How dare you write that?

Before landing a publisher for my novel Daisy, I had several rejections from editors at various houses who were extremely complimentary about my refashioning of F. Scott FItzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Their praise, however, was followed by the inevitable “but,” that could be summarized thus: Retelling such a great American classic is a risk.

I paraphrase, but that was the gist of their reaction, and I thoroughly understand their reticence, even if I disagreed with it. If they published a retelling of such a famous book, would they look foolish if it wasn’t extravagantly praised by critics?

Fortunately for me, I found a publisher as fearless as I was in writing this novel. Thank you, Bancroft Press.

Like those rejecting editors, though, I do worry a bit about the reaction to Daisy, if critics will like it, or if they’ll wonder: How dare she take on this sacred text? Who does she think she is?

Actually, for a long time, I thought I was a nobody in the writing world. Though I was often complimented on my writing ability, was making a decent freelance career of writing for various health care organizations and others, and loved writing fiction in my spare time (I penned short story after short story rejected by magazines), I didn’t give myself permission to write fiction seriously until I was in my forties.

For a long time, I thought successful–or at least serious–fiction writers were like Fitzgerald, graduates or attendees of Ivy League colleges who moved in a certain elite set of fellow writers and lived exciting lives.

I came from unfashionable suburbia and didn’t even have a liberal arts degree. (My two degrees are from a music conservatory — I hold a B.M. and M.M. in voice performance.) I was a wife and mother. I hadn’t attended any prestigious writing seminars or workshops. I didn’t know anyone in the fiction-writing world and didn’t know how it worked. I once sent a story to Simon & Schuster addressed to the “Fiction Editor.” That’s how clueless I was.

I’ve told this story before, but it was my sister who encouraged me to give novel-writing a go, investing the time and creative energy into it, and I started in genre fiction. My first adult novel was a romance (or chick lit, as it was labeled at the time) published by Harlequin. And before anyone criticizes romance, you should know I’m a fierce defender of that genre, mostly comprised of women authors who tell wonderful stories using a formula they keep fresh for readers.

My writing heart led me to other stories over the years, and I’ve charted two paths for myself. One is commercial fiction meant to appeal to wider audiences. I landed a film deal for one of those books, a romantic comedy titled Fire Me (no film yet, alas, but it provided a nice payment to me).

The other path I’ve trod is what some call upmarket fiction, stories that appeal to readers looking for tales with perhaps more complex themes and no guarantee of happy endings. My success in that area has included critical praise, some prizes, (BookLife quarter finalist for Death Is the Cool Night) and the Huffington Post including my retelling of Jane Eyre, titled Sloane Hall, in a list of only 14 books they highlighted on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

That bring us to Daisy, a book that falls into this upmarket category. By the time I got around to writing this story, I was beyond giving myself permission to write. I just wanted to hear Daisy’s story, and since it wasn’t available, I wrote it myself.

I wasn’t thinking about how daring it was to retell this great classic. I just wanted to see and hear Daisy speak. So I gave her words and told her story. Because by this point in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t go to Princeton like FItzgerald, that I don’t pal around with famous literary writers, that I don’t move in the writing seminar crowd. I’m a writer. A novelist. That’s all you need to know.

Recently, I came across the quote below from Neil Gaiman that really speaks to me. This is who I aspire to be now after finally giving myself permission to be a novelist years ago. I strive to write with assurance and confidence. So of course I wrote Daisy, a story of a woman learning to find a new assurance and confidence in her own life.

Daisy by Libby Sternberg will be released digitally in July and in hardcover in September, published by Bancroft Press.

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