So Lucky was published May 15 2018: it is two years old today. I thought I’d take this opportunity to revisit the process and ask for your opinion.
A short, fast-paced whirlwind of a novel
Publishing So Lucky was an interesting experience. And by ‘interesting’ I mean difficult. This is not the publisher’s fault—they did a miraculous job in an impossibly short timeframe—I just knew that given a) the length, shape and themes of the novel itself and b) the speed with which we would publish, there would be no time to mitigate the foreseeable difficulties, never mind the unforeseeable ones. But this was a book I needed the world to read—other considerations were secondary.
Unlike any other book I’ve ever read
I’m always eager for people to read my stuff: I look forward to readers’ enjoyment. But right from the beginning this book felt different. It felt urgent. I wrote the first draft in 3 weeks. My editor read it in 3 days. We met and chatted for less than 2 hours. And the book was published almost exactly one year after that initial conversation. For mainstream literary publishing, this is warp speed.
Magnificent, searing…a terse and brutally urgent novel.
So why was it so urgent? Why did getting it out there sooner rather than later matter so much? It’s a matter of representation. Disabled people often feel othered and dehumanised because we don’t see ourselves mirrored on the page or screen. And on the rare occasions we do see ourselves it’s as characters who are pitiable and pitiful, objects of derision, characters created expressly as lessons for nondisabled characters (and readers), freaks to be pointed to as cautionary examples; we are portrayed as sad, lonely, grateful, dependent, or dead. These are the stories that are out t here; these are the stories that are creating the cultural attitude towards disability—the stories that are powering ableism. (If you want to see numbers and a more clearly laid-out argument, please go read my New York Times Op-Ed, “Rewriting the Old Disability Script.”) So Lucky exists because a) I had a story to tell—always the primary mover, and b) I felt an overpowering urge to increase the representation of disabled protagonists in adult literary fiction, because at the time the single female disabled main character in mainstream fiction I could think of is in Geek Love (which is stretching the definition of mainstream to breaking point, and even so all the crip characters are literally freaks). Also, it was published more than 30 years ago. So, yes, it felt urgent.
A body-slam of empowerment, a roar of frustration so sustained and compelling that it cannot be ignored
So I made it condition of Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishing the book that it happen as soon as humanly possible, and screw the usual timetables. I admit I was a bit surprised when they agreed. Because, here’s the thing: the book wasn’t even done yet. Oh, the ingredients were all there and mixed, but they hadn’t been shaken, or poured in the mould, never mind set, never mind turned out and decorated. So we did everything in parallel rather than in sequence: rewriting while coming up with the cover, copyediting while recording the narration, etc. There was just no time to sit and think about the book, to figure out how to talk about it, how to describe it, how to position it and market it.
A swift, luminescent novel, a shard of light
What do I mean by ‘time’? Let’s use Hild as a comparison. I started researching all things seventh-century in 1999. I wrote the first paragraph of what would become Hild in 2008. I finished the first draft in early 2011. It was published at the end of 2013. In other words, by the time that book came out I’d been living and breathing the story and characters and world for more than 14 years. I knew what it was; I knew what it was about; I knew what it meant; I knew how to describe it, how to talk about it. When I had my first big meeting with the marketing and publicity team I could speak cogently, succinctly, and interestingly about comps, genres, positioning; I gave them ideas about how to focus descriptions for sellers, reviewers, readers. ‘Here’s how it’s different to X. Here’s why it’s like Y but better. Here’s how it’s absolutely not like Z. Here’s how it does A, here’s how it destroys B, here’s how it completely recasts C.’ And so on. I could explain what the book did that was utterly radical, and why, and the ways in which it did what every single one of my novels has always done—to norm the queer Other—and why readers would love it. Everyone left that meeting happy and with a clear mission.
A disconcerting but very necessary book.
I start writing So Lucky between Christmas and New Year and finished the first draft in early January 2017. I wasn’t sure what I had, exactly, and didn’t have time to think about it because I was in the middle of another project (my PhD). As soon as I finished the last sentence of Lucky I had to rewrite my thesis. I did that, sent it to my supervisor, then rewrote Lucky. I still wasn’t totally sure what it was: A dark fantasy novella? The beginning of a mainstream novel? A cathartic mess that should be thrown away? All I knew was that it did not do what all my other novels did: it did not norm the Other, because this time the Otherness wasn’t queerness, it was disability. And it didn’t take that Otherness and make it irrelevant to the story; it made that Otherness the point of the story. But I didn’t really know how to explain that at the time, because it was the first time I’d done it; I also knew it wasn’t finished. But I sent it to my agent and she sent it to my editor.
