Chapter no 6



Last time, I learned the hard way that for most writers, the day your book goes on sale is a day of abject disappointment. The week beforehand feels like it should be the countdown to something grand, that there will be fanfare and immediate critical acclaim, that your book will skyrocket to the top of all the sales rankings and stay there. But in truth, it’s all a massive letdown. It’s fun to walk into bookstores and see your name on the shelves, that’s true (unless you’re not a major front-list release, and your book is buried in between other titles without so much as a face out, or even worse, not even carried by most stores). But other than that, there’s no immediate feedback. The people who bought the book haven’t had time to finish reading it yet. Most sales happen in preorders, so there’s no real movement on Amazon or Goodreads or any of the other sites you’ve been checking like a maniac the whole month prior. You have all this hope and energy bubbled up inside you, but none of it . . . goes anywhere.

There’s no single, crushing moment of realization when your book tanks, either. There’s only a thousand disappointments, stacked on top of one another as the days tick by, as you compare your own sales numbers to those of other authors, as you keep seeing the same signed, unbought copy sitting on the shelf of your local bookstore every time you pop in to check. There’s only a slow trickle of “sales are a bit lower than we’d expected but we hope they’ll pick up” emails from your editor, followed by total, inscrutable silence. There’s only a growing sense of dread and disappointment, until the bitterness becomes too much, until you start to feel stupid for believing that you could be an author at all.

So I learned, from the release of Over the Sycamore, not to get my hopes up.

But this time feels special. This time I learn again how vastly different the world is as experienced by writers like Athena. The morning of my launch day, Eden has a massive crate of champagne delivered to my apartment. Congratulations, reads the attached handwritten note from Daniella. You earned it.

I extract a bottle from the wrapping, take a selfie as I hold it up, and upload it to Instagram with the caption: TODAY’S THE DAY! Feeling grateful, overwhelmed, and nervous. Blessed to have the best team in the business. It gets two thousand likes in an hour.

Watching those hearts pile up gives me the flood of serotonin that I’ve always hoped for on launch day. Throughout the morning, strangers keep tagging me in congratulations posts, reviews, and photographs of my book on the New Releases pile at Barnes & Noble, or face out with a recommendation tag at their local indie bookstores. One bookseller tags me in a literal pyramid of her books, captioned: DETERMINED TO SELL 100 COPIES OF THE LAST FRONT ON DAY ONE! WITNESS MEEEE

Common wisdom says that social media is a bad metric for gauging how well a book is doing. Twitter doesn’t reflect the larger book-buying ecosphere, for example, and books that seem to be getting lots of hype are usually explained by an overactive Twitter presence by the author’s team. Likes and followers don’t necessarily translate into sales.

But shouldn’t all this hype signal something? I’m reviewed in NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. With Over the Sycamore, I’d felt lucky to even get a Kirkus review, and that had been little more than a plot summary. Meanwhile, everyone’s talking about The Last Front like they know it’s going to be a hit. And I wonder if that’s the final, obscure part of how publishing works: if the books that become big do so because at some point everyone decided, for no good reason at all, that this would be the title of the moment.

Arbitrary as it is, I’m glad that it’s working for me.

That night, I have a launch event scheduled at Politics and Prose near the Waterfront. I’ve been here a dozen times as part of the audience. It’s the kind of bookstore that ex-presidents and celebrities speak at on book tours; a few years ago, I came here to see Hillary Clinton give a reading. Athena

did the launch for her debut here. When Emily told me she’d booked me at P and P, I’d shrieked at my screen.

I have to steel myself before I walk through the doors. My publisher for Over the Sycamore set up a “multi-city” bookstore tour for me, but each store I visited never had an audience of more than ten people. And it is painful, truly painful, to struggle through a reading and Q&A when people keep leaving in the middle of your sentences. It’s even worse to sit and sign a pile of unpurchased stock after the events, while the store manager hovers and makes awkward small talk about how it’s probably because it’s the holidays, and people are busy shopping, and they didn’t have quite enough time to advertise that the attendance numbers were so low. After the second stop I wanted to call it quits, but it’s more humiliating to cancel a book tour altogether than to struggle through it, minute by minute, your heart sinking the entire time as you realize your irrelevance, your foolishness to ever hope.

