You talked about taking the writing path early on and not experimenting in other careers. How have you made your living? Strictly writing or have you supplemented your income with other work?
It’s nearly impossible for anyone, certainly any writer starting out, to make a living strictly as a writer. You have to take other jobs. When I was fresh out of graduate school, I thought rather naively that it would be easy to find a teaching job, and that I would use the connections I’d made in my MFA program to find an agent. In reality, I left without any insider connections, and, because I wanted desperately to make a life in Montana, I found myself in a town of 3,000 where most of the jobs available were in the cattle industry.
I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel, and for years as a maid in people’s homes. Nobody cared that I had an MFA or a novel that I was hoping to have published. I was the person who cleaned their toilets. It was extremely hard, low paying, backbreaking work – but there was time to think, and I was, in a sense, invisible. Nobody pays attention to the maid. So you get a real sense of how people behave, in their best and worst moments, when they think no one is watching. That was invaluable for me.
There was a time when I flirted with becoming a veterinary technician, but I just didn’t have it in me, either the scientific knowledge or the nerve for it. So, no, I suppose I never considered any career other than writing. But it’s a constant scramble to make it pass for a living, and I suspect it always will be. You write as much as you can, and you vary your material. You freelance, you tutor and teach when you have the chance. And you scrape by. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for me, I came to a point when I realized that if I let myself, I would be cleaning houses for the rest of my life, without time to see if I could make it as a writer. I decided to jump into the ocean. For the present, at least, I’m still paddling around.
You mentioned being encouraged by teachers. How about your parents – were they hopeful about your writing? What have they said about your novel?
“Hopeful” might not be the best word. Supportive, yes. I’ve found in talking to other writers that unless one’s parents were also writers, there is often the sense that writing is more of a hobby than a career. My father always suggested that I write “on the side,” secondary to a solid job. Sound advice, but fortunately or unfortunately, I was born believing that writing is as important as eating or sleeping. It wasn’t just a dream for me or a hobby, being a writer. I treated it like one would treat becoming a chef or a social worker. I worked at it. My mother respected it more than my father, but for her it was the myth of the muse, the fantasy that I would write when inspiration struck, and when I did, it would be autobiographically about the family, about our neighborhood. I think my folks are still mystified by what I do, and I suppose I can’t blame them for that. It’s a strange art and a stranger business.
Believe it or not, we’ve barely talked about the book with each other. When I call them, they are far more interested in whether I’m maintaining my car or going to the dentist regularly.
How did it happen that you were published with Pegasus? How did you find them? Do you have an agent?
My agent is Mollie Glick, of Foundry Literary + Media. When I was first starting out, I really didn’t know how to find an agent, though I had my Writer’s Market and the listings in Writer’s Digest. I did a search for the agents who represented my favorite authors, and I queried them. After about six months or so, I signed with Mollie. And way down the line, after many months of revisions, she sent the book out to various publishing houses, and Pegasus was one of them. It was a lot of patience, frustration, elation, perseverance, and luck, and a lot of people working hard on my behalf.
You had quite a schedule of touring in 2010. Did you expect the busyness? Was it exciting, tiring, encouraging to be on the road so often and speaking?
I can’t say it was unexpected because for the most part, I planned it. As a debut author with a small publisher, it was my responsibility to orchestrate the tour and promote the book on my own. I was determined and happy to give 100 percent of my efforts to that end. Sometimes I’m asked if it’s frustrating not to have someone do those things for you, to book events, to plug you into the publicity machine. Of course it is, but there’s also a tremendous amount of freedom. In the end, no one’s going to work harder than I am.
It was exciting, tiring, encouraging, discouraging, scary, all of those things. Honestly I thought I’d be terrified throughout, the idea of all that public speaking, but I really got comfortable and more confident as it went on. I was supremely lucky to have my husband by my side for nearly all of the tour, rounding up people in bookstores and on the streets. I couldn’t have done it without him. I’ll miss touring, meeting readers and booksellers, traveling, all of those things when the events end and it’s time to hunker down. What I won’t miss is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to write while you’re on the road.
What other ways are you promoting yourself?
I use social media as much as possible – I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Red Room, Goodreads, and I try to maintain an active presence. I post my work, essays and short stories, and I blog. I contribute to The Nervous Breakdown, The Millions, and Matador which are all terrific websites in terms of their content and their ability to nurture writers. I made a book trailer early on, had a website designed, made posters and bookmarks, did radio interviews. Basically, I keep my eyes open, and I say yes to opportunities that come my way.
This is a 3-part interview with author Elizabeth Eslami. Hope you’ll also read Part 1 and Part 3.