Laura Es­ther Wolf­son

Poets and Writers - - 5 Over 50 -

Age: Fifty-two. Res­i­dence: New York City. Book: For Sin­gle Moth­ers Work­ing as Train Con­duc­tors (Uni­ver­sity of Iowa Press, June), win­ner of the 2017 Iowa Prize for Lit­er­ary Non­fic­tion, a mem­oir in linked es­says that ex­plores lan­guage, trans­la­tion, cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture, Ju­daism, mar­riage, di­vorce, and ill­ness. Ed­i­tors: James McCoy, Su­san Hill New­ton. Agent: None.

IT IS uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged that writ­ing is tough—ditto get­ting pub­lished. Now add the dif­fi­cul­ties of writ­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cally: Not only must you ma­ture as a writer, but you must also ac­crue lived ma­te­rial, over­come the shame of writ­ing about self, and ne­go­ti­ate the ethics and fall­out of writ­ing about oth­ers. For es­say­ists it’s harder still, with gate­keep­ers shout­ing in uni­son, “No­body wants a col­lec­tion” all across the land. How does any es­say­ist debut be­fore age eighty?

When I was twen­tysome­thing, hav­ing ma­jored in Rus­sian dur­ing college, and flu­ent in the lan­guage, I spent a lot of time in the for­mer Soviet Union as part of a cul­tural ex­change pro­gram, and while work­ing as a trans­la­tor and in­ter­preter. I wrote about my ex­pe­ri­ences in the col­laps­ing so­cial­ist state, sent off the man­u­script, then dis­ap­peared again be­hind what re­mained of the Iron Cur­tain. I re­turned to the United States to a type­writ­ten let­ter from an agent. This was be­fore an­swer­ing ma­chines took hold. Af­ter mul­ti­ple missed calls (“Has your num­ber per­haps been dis­con­nected?” she wrote) the agent had moved on, “re­luc­tantly,” to an­other Rus­sia-themed book whose au­thor picked up on the first ring. It would be an­other quar­ter cen­tury—sev­eral world or­ders, two Cold Wars—be­fore I came that close again.

In my thir­ties I penned some skimpy vi­gnettes that didn’t co­here; in my for­ties I pro­duced a limb­less torso of a novel that no one could tell me how to sal­vage; and over the years I wrote count­less es­says that didn’t hang to­gether and didn’t need to be­cause, heed­ing the naysay­ers, I was not plan­ning a col­lec­tion, thank you very much. Spo­rad­i­cally these pieces trick­led forth into the spill­ways that bordered and ran be­tween nine-to-five jobs, el­der­care, ill­ness, an MFA pro­gram, and two Si­amese cats sprawled across my key­board, loudly purring.

At a con­fer­ence for emerg­ing writ­ers—at­ten­tive read­ers will note that I’d now been one of these for decades— some­body put my name down for agent “speed-dat­ing.” Cross me off, I said; I have no project. “Pitch!” urged the in­tern staffing the reg­is­tra­tion ta­ble. “Any old thing you’ve got in the drawer. Don’t pass up the op­por­tu­nity.” The idea for my es­say col­lec­tion was born.

No one bit that time, nor at that same con­fer­ence the fol­low­ing year, nor the next.

Con­tests beck­oned. We were well into the era of voice mail now, and some­one left a la­conic mes­sage: name, num­ber, af­fil­i­a­tion. (Vaguely I re­called sub­mit­ting there months ear­lier. I had re­al­ized the night be­fore the dead­line that the guide­lines re­quired a hard­copy sub­mis­sion, so I rushed out for a ream of pa­per plus an ink car­tridge be­fore the shops closed. I re­called a mid-De­cem­ber post of­fice so mobbed that, run­ning late for a meno­rah light­ing, I al­most bailed be­fore reach­ing the counter.) Many missed mes­sages fol­lowed un­til fi­nally I picked up the phone to a live per­son say­ing, “You won the prize; we’re pub­lish­ing your book.”

“Now,” the man added kindly, “ask me any­thing.” Au­thors do read­ings, right? So that’s what I asked about— not con­tracts, au­thor ques­tion­naires, re­vi­sion, blurbs, ac­knowl­edge­ments, cover art, cat­a­logue copy, jacket copy, copy­edit­ing, proof­read­ing, gal­leys, ARCs, mar­ket­ing, promo, pub­lic­ity, or tweet­ing. Much later, a sea­soned au­thor friend would pro­vide in­for­mal event coach­ing. (“Rule No. 1: No neck­laces; they bang the mic.”)

The post-mid­cen­tury debut car­ries zero risk of post-early-suc­cess flame­out. Ex­pec­ta­tions of wealth and glory are mod­est, keep­ing dis­ap­point­ment at bay. But if you ever doubted that pa­tience and hard work pay off, doubt no more.

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