorable case: his novel was six weeks away from being made into a movie with Jack Lemmon and James Garner when Lemmon abruptly dropped out, scuppering the project. What a difference such visibility might have made to his career! Another friend who recently chose to move from one publishing house to another has been told that the new publisher can pay neither the second half of his advance nor his tour expenses. Meanwhile, his editor has fallen under the cost-cutting axe. A third friend is coming to realize that an editor simply does not like the subject matter of her novel, even though he had discussed and approved a detailed proposal. Alas, the partial advance has already been spent on living expenses.

None of these events or changes could be halted by a writer; not one could be foreseen. In each case, bad luck’s causes and nature were unexpected, its messages as arbitrary as the gnomic predictions that come to us in fortune cookies. Bad luck was simply to be endured, for the most part, though damage control might salvage something. In the case of my 9-11 book, I managed to improve my own feelings about the situation by writing some editors a letter to ask whether they would consider reviewing a book that had been overlooked during that tumultuous fall. This strategy helped in terms of gathering many reviews, although they arrived very late — really too late to help in a landscape where books are quickly returned by booksellers. The book did, however, go on to nab one piece of good luck, winning the Michael Shaara Award for 2001.

An opposite to overpowering bad luck exists — an overwhelming good luck that is suddenly shed on an author when a publisher chooses to invest mightily in a particular book and then to push hard. Because the number of books produced is so high, a push often strikes even the recipient as arbitrary and surprising. Few books are lead books. In addition, celebrities of various sorts have their own large luck, compelling the devotion of many publishers.
But what writers mean when they talk about good luck is far simpler.

For most writers, particularly mid-list writers, good luck in publishing springs from the work itself. Persist, and eventually requests arrive from editors at magazines and presses. Awards come, as well as what is better: the gift of respect from those writers and editors a writer admires. By not losing hold of the joy that gives birth to creation and by keeping faith with the vocation, a writer can flourish despite the pesky tweaks and harder blows of ongoing randomness and bad luck. A writer makes friends and advocates for the work by doing the work and sharing her words. And that is as it should be because literature declares by its very existence that other people matter.