On October 30, 2006, I was in Los Angeles, writing a story on Puffy for GIANT magazine. I was staying at The Standard in West Hollywood, a spot that’s supposed to be fancy but never feels that way to me. (There’s often a woman dressed in all white encased in glass behind the front desk. Livable art. Yawn)
Puff kept stalling. Editor had to keep tacking on more time to my stay. Day after day, waiting…
While I waited, I worked on a novel I’d started writing. It was born out of a conversation with my agent. A few months before, I wrote a piece for Vibe that haunted me. It was about a group of women who lived a lifestyle that was both glamorous and depressing. I told my agent I thought their lives could make a good non-fiction book.
He scrunched his eyebrows up, shook his head and said: no. fictionalize them. Then you can take the stories as far as you wanna go. It would make a good novel.
I wrote a novel a few years back. Like most first novels, it was autobiographical to a fault: a girl who lives in a brownstone in Jersey City teaches by day and writes about hip-hop celebrities by night. And she’s torn between both worlds. And she loves teaching but hates the administration. And she loves writing but hates the drama in the music world.
Um. Yeah. That was me all day.
I finished the book. Did a gang of rewrites with my agent. It was sent out. I crossed my fingers.
Annnnnd. Nothing. Twelve very nice rejection emails. (Emails! Not even letters I could keep and hold on to. Emails! Sob!)
I didn’t try a novel again. Didn’t even think about it. Until my agent urged me to think about fictionalizing the Vibe story.
I went jogging the next morning, his words in my head. And that night, I started writing. And the next day, I wrote more. And the next day, even more.
The characters talked to themselves in my head even when I wasn’t working on the story. (I hope some of my fellow writers will co-sign on this so I don’t sound completely nuts.) I wrote every day, without fail. And sometimes my heart would quicken as I wrote. I didn’t have a plot outlined but it seemed like everything the characters said and did just made sense and things began to fall into a linear story.
Here’s how it felt: like the story was already written. And I was just the vessel to get it on paper.
Okay. I know that is roll-eye dramatic and extra. If someone else wrote that, I’d log off immediately and never visit their blog again.
But I can only tell you that’s exactly what I felt.
So on this trip to Los Angeles, as I sat in the lobby of The Standard and ate burgers and watched people go to the pool, I continued working on this new novel each day. Sometimes my cell phone would ring and I would look up and three hours had passed and I’d been writing straight through, not even aware of the time.
And this scared me.
I was scared because every time I read it back to myself, it was good. And it intrigued me and made me want to read more.
I was also embarassed.
Because when I wrote unfiltered, the result was chockful of graphic sex scenes. And characters who did things I could not relate to at all: women who stayed with drug addicted husbands. Women who made poor parenting choices. And in general, a cast of characters who were over the top. I was channeling Jacqueline Susann instead of Alice Walker and I was afraid of what that meant. I want to be a Serious Writer. And the book pouring out of me had a mind of its own.
It wasn’t literary. It wasn’t highbrow. It was gritty. It was disturbing. And it was what it was. Nothing I could do about it.
So I abruptly stopped writing for a few days.
I had somehow managed to intimidate myself. How sad is that?
This has happened to me more than once before. I have several unfinished stories that I read occasionally. And I get pissed off at myself every time I re-read these pieces. Some are good. Some not so good. But I always stopped at some point, afraid of what finishing might mean.
This time, while in Los Angeles, I decided to reach out to my agent for help.
I have a work-in-progress… It’s called No Tea For The Fever. It’s a novel, inspired by you–and that story I wrote for Vibe. So far it’s 93 pages. (about 25,000 words). It’s going well. But I’d really like an early opinion. I totally understand if you’d rather I wait until it’s complete. But let me know…
My agent told me to send what I had so far. I did. He told me to keep writing. And to finish the damn thing.
“You have something here,” he said. “Finish it.”
And then Faith Evans called, out of the clear blue sky. Talking about collaborating on a book. I said, “But I’m 7 months pregnant!” She said, “Girl, please. So am I. Let’s get to work.”
We gave birth within two weeks of one another. And we were on the phone for our thrice-weekly bi-coastal phone calls a month later. And the whirlwind of collaborating on my first book made me just look wistfully at my Book I Want To Write folder every once in a while.
Skip ahead a year or so. The Faith book is done. I’ve even started collaborating on book two with the illustrious Frank Lucas. And I’m freelancing my butt off. And every so often, I click on the Word document with my novel and I feel a rush of something.
But I still don’t start writing again.
And then, I get an assignment to visit the island of Anguilla and report on its loveliness. Sweet!
