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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story—18 Months after Publication
This blog was featured on 08/27/2016
[SWP: Behind the Book] Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story—18 Months after Publication
Written by
Rebecca Coffey
November 2015
Written by
Rebecca Coffey
November 2015

In 1973 when I was 20, I drove cross-country in a beautiful, orange (borrowed) karmann ghia coupe with my friend Beth to see her father, who was a major entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. We stuffed our marijuana inside our bras when we crossed the border into Arizona because, in those years anyway, Arizona state agriculture agents searched incoming cars for vegetable matter. Though we stayed in Malibu in a lovely beach home and the weather was perfect, I don’t remember ever actually swimming. I do remember encounters we had with powerful film industry people that we met through Beth’s father. We met the legendary actor Rod Steiger, who behaved so badly at dinner that he called to apologize the next morning. On the other end of the power spectrum, we met Carol Merrill, the lovely and level-headed woman standing before Curtains 1, 2, and 3 on the TV show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

By the time Beth and I left Malibu we’d learned enough about how film people socialize to devise the term “Dream Jerks.” You see, truly influential people (OK; they were all men) often ended conversations with young women by saying something along the lines of, “You’re very beautiful. You’ll go far.” Steiger even said it to me, and I’m not beautiful—and I’ve never wanted to act. Sure, men who said things like that were just trying to be encouraging. But some people shouldn’t be encouraged. I, for example, should not be told I am woven from starlet cloth. Beth and I could only imagine that some almost-but-not-terribly-attractive-and-talented young woman might use up her savings and her parents’ retirement fund trying to live up to a potential that a thoughtlessly dropped phrase had convinced her she had.

Over the 18 months since the publication of Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story I’ve thought again about the term Dream Jerks. To understand what I’m about to say you have to stop thinking about under-employed starlets; start thinking about self-published or hybrid-published authors. Time and again these authors get told that their books could be best sellers. All the authors need to do is buy Facebook ads or follow the Amazon algorithm recommendations or speak at enough bookstores or do 200 blog interviews or keep the smiles coming while they tirelessly work social media. The authors get hype about megasales from a variety of sources. What these Dream Jerks fail to say is that authors who self-publish or bring their books to hybrid presses should have taken a valuable lesson from whatever rejection experience they may have had to swallow from agents and mainstream publishers. If a book was passed by everywhere it is probably going to have a tough time selling anywhere. Yet Dream Jerks somehow never seem to point that out to new authors.

So I will. Don’t spend your savings and your parents’ retirement funds. Your book probably isn’t a starlet.

I’m a science journalist. I’ve been getting published regularly for 30 years now. Hysterical is my debut novel but it’s my fourth book. Over the course of my career I have learned that it’s very hard to sell even well-reviewed books. I can spend a month writing an article for Scientific American or Discover and easily 100,000 people will read it. But if I spend a year—or, in the case of Hysterical, much of nine years—writing a book, I know by now that I’m going to be very lucky if 10,000 people read it, no matter how tirelessly I plug it.

You know what? It’s all right when a book doesn’t hit best seller status. Authors are artists. We create. There is joy to be had from writing, and there should be joy in publishing, too. Period. We have fun. We get some readers. They talk to us and write us. Satisfaction. Next book.

Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story was a labor of love. It has sold pretty well, though not nearly as well as the Dream Jerk in my own head told me it might. I’ve done lots of readings, gotten good reviews, and had more than my fair share of media interviews. And now, 18 months into this hybrid publishing exercise, I’m ready to take it to a larger stage. Literally.

I have a theatrical option offer from a major producer. But don’t get your hopes up. (I don’t.) It’s now in the hands of lawyers, and we all know how badly that can go.

Meanwhile, in celebration of Anna Freud’s 120th birthday, I’m producing and co-directing a staged reading of scenes from Hysterical at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre in New York City on December 2. (By the time you read this, that performance may be history.) This staged reading is not an attempt to sell books. In fact, I’m giving every audience member a free copy of Hysterical. Mostly, this reading is my attempt to say thank you to the LGBTQ community. Hysterical is about Anna Freud’s coming of age as a lesbian, and people within the LGBTQ community have given it firm support.

On December 2 we will dramatize two scenes: Scene 1 is Chapter 17 of the novel. In it Freud, suspecting his daughter to be a lesbian, analyzes her. It’s their first session together. Scene 2 is an earlier chapter, one in which Freud analyzes Rat Man, who was really and truly one of Freud’s most famous patients. In the novel the analytic session takes place in full view of Sigmund’s Wednesday Night Psychoanalytic Circle. (It will be a crowded scene on the theatre’s small stage.) At the end of the analytic session, when Freud tells Rat Man that he is now cured of his homosexuality, Rat Man reacts with surprise, pointing out that he has never been a homosexual. Freud ignores him and insists he should now feel free to dabble with women to his heart’s content. Rat Man responds with, “But I already do. To my heart’s content.” The actors in this scene are droll enough to pull off both the humor and the horror. In particular, the one who plays Sigmund Freud is a scream. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard him deliver the line, “Sipping the juice?” in a Viennese accent. Imagine it. Then go ahead. Fall out of your chair laughing.

