The day my publisher called, I could not remember the soup de jour. I stood there in my tuxedo and starched apron at table after table and managed to get through most of the wine selections; then my mind would go as blank as the snowy white linen. Desserts were even worse. Why, on the most momentous day of my literary life, did we have to feature chocolate timbale with fresh fruit compote and creme patisserie?
There I was one day waiting tables in a snooty restaurant and the next day there I was ... still waiting tables, the elusive shift from struggling writer to published author causing nary a ripple in the roasted red pepper coulis. Yet my whole life was different.
Getting your first book published is a weird experience. The process has an unreal feel, like stepping barefoot on magazines in the dark. It makes you crazy in ways you never thought about. Of course, it's tough not getting published, but I never imagined such a flood of anxiety after acceptance.
I've begun to read book reviews obsessively. I write sympathy notes to the damaged authors. I want to slaughter lambs, light candles, wear talismans, to insure against similar fate. I worry that my editor will die. I couldn't mail my revised manuscript from my neighborhood post office because the clerks are surly and the building too ugly. I went into a weepy fit when the galley proofs arrived because they didn't weigh enough. Suddenly this same author who was almost imperiously confident about her work, cannot decide if a character's name should be spelled with one "s" or two. I just found out that the publisher has received the first finished books from the printer. Did I want them to send me one? No, I wanted to buy a ticket to Tibet.
Suddenly, my very solitary work is being read, interpreted, handled by others. The publisher changed very little, but still, the thing is not mine anymore. The words, the characters, now belong to others, to many others. There is a picture of one of the characters on the cover and it's not at all how she looked to me.
But despite the angst, it is a wonderful feeling. There is only one letter difference from waiter to writer, but what a difference. Finally I quit the restaurant. In those last weeks whenever the chef pulled a screaming fit I just laughed. When the pompous twit of a maitre d' short-seated my station yet again, I could walk away knowing that soon I would be published, and he would stay forever.
Before, when I went to some K Street lawyer's office, it was to cater a party. Now I am a client. I have a contract to review. I am escorted down the carpeted hallways past the contemporary art to a leather chair in a pastel office. (But I still can't shake the feeling that there are 2,000 canapes around somewhere that I'm supposed to be passing out.)
For the first time in years my back doesn't constantly hurt, my feet don't ache, I'm not tending bar and I don't care what you're having for lunch. For two months now, I have been writing almost full time. (Catering and an extra housemate fill in the monetary gaps). It is a heady feeling, intoxicating, luxurious. I am turned loose. I am delirious. I feel like Pooh in a honey factory.
And yet there is still one deep overlying pain. My friends say I'm crazy to be hung up on it. I know, I know, it sounds like an inordinately pompous whine from someone who should be simply enjoying the thrill of success, but here it is. My book is ... well, it's commercial fiction. That is, it's well written, exciting, enjoyable, but it ain't "War and Peace".
I never thought of writing a mystery. I had never even read one until I was crewing on a charter yacht in the Caribbean and a prolonged spell of bad weather caused me to finish all the books I had brought. There was a stack of Robert Parker's "Spenser" mysteries on board and in desperation I read them -- one or two a day. And when I finished, I thought to myself: I can do this.
So to hell with the esoteric stuff, I decided, I'm going mainstream. I had an idea for a plot and characters, and I tossed them around for a while then sat down as often as I could between double shifts and French service for 500 and wrote my novel. I got lucky and sold it right away. It's just arrived in bookstores; hardcover, $17.95 -- and the first time I saw a copy in Olsson's, I bolted out of the store. I can't imagine why anyone would buy it. It really is good, but hell, I don't spend that much on my favorite literary authors.
It's bittersweet success, a tenuous moment of triumph, fraught with anxiety, studded with joy, dampened by a bit of shame, but it's motion and it feels good. Every night I know is mine, to pour into words instead of thinking of new ways to describe the fish of the day. I don't know how long it will last (my shirts are always pressed and hanging in the closet, my bow tie close at hand), but for now, my name is Victoria, and I won't be your waiter tonight. Victoria McKernan's first novel, "Osprey Reef," is published by Carroll & Graf.