Jenny Lee   photo of Jenny Lee  


Ten years ago I got into book publishing because I loved books, and three years later I got out of the "biz," because I loved books. Don't get me wrong, working in publishing right out college was an amazing experience--the parties were cool, the gossip was great, and what English major wouldn't want access to free books--but it started to change the way I felt about books. Browsing in bookstores had been one of my favorite pastimes, but after working in publishing I started to look at books in a different way. This sounds dumb, but I actually began to judge books by their cover, meaning if I hadn't heard of the book or author than I dismissed it. I just began to know too much, and it changed what I read and how I read it.

Another reason, if not the main reason I got out of publishing was because I, like the other thousands upon thousands of English majors in the world today, had aspirations to write my own book one day. After work, late at night I toiled away on literary short stories and attempted to write the great American novel, but with little success. I just knew too much about how it all worked, so I began to over think every little thing--would the New Yorker like my characters? Was my novel idea high-concept enough to attract Hollywood? What "type" of book should I write--should I try to be hip and cool--the female Jay McInerney? Should I jump on the Amy Tan bandwagon and write about the Asian American experience since I was Korean? Should I try to write a memoir since everyone else was? So there I was in the middle of the night doodling out sketches of what type of book jacket I thought would look great (a Chip Kidd knock-off, of course) and coming up with absolutely nothing of worth.

Finally, I became so sick of my angst, and the fact that I didn't seem to have what it takes to be the proper type of starving artist writer-wannabe, that I said the hell with it all and bailed. I got myself a new "hot" job, in Internet marketing. This was in the mid '90s and the Internet was now the thing, and I rode that wave for a while enjoying the perks of the stellar economy. But as much as I loved having a big salary and a cushy expense account, I couldn't get rid of my desire to write books. Pretty soon, I grew dissatisfied with my new career and the ridiculous hours that I was putting in and soon found myself right back where I once was, which is that I wanted to write.

I now knew that the way to go was to try to come up with a non-fiction book idea, because you can sell non-fiction based on a proposal as opposed to writing an entire novel and risking that I wouldn't be able to sell it afterwards. One of my old publishing editor friends, Rob McQuilkin, had also left publishing when I did, but was now back and working as a literary agent. I started work-shopping a bunch of different ideas with him, and over and over again I hit a wall. Finally one night when we were out having dinner he stopped me in the middle of me telling him a funny story about being newly married and antics of my new husband, and said, "Have you ever thought about writing about that?"

Of course I had no idea what he was talking about so I replied, "What?" He went on to tell me that he thought some of my stories were pretty original and very funny and what about writing about my own experiences as a modern new wife. Two seconds later we were excitedly coming up with flashy sell-lines "Sex and the City gets married." "Bridget Jones finally gets married," and we knew we were on to something.

That night I went home, wrote eight pages, emailed it to him in the middle of the night and the following morning I got a one-line email back that said. "This is it." Together, we assembled the final thirty-two page proposal in less than three weeks. I now had it in my head (thanks to my marketing experience) that we had to make up for the fact that I had no clips and real writing experience with a little bit of marketing flair. The nineteen editors that we submitted my proposal too, received it on Valentine's Day. The pitch letter from my new official agent (Rob) was printed on expensive cardstock as a mock wedding invitation--we included a reception card that read "Reception immediately following on the New York Times bestseller list." We threw in some heart shaped confetti, crossed our fingers and prayed like hell.

We accepted an offer from Workman publishing on March 1, 2001. Looking back I have to believe the timing was somewhat fated (or I was damn lucky) because the Internet bubble was popping and I got laid off from my high-flying Internet job less then two weeks later. So wham, bam, I was a writer. Everything had happened so fast that I never even had thought it all through. Suddenly, I was now under contract for a humorous book of stories about my first years of marriage, and the plan was to package it up as the perfect gift for bridal showers.

Of course, instead of reveling in my good fortune that my dreams were coming true, I sort of had a mini-meltdown. What about my short stories? What about novels as high-art? Was I now a sell-out? Was I basically a younger, Asian version of the Bridges of Madison County author? Someone who figured out what the market was ready for and then just delivered it?

