In the last few months, I've been lucky to read two truly outstanding books - the kind of books that remind me of my childhood, when reading was the biggest adventure I knew. The first, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, is a lusciously imagined fantasy about magic, creativity, and the power of love. The second, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, is quite a different animal, a brilliant dystopic science fiction opus set in Bangkok, which demonstrates an incredibly perceptive understanding of Thai culture and the Thai psyche. I was so impressed by both these books that I've already bought three copies of the first and one of the second as gifts for other people who I think will appreciate them.
This post isn't about those books, though. I've already reviewed The Night Circus on Goodreads, and I'll definitely be doing the same for The Windup Girl. I want to say a bit about the authors of those books.
Both Erin Morgenstern and Paolo Bacigalupi have rocketed to fame in their respective genres, on the strength of their first published novels. When you read interviews with them, both sound slightly bemused by their successes. The Night Circus began its life as a Nanowrimo project, believe it or not. It's fascinating to read Ms. Morgenstern's comments about how different that initial draft was from the final book, and how many years of work it required to reshape it into its final form.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bacigalupi had four unpublished novels under his belt when he finally managed to find someone to buy The Windup Girl. Much to his astonishment (at least if one believes his interview), the book went on to win both the Nebula and the Hugo awards in 2010, as well as a number of other prestigious prizes.
Reading these accounts of unexpected literary notoriety makes me realize that the people who win this crazy publishing lottery aren't necessarily superstars. They're authors, just like me (and possibly like you). Certainly in the case of these two writers, the accolades they've received are well deserved. However, there's a lot of chance that comes into play in determining who becomes a best-seller and who remains obscure. It's not (I've come to realize) something fundamental. I usually assume that my work isn't best-seller material. But then, who knows?
A common theme in the commentary I've read by these two authors is that now, everyone wants them to write a sequel, or at least another book in the same general style. Both appear to be quite resistant to this, and I applaud their independence. That's one problem with writing a best seller. You get a lot of pressure to produce more of the same, even if that isn't where your muse is leading you.
Anyway, next time you find yourself daydreaming about meeting and kowtowing to Stephen King, or Anne Rice, or Danielle Steele, or whomever you personally worship as a literary god, remember - they're just writers like the rest of us. They have the same problems banging out books. They face the same competition we all struggle against. They have to do promo when they'd rather be writing, just like you and me.
There's nothing magic about success. It's a combination of skill, luck, and damned hard work.
Who knows which of us might be the next E.L. James?