The peripatetic debut novelist Jenny Milchman is covering the country with her new novel, Cover of Snow. I'm looking forward to catching up with her in Richmond, Virginia on February 12, 2013 at a reading organized by wonderful Fountain Bookstore. But first, I was curious to ask her about the long path to her first book publication. VP: You worked on Cover of Snow, which came out in January, 2013, over many years and many drafts. Can you share with us the story behind the story: what helped you as a writer to get to the draft that finally sold, and what helped you as a person to keep persisting to achieve your dream of publishing a book?
JM: The moment when my debut novel came out arrived after thirteen years, fifteen-almost offers, three agents, and eight novels. Cover of Snow is my debut novel, but it wasn’t the first one I wrote. In 1998, I was working as a psychologist-in-training at a rural mental health center. Suddenly my life was like something out of a suspense novel. I was treating a cherubic blond child who’d just happened to kill the family pet; another patient took a gun out during group therapy and threatened to shoot herself.
I began my first novel, and the words just poured out of me. I was lucky enough to get responses to queries, including one single-spaced, packed sheet of paper (snail mail, 1998, remember?) from Jonathan Kellerman’s agent. Among other things he said that he didn’t like spending so much time in my “neurotic protagonist’s head.”
I was stung because, in the way of most semi-autobiographical first novels, my protagonist was an awful lot like, well, me. I hadn’t realized she was—neurotic. Ouch. (I now call this kind of hard-hitting critique ‘neurotic protagonist’ feedback).
Anyway, after I received that rejection, I sat down at my computer and looked at the novel again. And I saw why the agent thought my protagonist was nuts, and better yet, I saw what I could do. I cut 60,000 previously-thought-to-be-essential words in just two weeks.
That novel—however trimmed down—didn’t get published, but it did earn me offers of representation. And so began the next ten years of my life when I was on more or less continuous submission. At a certain point, I said to myself, “Well, published writers write a book a year, and I want to be a published writer, so I’m going to try and do that.” At the very least, it would give me more chances to write something someone might like.
I had been working for three years with the agent I now call my forever agent. We were about out of options. My seventh novel had climbed all the way to the publisher at the helm of the house that was considering it, only to be turned down at the very top.
My agent had said to me, “I am your agent. No matter how you publish, even if it’s with the smallest of presses, no real money to be had, you can count on me.” At the same time, the world had changed. Self-publishing had become a viable option. It had become in some ways, for some writers, a better option even. But it wasn’t a better option for me.
At this stage of the game, self-publishing precludes or at least sorely limits a writer’s entrance into bookstores and libraries, and for me that was a huge part of trying to publish, as opposed to simply penning stories in my garret. I had this dream of meeting readers and booksellers and librarians all over the country.
I had come to admire many authors during my long road, and one had written a novel in 2010 that particularly spoke to me. She knew about my many near misses, and although she had told me, quite understandably, that she couldn’t read unpublished manuscripts, at a certain point she agreed to take a look at my latest.
It was during the early dark of a January evening, just after my seventh novel had finally been rejected, when this author sent me an email. “Jenny,” it said. “I couldn’t wait to tell you how much I am enjoying your book. If it doesn’t let me down at the end—and I can’t imagine that it will—I will want not only to offer you a blurb or endorsement, but to put it into my own editor’s hands.” That editor turned out to like my book as much as her author did. And that is how I finally came to be published.
What enabled me as a person to hang in there for so long? I would say three things: The belief that dreams are worth going for. A strong support system around me: my husband, my parents, other writers. Being a little bit nuts. I was that neurotic protagonist, after all.
VP: Your path to the book's publication was long and circuitous, and now your path in the months after its launch are literally that way, too. Tell us about your tour and why you're choosing to share your book with readers in this particular way?
JM: Circuitous for sure! My husband, who is responsible for the route-planning, has groaned a few times about driving from North Carolina back up to Virginia even though we’re heading south, or to Colorado before we hit Mississippi. But if you long to get to a certain bookstore, you have to understand the store’s busy schedule.
For the next six months we are going to drive 18,000 miles back and forth and up and down across the country. We’re taking the kids out of school—“car-schooling” them—and visiting as many bookstores, book clubs, libraries, and schools as will have us.
For most writers, connecting with readers is key. And while I appreciate email and Facebook and Twitter for really widening the world of readers we can connect with, the real time, face-to-face dimension is very important to me as well. There is just nothing like that moment when a reader comes up to you and you get to see her face as she describes a scary moment in your book. Or a wonderful one.
Bookstores are very important to me, too, and I hope that by being a part of the day or evening out that a bookstore event can provide, more and more people will come to rely on them, not only as a place to buy their books, but as a way to deepen their connection to their community. And I hope to meet readers and potential readers—they are the reason I struggled for so long to get published!
VP: What advice can you offer to aspiring writers who may face a wee bit of discouragement as they pursue their craft or delve into the daunting world of publishing?
JM: I think that the fact that it did finally happen for me should offer encouragement. It can take a long time—but when you finally wind up with the book that sells, you’ll probably be glad it was that one, and not a version that came before. I know that doesn’t help much now, so I would also say…
There are more ways than ever to realize your writing dreams. More ways than ever to hone your craft, and connect with readers. For me, it was important to publish traditionally, but I know many, many writers who are having great success on their own. And I have hope that in years to come, there will be ways to publish independently and still have a presence in bookstores and other bricks and mortar venues. I think it’s a wonderful time to be a writer—and I can’t wait to read your book.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, is published by Ballantine Books.