My novel published yesterday. Here’s why I wrote it

My novel debuted yesterday. Here’s a post I wrote for SheReads:

If you’d told me five years ago I’d publish a novel and shoot a TV pilot in the same month, I would have laughed.

If you’d told me they’d both be about faith, I’d have laughed so hard I’d have the hiccups for hours.

No one I know would describe me as religious. I was raised Catholic and practiced into my 30s, but Catholics—we’re private about our faith. Forget the yells and bells of more expressive denominations; we barely manage to mumble the liturgy in Mass. We don’t thumb the Bible on the subway. We don’t praise Jesus in polite conversation. We’re outed once a year by that smudge of ash on our foreheads.

And yet.

In 2008, my mother died. She died after a long and valiant battle with cancer, each step of which my siblings and I witnessed in ever heightening despair. Nine months later, our father died of a broken heart.

My parents were the root of my faith. My father was a former Catholic priest who removed the collar to marry my mother, who had in turn converted from Buddhism. They taught me all I knew of faith and love. They remained devout till their last. As I sat weeping by her bedside at the hospital, my mother said to me: “Remember this. You are not alone. You always have Him.”

When they died, I felt forsaken.

I quit my job as a staff writer at Time magazine, and my career in journalism. Inspired by an article I had written for Time, I began Pastors’ Wives, a novel about three women whose lives were defined and dictated by faith, married as they were to pastors at a Southern evangelical megachurch. I imagined their dreams and frustrations, their trials and triumphs.

After the novel sold to Penguin/Plume, I wrote a TV pilot inspired by my father called “The Ordained.” It’s about a priest who becomes a lawyer in order to protect his family, a New York political dynasty. It was bought by CBS last fall, and we just wrapped shooting in April. We’ll find out in mid-May if it will be picked up for series.

We writers have the great privilege of writing through our issues. My crisis of faith led me to write stories that, in their recording, led me to a kind of peace.

But I’d gladly trade that for just one more sunset at the Jersey shore, joking and laughing with my family, holding my parents’ hands.

Mom and Dad

This is my mom and dad. I miss them every day.

How do you know when your novel is finished?

Answer: when it’s due.

My manuscript is due. Like, next Monday. This explains my sudden-onset insomnia. Is it ready? What does ready look like? How do you know when your novel is finished?

Deadline quote

For true.

Like many—maybe most—first-time novelists, it took me a while to push out this puppy. I first published the article on which the novel is based in 2007. I thought at the time it would turn into my second nonfiction book, a journalistic venture into the secret lives of pastors’ wives.

Then I had an awesome idea: this would make a great TV show! Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

But the freakish thing is it almost did happen. That took another two years. Finally, when that project crashed and burned in a spectacular ball of vomit-fire, my book agent said to me: “You have over two years of reporting. You have the characters. You have the plot. Why not just write a novel?”

Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

I tried to find a clue. I took workshops at Mediabistro. I read Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I reread dozens of novels I admire to figure out how real novelists did it.

And then I sat down and started writing.

That was in the fall of 2009. I know this because I have a Word document dated September 2009. Even though it’s titled, “Pastors’ Wives Draft 1,” it consists of exactly three paragraphs.

So when I say “I sat down and started writing,” what I mean is I sat down and started writing and then stopped and made tea and went out to L.A. and came back and started again. Everything interrupted. I pecked away. A few pages here, a chapter there. My agent read a draft, then another, then another.

By the close of 2011, I had a manuscript. It sold in February 2012. My editor at Penguin turned it around with notes in mid-April. They were good notes, thoughtful and smart, not a gutting that would drive me to drink (more). I tweaked. I rewrote. I deleted.

And now, it’s due.

My friend Joe Gangemi, the novelist and screenwriter, told me that John Irving is still correcting his own punctuation at readings of long-ago works. My novel’s no “Owen Meany,” but still, I can’t imagine ever reading it without wincing.

How do you know when your novel is finished? Maybe never. But as it says on a paperweight my sister once gave me, the ultimate inspiration is the deadline.