From the box office’s Will Call list I can see that the audience will be primarily members of the LGBTQ community and social workers working with LGBTQ teenagers. After the lights go down on the second scene, two such social workers will involve the audience in a discussion about secrecy, shame, coming out, and family rejection. About 40% of the homeless teenagers in this country identify as LGBTQ.  Many got thrown out of their homes by parents horrified to learn about their child’s sexuality. Homeless teens live very dangerous lives. They’ve been told they’re disgusting and unlovable. They need housing, medical care, regular meals, job supports, and the attention of caring adults.  

You all know how hard it is to fill a room for a free reading. Well, for this event I’ve booked a 65-seat theatre and I’m charging $25/ticket. How’s that for chutzpah? Actually, it looks like we’ll sell out. Instead of pocketing the cash I’m donating 100% of it to the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing, regular meals, medical care, counseling, and life skills support to homeless LGBTQ teens.

So this is an expensive proposition for me. I’m donating 65 books. I’m paying for the theatre out of my own pocket. I’m giving away all the money. But in doing so I’m expressing gratitude for an opportunity to complete an artwork that has been the love of my creative life for a very long time. I count as blessings the book’s warm reception in the world. I’ve enjoyed whatever success the book has had, and I loved writing it and publishing it through She Writes.

We should all be as lucky as I am.

Bye for now. Have fun writing, editing, and publishing. And watch out for the Dream Jerks.

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  • Rebecca Coffey

    She Writers commenting here: Please feel free to friend me on FaceBook. I just never get around to logging in here at She Writes, and so it seems to dishonest to friend each of you here just so I can say "thanks" and disappear, virtually forever. I love talking to other writers and hearing about their projects, so if you ARE on FB, please find me! And thank you so much for posting your reactions to this piece.

  • Laurie Prim

    This post is amazing from start to finish- Dream Jerks, the reality check of your hopes making you vulnerable to scams, the joy of writing for the joy of writing, the Anna Freud story, the production, and the generosity, support, and gratitude toward the LGBTQ community. Just WOW!!

  • Julia Whitmore

    Congratulations, first, and thank you for your generosity second, and, well, thank you, third. A lot of nonfiction writers try to cross the line, and give up, or write something that doesn't get read.

    We're all storytellers, and suddenly, technology allows millions (8 million plus in the U.S. alone) to try our hand at actual books. Any one who does this has to do it for the process, and, while its important to learn the craft, it's also healthier to let go of potential outcomes. For someone like me, a late start, not a lot of practice before starting, the odds aren't good. If I was a betting woman, I'd bet against myself. Does that stop me? Not so far. It's insane. It's kind of fun. It makes me realize a lot of things -- how easily distractible I am, how bad my short-term memory is, how thinking too hard makes a story dry up and blow away, how unbelievably genius Alice Hoffman is. And Steinbeck. And Tolstoy.

    Worth it, I guess. Just don't patronize me with baloney about how anyone can do it if they apply the formula, be a presence online, build a platform, blah blah.

    Cheers. Looking forward to checking out your book. 

  • Michelle Cox

    Thanks for such honesty, Rebecca!  How refreshing.  It's good to remind myself that when I started this whole process, I really just wanted to get the book in print and have a little group like it.  But it's easy to get sucked into the PR hype - hoping for bigger and better.  You're right: the gift of creativity is not popularity, it's something that borders on the divine.  And once you feel that, it becomes worthy in and of itself.  Hope the stage readings went well!

  • Linda Kass

    Well said, Rebecca. Writing a book is a process and each stage brings satisfaction--the imagining, of course, the revising, and each step on the road to publication and connecting with audiences, large or small. I love what you're doing! Not chutzpah, just creating art and expressing gratitude. Good message for all of us--and that goes beyond self published and hybrid published authors. I hear many stories from my traditionally published friends. It's tough out there. 

  • Mardith Louisell

    So glad it's (by now) going on and a success and so many thanks for the contributions to the LGBTQ community. Met you at Zuni's in SF when you did your reading in the Castro.

  • "Dream Jerks" is priceless! I'm going to use it whenever someone approaches me with a sure way to sell thousands of copies of my upcoming memoir. It's going to be published by a small university press, but I imagine many of the same issues will arise as would with hybrid publishing. 

  • Patricia Robertson

    Yes, there are plenty of people out there ready to take our money with the promise of becoming a best seller if we just purchase their course, book, template, etc. Not only do I love the writing process, I actually enjoy the publishing process as well, now that I'm independently publishing and in control.

    Thanks for the term Dream Jerks! And the dash of reality that comes with it.