Chapter Two Starts at Age 50!
I recently found a drawing from when I was a lot younger. It showed me with a husband and two children. In the picture, I am holding a book that I had written. Just before my 50th birthday this early dream for my life came true: my first novel, co-authored with Sarah Pekkanen, debuted at number 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list! After a wonderful 20- year career as an editor at Simon and Schuster, I took the courageous leap to try to fulfill my lifelong ambition to be a writer. Here is my story:
As an editor at Simon and Schuster I had built a roster of wonderful authors—mostly fiction writers and many of them, women. I had a great boss and was comfortable in this position—nothing was wrong. Yet, after two decades, I was itching for a change. The struggle was leaving my job: I am not a risk taker by nature, and I was afraid of failing. I had been a successful student and then a well-established editor. I also contributed to my family’s finances. But at that point in my life, I realized that if I didn’t try it then, it was unlikely to happen. While 50 isn’t “old”, it is a good time to start a next chapter if you have the inclination.
The Next Chapter
Luckily, I married an entrepreneurial, risk taker who has a “go for it” attitude. Years earlier, he had started a business with money we withdrew from my 401K plan! He encouraged me to take the plunge and said that it was my turn. Honestly, I didn’t know if I had it in me to be a writer. I had a 50- page manuscript that had been in my computer for a long time. I decided to give myself three months to try to write and see if I even liked it. With a family to help support, I didn’t have the luxury to wait ten years for my muse to emerge. I’ve also found that setting deadlines motivates me. I love a “to do” list.
During my tenure as an editor I had worked on seven books with the novelist Sarah Pekkanen. We had discovered over that time that we had a lot in common. Both of us had studied Psychology and Journalism in college; we were terrible cooks; and we are both close to our brothers who are both named Robert! We developed a deep friendship over the years and stayed in touch after I left my job. She was one of the few people to whom I had confessed that I wanted to write a novel. I asked if I could pick her brain as I tried to brainstorm my plot. She took this one step further and said, “why don’t we write a book together?” I wasn’t sure— at first, I thought I should push myself to go it alone. I asked her if I could think about it.
Twelve hours later I emailed Sarah and said I was in. I realized that though I had been an editor, I didn’t know how to write a book. I thought at the least this would be a master class. I told her we would sign a “prenup,” essentially saying that if it didn’t work for her, she could back out with no hard feelings. She said the same should be true for me. I somehow felt she was taking the bigger step since she had already written seven books. Sarah took a risk on our partnership, and we jumped off the cliff holding hands together.
Sarah lives outside of Washington, DC and I live in Manhattan. Our first decision was, “what are we going to write”? We both went to our bookshelves and pulled down our favorite books. There was a lot of overlap, and we noticed many of the titles were psychological thrillers with strong female protagonists. We decided that we would focus on similar types of stories.
We got together in New York, sat side-by-side in a hotel with our laptops and started writing. It was a magical 36 hours – kind of like falling in love. We wrote 15 pages that we thought were fabulous and submitted them to our agent who told us they were, “uh pretty terrible.” But we carried on and the result of that effort was the blockbuster hit The Wife Between Us. We then went on to write An Anonymous Girl, which was published last year. We’re thrilled that our third book—You Are Not Alone—has just gone on sale.
Our routine is that we get our kids off to school, open our laptops and call each other on Google hangouts. We then do all our work in a shared Google document so we can see the same document in real time. We say the third partner in our relationship is Google! We talk and talk endlessly, build on each other’s ideas, and basically creep each other out. We are very disciplined, but we also laugh a lot.
There’s great accountability in having a partner: you can’t be on Instagram or doing your laundry when someone is on the other line. And I’m a believer in the power of women joining forces. Our motto is “better together.” Sometimes it’s very hard—once we had to get rid of about a third of a book, but it was truly for the best. The book just wasn’t jibing. People ask how we resolve differences, and our approach is that if something isn’t working for one person then it isn’t working for both of us.
The night the New York Times bestseller list came out, and we were waiting to learn where our first book The Wife Between Us had landed, we were in our separate cities, each with a glass of wine in hand. We were philosophical and said that no matter what happened we were in this together for the long haul and that the journey was the most important thing. Still we shrieked with joy when we found out that we debuted at number 2! Soon after the book came out, Steven Spielberg’s company bought the movie rights and we were asked to write the screenplay. True to form, Sarah said “yes” right away, and I had to think about it.
We are now working on the screenplay, and our second book, An Anonymous Girl, and You Are Not Alone have also been optioned for TV. We are truly an example of “better together.” Neither of us would have had this level of success alone, and we express gratitude for each other every day. I truly don’t know what I’d be doing now if we hadn’t formed this partnership.
One of the things I have learned during my 50+ years is to surround myself with good, smart people who bring out the best in me. I am by nature, intimidated by change but two of the most important people in my life (my husband and Sarah) help me to embrace it. My advice to others is to find those people: there is no time for people who make you feel less than.
Often people comment that I am an “overnight success.” I remind them that I actually had been working in the publishing industry for 20 years: I knew the business, the editors and had put in my time. My advice to others contemplating a change is to think hard about your motivation for doing it and to give yourself a deadline. Things that can be done in an undefined amount of time often don’t get done. I also wouldn’t advise quitting a job without a plan!
I love Gretchen Rubin’s writing and podcasts on happiness. One of the things she recommends is to think of who you envy because it will give you insight about where you want to be. For me the answer was that I envied people who had been working in one industry and then had the courage to write novels. Now at 52 I have the life I once coveted. This seems like the perfect time to realize and live my dream.
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