Brutal, unsparing…full of power and healing
In May, then, when I had lunch with my editor to talk about the book I was pretty inarticulate, except to say it had to be published as soon as humanly possible—because the one thing I was clear about was my sense of driving urgency. The contract itself took a few weeks, as these things do, but my editor and I were already hammering the book into shape. I rewrote again, adding a few thousand words that made the whole much stronger and more coherent. But that draft wasn’t done until about August—and it had changed again, and I still hadn’t had time to just sit with the book and understand it.
A boundless, fearless animal of a novel
But publishing doesn’t wait, so I had to have the big marketing meeting before I had assembled my thoughts. Given the marvellous job the marketing and publicity people at FSG had done with Hild, I was confident that between us we would figure it out. We didn’t. I kept trying to explain my thinking, such as it was, and I kept feeling this resistance; there was a baffling barrier to our communication. The senior people in the room seemed…unengaged, unwilling to wade in an help me articulate the core of the book. Halfway through the meeting I realised said senior people had not read the book and, more to the point, would not read the book. It was clear from the tenor of the conversation that they assumed assumed it would be misery lit, an endless litany of Woe-is-me that is popular in memoir—and in fiction about disabled people written by nondisabled people. It was only after I logged off the call that I understood they were trying to come up with ways to position a book they assumed they themselves wouldn’t like trying to sell a book they didn’t believe would sell. Not a happy moment.
Spine tingling…downright terrifying
The initial catalogue copy was awful: absolutely what you’d expect for a misery memoir, stuffed with pity words: victim, suffering, problem, autobiographical. The initial cover ideas were sad and lonely women in quarter profile, turning away from the world. We fixed it all eventually but not before the initial entrance into the world—and first impressions burn deep. So now we were already moving uphill. Then came the first review, from Publishers Weekly, and all my initial concerns were realised. (I wrote about that here, and more on reviews of disability fiction in general here.) I did of course get some lovely reviews—the bold quotes throughout this post are from journals such as the New York Times, Elle, Vanity Fair, the Independent, BBC Culture, Boston Globe, Seattle Times and more; you can read them here—but there were many more reviews that just didn’t happen. And it was my first (and hopefully only) novel that was not noticed at all by genre writing communities—SFF, crime fiction, queer fiction, though it could plausibly be considered as fitting the relevant parameters—or nominated for any of those awards. Could this be because it’s just not a very good book? Of course it could. But I suspect not. In the end, So Lucky won the Washington State Book Award—which is presented very late in the yearly cycle. In other words, So Lucky had been out 18 months. Coincidence? I think not. Readers and critics had had time to adjust to it, to see it as itself, for its very novel (no pun intended) self, rather than some caricature of their own bias. So Lucky is not like anything else you will have read, and my theory is that is just takes time, sometimes a long time, to grok a new thing.
Disorienting, destabilizing, and game-changing. I have never read anything like it
So, looking back, do I wish I’d chosen a slower and more deliberate approach and obviated some of that knee-jerk ableist response? No. I think the only way to get past that crap is to go through it. And now I have. Given that, and that two years have passed, I think So Lucky‘s second birthday is an opportunity to test my theory, and you can help if you’re willing. If you’ve read it once, read it again. I’d love to know how/if your perceptions of it have changed. If you’ve read (or listened to) my other novels but not this one, give it a go, and tell me if it was what you expected. Also, if you’re willing, let me know why you were reluctant to try this one when it first came out. And finally, for those of you who have read this book but n one of my others, I’d love to know what prompted you to pick this one up, and what you thought of it.
Griffith is one of the most important writers working today
To end this post, here’s the thank you speech I gave at the Washington State Book Awards:
SO LUCKY is about a woman with MS, written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is it, and it is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.
Ableism is the story we’re all, disabled and nondisabled, fed from birth: that to have intellectual or physical impairments makes us less, Other. Ableism is a crap story.
For one thing, it’s wrong. What disables a person in our culture is not impairment but society’s attitude to that impairment. We are disabled by assumptions. By, for example, the bookstore owner who, when asked why there’s no wheelchair ramp, says, with no trace of irony, “Well, none of our customers use a wheelchair.” Or the editor who says to their author, Can you make the disabled character a bit more lonely and sad, more authentic?”
Ableism is not only factually incorrect but poorly constructed, an inauthentic story told by those who have no clue. Next time you read a book about a quadriplegic who kills himself because he can’t bear to live in a wheelchair, next time you read about a blind woman whose happy ending relies upon a magic cure, ask yourself: Is the author of this story disabled?
According to the CDC, 25% of Americans has an impairment that has a serious impact on their life. One quarter. But what proportion of novels on our shelves are by and about disabled people? According to my back of the envelope calculations, about 0.00013 percent.
Ableism is a crap story. I wrote SO LUCKY to counter it. So for giving this book—this anti-ableist story—recognition, thank you.
And thanks, also, to you, my readers. For me, the whole point of writing is you and your responses.