“That was my own little MFA” — novelist Camille Pagán on frustration and success

photo-428I got to know Camille Pagán years ago when we were both young writers in NYC. I profiled her for a City Journal article on the taxonomy of self-employment (she was the quintessential “soloist”). We started having dinner together on occasion, and she started a writer’s strategy group, based on something she read in The Happiness Project. Our group met just a few times. Pagán moved to Michigan, I moved to PA, but I’ve long been hoping to re-create something like that.

Anyway, I was quite envious of Pagán back in 2010 or so because she got a large advance for a novel that became The Art of Forgetting — a tale of two friends and how their relationship changes when one suffers a catastrophic brain injury. She calls it “my accidental success story.” Getting a lot of cash for a first time novel is pretty rare. It came out in 2011 to great reviews, and lovely publicity, but, as she puts it, “I don’t think it sold as well as they would have hoped.”

So then what? How could she make the transition to career novelist?

She tried hard. Over the next few years, she wrote no fewer than 5 books that didn’t go anywhere. They were “ultimately just kind of boring,” she says. “I had thoughts that this is just not going to happen for me,” but “I couldn’t even say I was a one-hit wonder because it’s not like I sold a trazillion copies.”

Finally, on the 6th try, she started writing a tale of a woman who learns she has cancer and whose husband drops a bomb on their marriage right at the same time. She called it Life and Other Near Death Experiences. “I wrote Life out of frustration,” she says. “The protagonist is very angry and very funny. It was a product of the frustration I was having with my career. I was not writing for an audience.”

But something about it just worked. She turned it in to her agent, who called her and said “I had no idea you could write like this,” Pagán recalls. They wound up working with Amazon through the Kindle First program. As one of the promoted books last month, it got a ton of attention. It’s also highly readable — I can tell you that I ignored my kids the other night as I was reading through it to find out what happens to Libby Miller in her post-diagnosis odyssey to Puerto Rico. The book has been downloaded 200,000-plus times. You can read any of the glowing 1200+ reviews on Amazon.

An interesting note: Her five books that didn’t work were written to fulfill the expectations of being a well-reviewed, well-compensated novelist publishing with a major house. For Life and Other Near Death Experiences, “I wrote it for myself,” she says. “That’s what I plan to do for every book going forward.”

I asked Pagán what she learned through her years of frustration. She told me she learned what she did best. She’s not into literary fiction; what she does well is convey emotion. “A book that isn’t making me laugh and cry as I’m writing it is a book that isn’t going anywhere,” she says. Now that she’s written 8 books (she’s working on a new novel) she knows that “if it’s not going to move you while you’re writing it, it’s not going to move anyone else who’s reading it, no matter how good the plot is.”

Sometimes those wilderness years were hard. However, as a writer, “you keep writing in spite of your failures,” she says. “I could tell with every draft that I was becoming a better writer. That was my own little MFA. This works, this doesn’t work.” Success now means that “all those lost years weren’t for nothing.”

In other news: Back in NYC, our little writers group included Emma Johnson, the “Wealthy Single Mommy.” I was just a guest on her podcast, which you can listen to here.

In other other news: Camille often goes by Camille Noe Pagán in her magazine writing/editing life, but elected to use just the second last name on her current book because no one knew how to alphabetize the previous one. Sometimes little things matter.

11 thoughts on ““That was my own little MFA” — novelist Camille Pagán on frustration and success

  1. I read this one through Kindle First and was surprised – I don’t usually like the books I’ve chosen through them 🙂 This was a fun read.

  2. I’m deep into my first novel and was today contemplating quitting. (NaNoWriMo week two blues?) I needed to read this. Thank you.

  3. Very inspirational; I’ll have to check out her work.

    Also, when I first saw this I read her name as “Camille Paglia” and was shocked that the two of you met when you were young writers. 🙂

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