i have dreamed of writing a book since i was a little girl and my aunt, who i looked up to more than pretty much anyone, worked in the university library. i couldn't have been more than six or seven years old when she taught me how to use the microfiche and the card catalog and i'd spend hours upon hours wandering through the stacks. right then and there, i fell in love with books and wanted to create one of my own one day.
i've wanted to write a book since tom dorman
, my high school cross country coach and eleventh grade honors english teacher, introduced me to a magazine called the new yorker, gave me great novel after great novel to devour, read me poetry on a daily basis, and passed on his addiction to keeping a journal. to him, there was no other life than a literary life, and so the same became true for me. because of him, i knew i'd enter college as an english major, with ambitions to start writing new york times best sellers immediately upon graduation.
when my uncle got sick and my family went crazy trying to cure him, a family friend came from halfway across the world. he was a healer, and brought with him his toothless, weathered, hindu guru. it was one of the most emotionally wrought times in my life--there was so much anger, so many tears. the guru took me gently by hand to a quiet corner and asked to read my palm. so much good news flowed out from his lips that i assumed he was a total quack. he told me that the dreams of all of the books i'd write, of having a family and children, of being healthy and wealthy and living a long life would all come true. i didn't know whether or not to believe him, so i just wrote it all down.
when i was 20 years old, interning in the kitchen at chez panisse and still entertaining dreams of graduating college only to start writing best-selling chapbooks of poetry, i remember being so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that cooks were required to know that i would go home each evening with a headache. on top of all of the techniques, the fact that the menu changes daily according to the seasons meant that i might be assigned a task one day and not repeat it for weeks, months, or even a year. the maze of information seemed impenetrable and i felt like i'd never learn everything i needed to know to become a good cook.
but then, one day i began to see the forest through the trees. i realized that everything we cooked in that kitchen had a few basic things in common: attention was always paid to salt, fat, acid and heat. it didn't matter where the roots of the dishes we cooked lay. salt, fat, acid and heat were always the most important elements to attend to. i decided then and there i'd write a book elucidating these four magical variables for other novices; why didn't anyone ever tell home cooks that understanding how to use salt, fat, acid and heat was enough to get you 90% of the way to deliciousness? my book would be short--twelve pages at most--and clear. after reading it, everyone would be a better, more confident cook.
then i remembered i was twenty and that no one would buy my book. so i shelved that idea. that was thirteen years ago.
in 2009, i started teaching michael pollan cooking lessons as part of the background research for his forthcoming book, Cooked
. that's its own whole story, and i'll write about that eventually, but michael quickly picked up on my obsession with these four elements and asked me about it. i explained to him the way i think about them every time i set out to cook, and he encouraged me to turn my philosophy into a four part series of classes, and then a book.
since october of 2011, i have been working on my book proposal. it's been through not one, but four iterations. in that time, i have been to china and cuba, torn my meniscus, been doored on my bike, had knee surgery, cried sixty four days in a row, spent months eating mostly dried beans in an effort to save money, and alternately tried to be michael pollan, tamar adler and john mcphee to no avail. i also drove myself insane trying to find the "perfect" agent.
i also started stalking, with great intensity, the inimitable wendy macnaughton
, and begged her to consider illustrating my book. i've been a fan of hers for a few years, and just knew in my heart that we could make an AMAZING book together one day.
and then a series of extraordinary events led me first to the legendary binky urban, who gave me loads of invaluable advice, and then to kari stuart, my magical, brilliant agent from heaven. i met with her in november (more than a year after i'd started writing) and showed her what i had, what at the time seemed to me to be a complete and utter mess that would never come together in any sort of meaningful way. kari, like one of those crazy rubik's cube masters, sat down with me at city bakery and drew a few lines on a piece of paper that somehow turned a pile of a hundred pages of blathering into a structured outline and proposal. she sent me on my way to put on a few finishing touches and continue stalking wendy, and i left with a goal to finish by the end of january.
so after cuba, i came home, hid underground, and wrote my heart out. and i continued stalking wendy. finally, she gave in and agreed to illustrate the book. i'd imagined that an illustrated book about food would be a tough sell, so i really wanted to have the proposal illustrated to give the publishers the same experience i hope to give my readers. so wendy and i collaborated on a few charts and illustrations, she hand-lettered all of the titles and headings, and my angel-friend sarah adelman (née pulver) designed it all into an amazingly gorgeous document.
