Ellen Meister grew up in the PTA-enriched heartland of suburban Long Island. A former copywriter, she lives in Long Island with her husband and three children. SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA is her first novel. You can learn more about Ellen at her website, www.ellenmeister.com
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
My first novel, SECRET CONFESSIONS OF APPLEWOOD PTA, was published on August 1 by William Morrow. It’s about three PTA women who conspire to get a George Clooney movie filmed in their children’s schoolyard.
Sometimes I think it’s easiest for me to describe it by saying what it’s not. It’s fun but it’s not light. It has sex but it’s not erotica. It has pathos but it’s not melodrama. And while I wrote it before there was such a thing as Desperate Housewives and hence a whole new genre of saucy housewife fiction, it does fit neatly into that category. It’s not, however, campy. More than anything, it’s a story of friendship, and I like to think it treats the characters with great tenderness and affection.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.
Like most writers, I fantasized long and hard about getting The Call That Would Change My Life. Alas, all my good news came in cruel little doses. For instance, after nine long months of querying agents and scrutinizing the Caller ID window on my phone every time it rang, it finally happened—a real literary agent with a 212 area code was on the line. And while it was an exciting phone call, it wasn’t THE phone call. She simply wanted to let me know that her assistant had read my book and loved it, and that she was looking forward to reading it herself and would get back to me “very soon.”
Do I need to tell you that I spend the twenty hours in conversation with anyone who would put up with me, trying to analyze exactly what “very soon” meant?
As it turns out, it meant four days. And the next time she called, she offered representation.
But I’m getting head of myself here, so let me back up. I started writing the book at the end of 2000, and finished it about two years later in early 2003. It took me nine months to get an agent. I spent the next five months revising it based on my agent’s suggestions. The submission process to editors was agonizing, as each day felt like a decade, but it was actually only a few months before I got the call that there was an offer on the book. However, once again it wasn’t The Call That Would Change My Life, as my agent had issues with the initial offer and wanted to do some negotiating.
Eventually, the deal was sealed and the contract signed. From there it took nearly another two years for the book to appear in stores. So from start to finish, the process was almost six years.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
Is that supposed to go away?
Seriously, I don’t think you can be a good writer without self-doubt. It’s what drives us, isn’t it? We torture ourselves with the belief that it’s not good enough and so we revise and rewrite and make it better.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
My biggest mistake still makes me cringe when I think about it.
After meeting with my agent and shaking hands and saying I wanted her to represent me, I went home and looked through my records so that I could withdraw the manuscript from the other agents who were considering it. The only problem was that my hard drive had recently crashed, and so there were gaps in my records. With the help of a friend, I tried to piece it back together.
But I made one huge mistake. One of the biggest agents in the business was still considering my book. Somehow, I had crossed my wires and made the mistake of thinking she had already rejected me. But about a week later she called. She thought she had an exclusive (again, my bad), and was certain she was to be my agent. In fact, she told me she was on her way to lunch with a major editor she was going to pitch my book to.
Understand, I’m a Jewish woman and therefore live my life beneath a cloud of guilt. If it rains on your parade, I will figure out a way to believe it’s my fault. So put me in a situation where the washout IS truly my own stupid mistake, and I drown in the sea of guilt, my worthlessness weighing me down to the bottom, exactly where I deserve to be.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
“Writers shouldn’t read if they want their work to be original.” Can you believe there are people who adhere to such nonsense? Of course we’re influenced by what we read! That’s a good thing. It doesn’t make us derivative. It makes us open to learning and improving.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I think the most important lesson—one that I learn and again and again and never seem to get—is that this business requires patience.
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, A Widow for One Year by John Irving, Lily White by Susan Isaacs, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Wife by Meg Wolitzer, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson, etc. etc. etc.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA is my first book and will always be a special source of pride.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
It drives me crazy when people tell me I need to get a thicker skin. You might as well tell me I need to be taller or European. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s not going to happen.
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
My glamorous day begins at 5 am, when I get my coffee going and sit down at my computer to start writing before the kids wake up. Then I chase children around the house, making sure they dress and have breakfast and brush their teeth and comb their hair and pack up their homework before the bus comes. While they’re away, I try to squeeze in another hour or two of writing between errands and whatever publishing business needs to get done.
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
If I could write one image like Mary Gordon or one line of dialogue from a child like J.D. Salinger, I’d die happy.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I do have a few pretty ambitious novels ideas floating around in my head. I’d love to be able to pull one off. Also, I wouldn’t mind being on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
Ha! Every day!
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
My favorite part is when I hear from someone who said my work made them laugh or cry or touched them in some way. My least favorite part is all the waiting involved. Sometimes it feels like all I ever do is wait.
How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?
I have a marketing background, and try to treat my book like I would any product I want to sell. That is, I think hard about who my market is and how to reach them. My best advice is to start by thinking about markets for your book as early as possible. Don’t be shy about telling your ideas to the folks at your publishing company. They WANT to hear from you.
Write what you love.