I packed my bikini–kissed my babies goodbye and got ready to go. I also printed out my novel. I read it on the island. Slowly. I marked it up and made a bunch of notes and hard edits. Certain characters were corny and needed to be cut out completely. The whole book was missing a bit more speed in the pace. Needed more conflict.
I edited throughout my trip and came home with a promise to myself to finish the damn thing.
That was in June.
By December, I finally sent the novel to my agent.
And then. One wintry day, I was standing in my living room looking over the mail, when my cell phone rang. It was my agent. And my heart started racing. We hardly ever talk on the phone. It’s always email.
Hey, I said.
Hey, he said.
Let me tell you about my agent. I met him in 1998 when I went to a program called the Radcliffe Publishing Course in Cambridge, Massachusettes. It’s a program designed to help people prepare for careers in book or magazine publishing. (Today, it’s affiliated with Columbia. I still highly recommend it to anyone who is just graduating from school and wants to go into publishing. OR anyone who wants to transition from another career into publishing).
So. I move to Cambridge for the summer. And each day in class, we had to sit in alphabetical order. So I sat next to Ryan, whose last name started with H.
I was a smarmy, smartass Black girl with an Afro. Ryan was a laidback white boy who spoke in a whisper but had a cool, sardonic wit. Ryan was a book guy. I was a magazine girl.
We got along like gangbusters from day one.
If Ryan ever decides to write a tell-all memoir, I’ll be chewing my nails nervously. Cause he’s got some stories on me from my wild and crazy 20s. Oh. And vice-versa. (You got that Ryan?!)
So anyway. That’s my peoples right there. We didn’t stay in touch much after the program ended. But he was one of those people you never have to talk to. It just is what it is and always will be.
Years and years later, I was looking for a new agent. I’d heard that after a successful stint as a book editor, Ryan was now working as a literary agent. I had lunch with him to ask for help finding an agent. He said, “I want to represent you.” I said, “Ryan, you don’t even know what I’m capable of.” He said, “I’ve been following your work. I read the Al Green story in Vibe. I know what your capable of. And I want to represent you. Now I will give you other names. Because you’re my friend first. But I want you as my client.”
And that was that.
So here we are, back in my living room. Ryan on the phone instead of shooting me a quick email.
“I got an offer for your novel today Aliya.”
I felt like someone had socked me in my gut. I dropped to my knees and burst into tears.
“Are you crying,” Ryan asked, laughing.
“Yes! I’m crying!” I said. “I’ve waited all my life to hear those words!!”
My throat was tightening and I couldn’t catch my breath. It was thrilling.
The next few days were a whirlwhind of interest from other editors, going back and forth, me biting my nails, rocking back and forth on my sofa, dying to hear the end results.
And finally, it was over.
Sulay Hernandez, the editor of Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone Fireside imprint, just bought my first novel.
And how did I deal with this news?
I called TH and screamed his ear off. I called my mom and screamed her ear off.
And then, I said nothing else.
I didn’t believe it was real. I thought I would wake up and my agent would say Sulay changed her mind.
Dear readers, I couldn’t even bring myself to tell all of you. And I know how supportive my dear readers are.
But I could not deal. It was not real.
I finally got a chance to talk to Sulay on the phone.
“I loved this book,” Sulay said. ” You made me miss my stop on the subway while I was reading it.”
(Tears are streaming down my face as she says this).
All I could say was thank you.
She said. “This is real Aliya. This is very real.”
Sulay, I said. After I caught my breath. I have this blog…
Sulay laughed. Yes, write about it on your blog!
But I couldn’t.
Not until today.
Yesterday, I opened my front door, ready to go out and shovel the snow.
My contract. Vetted by Ryan, ready to be signed.
Now this is real.
And if you all will have me, I’ll promise to take my dear readers with me every step of the way from contract signing to bookstore stocking. (Yes, I will stock this book myself at Barnes and Noble if they’ll let me!)
I am awed. I am humbled. I am proud.
I am scared out of my wits.
And now, I sign my life away on four copies of the contract (with a Uniball pen!) and drop them in the mail. And then the fun begins.
I have no idea what I’m in for.
***about the title: one day, I was talking to my dad. and he was telling me about a family member I never met. he said, “ooooh, she was tough. She didn’t take no tea for the fever!” I said what does that mean? He said he didn’t know. But he said it was just one of those things old folks said about strong people. And then, the very next day, I was visiting my mother-in-law. And she was telling me about one of her relatives. And she said, “She didn’t take no tea for the fever!”
It struck me to hear this expression twice from two different people. And it stuck with me. Who would be the type of person who would earn this distinction. What would it take to be strong enough to take no tea for the fever?