This past week my Advance Reader Copies of my debut novel, Gina in the Floating World (She Writes Press), arrived. Although my publication date (September 25) is almost five months away, having in my possession this artifact that is my book makes it very real. I am excited, of course, and my friends and acquaintances have been generous with their congratulations.
But I also feel anxious and not just about my book’s success. I am anxious that I won’t be able to do enough of the right kinds of activities to promote it (e.g., the daily social media posts). I am anxious that only my friends will sign up to receive my monthly email updates. I am anxious that my editing didn’t catch all the repetitious phrases or continuity errors. I am anxious that being forced to slot it into a genre will limit its audience. But what I find myself most anxious about is being judged.
I know that my story isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. What novel is? The tale I tell is full of darkness, about a young American woman’s gradual slide into prostitution while she is in Tokyo pursuing a summer banking internship. (I’m not giving anything away here. That revelation is in the first paragraph of the novel.) There are notes of humor, too: confusion while confronting an unfamiliar culture (think “Lost in Translation,” the 2010 movie with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson); secondary characters whose antics are amusing. But there is no ignoring the unpleasant moments that are an important part of my protagonist’s journey.
So why should any of this induce trepidation on my part? Tension in a plot is good, yes? Thrillers are one of the hottest selling types of fiction. (But this is a coming-of-age story, too.) Aren’t we told that sex sells?
First, there are those sex scenes. Quite a few, in fact, though no real ones before page 92. My plot involves prostitution, so what would one expect? Early on, these scenes are sweet, funny, and/or erotic. But then they become strange, weird, degrading, even brutal. Maybe sex does sell, but some readers will be disgusted. And some of those readers are my friends, people who have known me as far back as my Quaker school roots, people who knew me as “Little Belle.” Will they wonder what inspired or triggered my graphic descriptions? Although all my teachers are long gone, will my school be ashamed to admit that a graduate to whom they bestowed an award a few years ago has written an X-rated novel?
Second, these scenes take place in Japan. In this era of sensitivity around appropriation, will readers feel that I am casting blame on the cultural mores of another country, that I am misrepresenting these mores in service of my story, that I am telling a story that isn’t mine to tell? The setting was inspired by my own experiences many decades ago as a bar hostess in a Tokyo suburb. The novel is set in 1981 with a naïve, first-person narrator, who may not always get it right. I don’t pretend to know much about modern day Japan, but I do have my own memories of and journal entries/letters about working as a bar hostess. I did my research on those things with which I was less familiar, such as the various kinds of establishment that make up the “mizu shobai” or nightlife world. Another author with more extensive experience in Japan reviewed my manuscript for possible misconceptions and blatant errors related to my meager attempts at using the Japanese language. But I apologize in advance for any grievous inaccuracies that remain.
Third, in this era of #MeToo, my protagonist may appear to have no self-respect. How can she not see that what she’s doing is problematic, to put it mildly, and that she is allowing herself to be objectified and manipulated? What will my feminist friends say? I was a product of the second wave of the Women’s Movement after all. I was a proud card-carrying member of the National Organization of Women. Am I putting my protagonist out there as a role model of young adulthood as she tolerates sexual harassment in service of her broader goals? Is all of this acceptable only if she eventually redeems herself? No spoiler alerts given in this post, but I do hope that readers find themes they can relate to, including finding one’s voice, roleplaying as a route to self-learning, and figuring out whom and what to trust.
As authors, we are often asked why we write what we write. In truth, I am not sure entirely where my story came from, other than its initial inspiration from a particularly intriguing episode of my life. I didn’t start out with a fully developed plot in mind or even with the idea that my protagonist would become a sex worker. Early on, a workshop leader encouraged me to heighten the drama, and so I did. I had fun writing and revising my novel. I enjoyed concocting those sex scenes. I loved doing all the research. In the end, I like it even if does go in some weird directions.
I don’t know how well-founded my fears are. Reading other authors’ blogs and posts, I know that a certain amount of self-doubt and anxiety are natural as a writer prepares for her baby to enter the world, particularly her first baby. Mine will be beautiful to me, and you, my dear readers who know me, will nod and smile at it, even if you do whisper behind my back. Some other readers may be less kind. But If my book just entertains, I’m good with that. And if it sparks conversation, so much the better. I remind myself that it was my choice to share my work with the world, a world that can be very opinionated.
So, my fellow and sister debut (or debut hopeful) authors, I leave you only with these pithy pieces of advice that I regularly give myself. Believe in yourself and your story. Do your best. Express your fears, but don’t let them stop you. Embrace your fans. Enlist the support of more experienced authors. Be prepared for a roller coaster of a ride. Hang on in there and enjoy the thrills. Remember that you have only one first time.