[Cross-posted from my FB author page]
DIETLAND is published in the UK and Ireland today (yay!), and in honor of that (or is it “honour”?), I’m going to share a story that I’ve never shared publicly. This isn’t easy for me to do, but I think it’s important. I hope you understand that I have to be really vague on the details.
As I’ve mentioned before, I lived in London while doing a Ph.D. in English. My Ph.D. dissertation included scholarly work and creative work, and for the creative portion I submitted a significant chunk of DIETLAND.
For those who don’t know, when you finish a Ph.D., you have to defend your work, which the Americans call a “defense” and the British call a “viva.” In a viva, you don’t normally know the 2 examiners – they are complete strangers, and university professors who are supposed to be experts in your field. A viva is a terrifying experience, because the examiners could basically fail you and you could see your whole Ph.D., representing years of work and lots of money, go up in flames.
My viva was an utterly horrible experience, during which DIETLAND was essentially dismissed. One of the examiners flipped through the pages of the novel, letting each one drop as if they were made of excrement. There was such an overwhelmingly negative and hostile atmosphere that I nearly fled in tears, which is uncharacteristic of me.
It was certainly one of the worst experiences of my life. No one expects this at the culmination of a grueling, multi-year project, and what happened during the viva essentially poisoned everything that had come before. It was also my last experience of London, since I left soon after and haven’t returned. (During the viva, we also discussed my scholarly work, of course, and I received my Ph.D. after doing some revisions to that section.)
If I had taken their comments about my novel to heart, I would have likely gone home and burned my manuscript. And I do think that a different type of person might have done just that, sadly. But despite the trauma of this experience, in the following days and months, I tried to remember what I knew to be true, which is that academia encourages and rewards conformity, even in creative fields. My fiction certainly doesn’t conform, not in its subject matter or its construction, and my fat body doesn’t conform either.
Over the next 18 months, as I searched for an agent back in New York, I learned that many people in the publishing industry also prefer conformity. (This is a topic for another essay, one I will write one day.) While some of the agents I first contacted loved my writing and loved Plum, they were afraid of DIETLAND because, as one agent put it, “it doesn’t fit into the box it’s supposed to go into.” Thankfully, I later found an agent and publishers who appreciated that aspect of my work, but it made me wonder how many other outside-the-box books never make it through the gatekeepers of the publishing world.
I hate to relive these experiences, and I know I’m being cryptic here out of necessity, but the reason I wanted to share at least some of this story is to make this point, which feels especially relevant to me today: If you’re a woman, or if you’re a man from a marginalized group, never let anyone make you feel that you’re too ambitious. Never let anyone make you feel that you’re not entitled to be angry in your work, or that your work is too political, or that you need to use nicer language to express yourself. Never believe anyone when they tell you that your work needs to fit into a box. We NEED your voices. We need oppositional, defiant voices in art and literature. Break the rules of what literature is supposed to be. Question who makes the rules and who/what they ultimately serve. After many years of struggle, it’s been a thrill for me to connect with readers who needed my voice, and who value my words.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for publishing DIETLAND in the UK. I had given up hope that this day would ever come. I wrote much of DIETLAND while living in London, so it’s extra meaningful for me that my book is finally available in London bookshops as of today.
I look forward to welcoming more readers to Team Plum!