I met Victoria Brown at the fabulous Christamore House Guild Author Book and Author Benefit the week her first novel released. Publisher's Weekly calls Grace in the City a "troubling and touching novel" in which "the language of the Caribbean sings through the pages." Her story of how her novel came to be published involves a mentor ... and a lot of patience and hard work wedged into a very full life. Enjoy! - Meg
In the fall of 2001 I found myself at the University of Warwick studying for an MA in Post-colonial Literature. I’m not sure that an independent set of actions landed me in England. As an undergrad at Vassar a wonderful mentor who never quite heard me say I wanted to write fiction took me on. I was already in my mid-twenties and my mentor didn’t think I should waste any more time. She plotted my path to an academic future: MA and PhD, conferences and a Post-Doc fellowship, and eventually a position at a respectable university teaching Caribbean Literature. It was a good life, she told me. Once I had tenured job security, I could pursue my writing dream.
Lest I overestimate being led, let me state that I went along quite willingly with this plan, except for the part about waiting until tenure to work on my fiction. The dream of writing seemed entirely plausible to me, but I did feel as if I had to write and publish something before I could assert to anyone that I was in fact a writer.
I worked hard at the MA but it galled me to study authors in whose literary company I wanted to stand. I didn’t want to write about Folk Music and Orality as a Precursor to the Caribbean Literary Canon or offer An Analysis of the Subaltern Woman in Danticat. Maybe if I had settled on Victorian Studies or Gothic Lit the burn wouldn’t have been so intense every time I read another book about Caribbean migrants abroad or West Indian childhood. I was performing the absurd: analyzing amazing literature—Kincaid, Naipaul, Lovelace, Rhys—through the lens of a Post-Colonial theoretical framework. I wanted to luxuriate in these stories, to be influenced, and I wanted to write my own.
Inspired by all that reading I decided to “borrow” the spring semester of my MA year. In April 2002 I began to write my novel. The story had gestated for so long that the writing came almost easily and by the time I returned to New York later that summer, I’d written quite a few chapters.
That fall I began teaching English full time at a community college. There were committee obligations and meetings and students and papers. Progress on the novel stalled. I got married. We started thinking about starting a family. A mild panic set in. Every other activity was seeming to take priority over my writing.
The irony of my solution. I asked my department for an academic leave of absence arguing that a PhD would ultimately make me a more valuable employee. My chair and president agreed; my mentor was thrilled that we were back on track. I went back to Warwick where I read endlessly for my dissertation but the only writing I did was on my novel. Some of my favorite chapters were written during that first PhD year. I also became pregnant.
The exact chronology has blurred. I took a break from graduate school, came back to the States, became a mother, went back to my job: all decisions about which I felt varying degrees of ambivalence. The incompatibility of taking care of a small child and writing stumped me for a full year. But spirited away at my core, the knowledge that kept me sane and motivated was that I had a cast of characters I loved waiting patiently for me to get back to them. They trusted that I wouldn’t abandon them.
Only something had to give and it was most likely going to be my job since it couldn’t really be my child. But how to fund more writing time? My husband made the suggestion I send a few chapters of manuscript to an agent who might be able to secure me a book deal and maybe have the writing fund itself. But I didn’t feel it was ready. I needed was a grant.
Vassar has a wonderful award for a working artist not yet been recognized in her field. I contacted Nancy Willard, an English professor who had taught Writing for Children. She had ridden around campus on an old bicycle, long graying hair streaming, an Alice in Wonderland button always pinned to the bosom of her vintage dresses. She remembered in detail the stories I had written for her class. Of course she would be my reference. She was so glad I had continued to write. Had I written anything since I graduated Vassar that I might want her to read?
I reeled from study to the living room, asking my husband in a fog of disbelief whether or not I should send her my manuscript. He looked at me like I was crazy. Wasn’t this what I had been writing for, writing toward for over five years? I saw him strive for the patience to answer me with calm.
The condensed follow up is that Nancy liked my pages, asked if she could send them to her agent who then asked if I had anymore written. After reading what by then was two-thirds of the novel, she signed me to her agency. I finished the book and sold it to Hyperion/Voice. Minding Ben was published in April 2011, and the paperback has just been reissued as Grace in the City.
My original mentor hosted me as a guest author on her Public Radio book show. (Somewhere in the middle here I officially ended the quest for the PhD, had another child, and because I do seem to have a weakness for academic shelter got an MFA in fiction from Hunter College. I’m currently very open to an academic job.) I haven’t met V.S. Naipaul or Jamaica Kinkaid yet, but last Sunday I read on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Caribbean literary icon Earl Lovelace. Edwidge Danticat was also there. - Victoria
This post originally ran on 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, and other novels. 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.