Yes, I always knew that I was pretty funny. Meaning I was usually the funny one of my groups of friends, the one who constantly cracked wise-ass jokes, who always had some funny story to tell, but did that mean I was going to be able to fill a whole book? When my proposal made the rounds (I got way more rejections than offers) the one thing that everyone said about my work was that I had a great "voice"--very sincere and believable. This was flattering but bizarre, because the voice was simply and literally, my own. And in terms of being sincere and believable--well sure it was believable and sincere, because it was all basically true.

For my entire twenties I had tried to come up with a "style" of writing, and as I was under intense time pressure to finish the proposal I just wrote the only way that I really knew how--which was the way I talked--chatty and conversational. I didn't have the time to ache over word choice or even sentence structure, and I didn't worry about whether I was staying true to my characters. Never once did I wonder whether my stories were "working" the way I had always been taught to in the various creative writing classes I had taken over the years. It seemed almost too easy. So instead of the worrying about the writing, I worried about the "act of writing". What about the struggling? What about the sleepless nights of pacing rooms in search of the perfect metaphor? Could I be a real writer if I didn't suffer? Would publishing a book of "lite" humor essays even make me a real writer? And of course, by what standards was I going by in my qualifications for what made a real writer, anyway?

The most difficult part of writing the book for me was the fact that I had the luxury to write all day. Yes, I was getting to live everyone's fantasy--no office day job. I hate to fall upon the green grass cliché, but I swear it's true. I had worked for ten years previous and the isolation, boredom and the loneliness of working at home alone almost killed me. I realized a lot about myself in those eight months, some good and some bad. Where I always thought I was incredibly interested in culture and the arts I realized that what I was really interested was the social aspects of culture and the arts. I didn't want to go to a museum alone and look at art, I wanted to go with friends and talk about it. When I told my friends about my newfound realizations they all just nodded like I was stating what they had known for years. They told me that I was one of the most social people they knew, so of course I was having a hard time with no social interaction during the days, and they reminded me that I had always been the queen of office gossip. They told me I had lived for it. (They're exaggerating of course, like anyone really lives for such things. Pshaw!) So what they were telling me was that they had never even seen me as this serious high-art, high-brow sort of person at all; and they didn't find it odd in the least that I was going the commercial route.

I mean, it's not that I really felt like I was ever going to be the next great critically acclaimed author extraordinaire, but to feel that I was giving up on even trying for it was an odd sensation. So was that it? No more beating myself up on my lack of true literary style? Was I no longer going to be a wannabe literary writer?

When I was younger I had written little stories all the time, and when I really thought about what I had written I realized I wasn't ever whipping out poetry or deep adolescent angst-filled brilliance. No, I had been writing about a little kitty named Blackie who lived inside a Halloween jack-o-lantern (I was like seven, okay?), I was writing about a scavenger hunt gone the way of Stephen King with people dying in quicksand and where the last thing to find was a leaf of the sacred Red Fern (okay, I was a bit older, but obviously still young), and the story in high school that won me several writing contests was about a valley girl, space cadet named Dottie Daffy Space who did time travel. Talk about a slap in the forehead--valley girls, homicidal maniacs, and Hallmark holiday fare was probably more than likely not the path that the serious writers of today ever took. But what I also recalled was how much I had once loved to write, how it was a hobby--fun, exciting, something I could do for hours just from sheer pleasure. I'm not sure when it changed, but I know it did, because in my twenties I had ceased to derive joy from my writing. I was always getting down on myself for not being like so-and-so, or good enough, and mostly not being serious enough. I guess I had it in my head that writers were very serious people, and to be one I had to act like one. Like, duh Jenny.

So as soon as I got myself all figured out again (for the time being at least) I began to write my book with a fury, and I had a blast doing it (though the rewrites were a bitch). I tried not to worry about being a sell-out or the fact that it wouldn't get reviewed in the Times. I also decided that I wasn't really a sell-out, because in the end I felt that I wrote the best book that I could, and besides it's not like I got a huge advance for it.

So now almost two years later, my book is hitting the stores. I've been blessed with a great publisher who is behind me a thousand percent and is even sending me out on a 15-city tour to promote it. They believe in the book, I believe in it, and now it's anybody's guess whether or not anyone else will. Am I scared? You bet. Am I happy? You bet. Do I wish I had written an achingly poetic literary novel that got great reviews and probably won't sell that many copies? No freakin' way (okay, maybe a little), but that's not the point. The point is that I did what I always wanted to do, I still love books, and I can now browse in bookstores the way I used to be able too

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Photo credit: George Lange