three weeks ago today, kari sent it out to the world. the very same day, we started getting enthusiastic YESes back from publishers asking to meet. so i used a kajillion points to buy a ticket to nyc for a super secret whirlwind trip, and i got there two monday mornings ago on the red eye. i went straight to my friends' house, took a shower, and rushed to meet kari at haven's kitchen. we jumped around for a minute about the fact that there was SO MUCH INTEREST in my book, and then we were off, to meeting after meeting after meeting.
as someone who has been devoted to books my entire life, the experience of going to all of those meetings at publishing houses was pretty much the most life-affirming thing i have ever done. for three and a half days, i met with people who love, make, and understand books better than anyone else. i sat in rooms filled floor to ceiling with books. i was given stacks and stacks of books as gifts. and most amazingly, i was addressed by people i have respected my entire career as a person who has many books in me. they told me i have a way with words, and my heart almost exploded from joy. they saw me as a WRITER, and i started to believe that it could really be true. more than once in meetings i teared up from the joy of being seen as what i have wanted to be my entire life.
and as if that wasn't enough, they all loved the proposal. they all got it. i'd shown up ready to have to defend many of my unorthodox choices, but never really had to. not once. they all got my vision. for the first time, my ambition wasn't something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be proud of. it was incredible. there was just so. much. praise. if this had happened at another time in my life, i might not have been strong enough to take all of the praise. one editor emailed my agent to say, "i might die if i don't get the chance to publish this book." take that and multiply that times 1,000. that's what was going on for an entire week.
selling a book is like the most insane game of poker you could ever imagine. there is so much secrecy and strategy. i could never be in that business for a living, but kari is brilliant at it. she looks so unassuming, a lovely midwesterner at heart with the best new york style. she looks so sweet. but really, she is an evil genius. offers started to come in, and she was just stone-faced. i was having meltdowns multiple times a day, and she never faltered. the whole thing, meetings and all, lasted a week. my auction was last monday, and luckily i was working 24/7 from the minute i got back to california on thursday night, because otherwise i would have gone insane waiting things out.
i was also lucky to have connected emotionally with so many great editors, but there was one in particular i couldn't stop thinking about. mike szczerban
at simon & schuster. he's young, hungry, and so very intelligent and thoughtful. i left his meeting feeling like he was the kind of person i'd be stoked to talk about books with for the rest of my life. i knew we had an amazing intellectual connection, and that we could make a really beautiful book (and more!) together. all weekend long, i was rife with nerves hoping he'd come back and fight for me.
on saturday, i saw michael p. and he told me to be smart, to not get swept away in all of the amazing stuff they were all telling me they'd do for me, and to make the decision of which editor to go with based on what would benefit me most in the long run. he also said, somewhat quixotically, that once all of the bids were in, the best choice would become clear. sunday night, i had an incredible chat with my friend laurel braitman
and she gave me similar advice: choose who you can see yourself making the best book with. the pr, the money, all of that other stuff is secondary.
my whole life, i have made decisions based on who i want to work with and what kind of work i want to do. i've turned down a lot of six-figure jobs because i knew i'd be unhappy doing the work they involved. i've consciously entered times of financial struggle in order to do the work i want to do most. neither writing or cooking are financially lucrative, but in both i have careers that fulfill me and bring me into the company of people who inspire me on a daily basis. and so, i knew that i could never make the decision of which publisher to go with based on money or praise or promised fame.
i went to bed knowing that i'd choose mike. and on monday morning, that's exactly what i did.
i called wendy and we melted with laughter and disbelief.
i had breakfast with alex and she read aloud the four-page letter mike had sent with his offer while i sat in the garden crying.
i went to work and jumped up and down with my writer ladies.
then i went and had a massage. when i got out, kari said i could finally call mike.
so i called him and we squealed together for ten minutes. we traded stories of how anxious we'd been over the weekend, and just celebrated that we get to work together. now, i get to write the book that has been in me for thirteen years. now, i get to do the thing i have wanted to do more than anything else my entire life. I GET TO WRITE A BOOK! and i get to do it with a team of people i couldn't love or respect any more--kari, mike, meg, marie and of course wendy.
i have never been so happy. i'd thought that this kind of thing would happen only in my dreams. it turns out, my life has become the very best kind of dream.