Tonight, though, the store is packed—there’s so little standing room, people are sitting cross-legged in the aisle. I almost walk back out. I hover at the entrance, checking my phone, making sure the time and date are right, because this can’t be real. Did I mix my reading date up with Sally Rooney’s? But the store manager sees me and ushers me into the back office, where he offers me a water bottle and some mints, and then it sinks in—this isn’t a mistake, this is real, and all these people are here to see me.

Applause echoes around me as I walk out to the front. The store manager introduces me, and then I take my place at the podium, knees trembling. I’ve never spoken to this many people in my life. Thankfully, I’m set to do a reading before the Q&A, so I have a moment to get my bearings. I’ve selected an excerpt from the very middle of the book—a self-contained vignette that will serve as an easy entry point for the audience. More important, it’s one of the scenes that was largely written by me. These are my sentences, my brilliance.

“‘The British officer assigned to direct the men of Ah Lung’s squadron seemed perpetually afraid that these foreigners would turn on him any moment.’” My voice trembles but steadies. I cough, take a sip from my water bottle, and keep going. I’m okay. I can do this. “‘“Keep ’em contained,” his colleague had advised upon his station. “They do good work, but you’ve got to make sure they don’t become a general nuisance.” So he ordered that the men were not allowed to leave their barbed-wire

enclosure for any reason without express permission, and Ah Lung spent his first few weeks in France tiptoeing around warning bells and trip wires, wondering why, if he was here to aid the war effort, he was being treated as a prisoner.’”

It goes over so well. You can tell when you have command of a room. There’s a certain hushed silence, a tension, like you have a grappling hook in everyone’s chest and the lines are pulled taut. My voice has smoothed out; it’s clear, attractive, and wobbly enough to make me seem vulnerable and human, yet composed. And I know I look good in the gray leggings, brown boots, and tight burgundy turtleneck I chose for this night. I’m a Serious Young Author. I’m a Literary Star.

I finish reading to enthusiastic applause. The Q&A goes equally well. The questions are either softballs which give me a chance to show off (“How did you balance research for such a niche historical topic with your day job?” “How did you make the historical setting feel so rich and realized?”) or baldly flattering (“How do you stay grounded while being so successful at such a young age?” “Did you feel any pressure after receiving such a major book deal?”).

My answers are funny, articulate, thoughtful, modest:

“I don’t know that I’m balancing anything. I still don’t know what day of the week it is. Earlier tonight I forgot my own name.” Laughter.

“Of course everything I wrote in college was utter tripe, because college students don’t know how to write about anything other than the romance of being a college student.” More laughter.

“As for my approach to historical fiction, I think what I’m drawing from is Saidiya Hartman’s technique of critical fabulation, which is a way of writing against the grain, of injecting empathy and realism to the archival record of a history that feels abstract to us.” Thoughtful, impressed nods.

They love me. They can’t look away from me. They’re here for me, they’re hanging on to my every word, the whole of their focus is consumed with me.

And for the first time it really sinks in that I did it, it happened, it worked. I have become one of the chosen ones, one deemed by the Powers That Be to matter. I’m riding high off my rapport with the crowd, laughing when they laugh, riffing off of the wording of their questions. I’ve forgotten about my stilted, prewritten answers; I’m going completely off the cuff

now, and every word out of my mouth is clever, adorable, engaging. I’m killing it.

And then I see her.

Right there, in the front row, flesh and blood, casting her own shadow, so solid and present that I can’t be hallucinating. She’s dressed in an emerald-green shawl, one of her signature looks, looped over her slender frame in such a way that makes her shoulders look thin, vulnerable, and elegant all at once. She’s slouched gracefully against her plastic pull-out chair, pushing her shiny black locks back over her shoulders.


Blood thunders in my ears. I blink several times, hoping desperately she’s an apparition, but every time I open my eyes she’s still there, smiling expectantly at me with bright, berry-red lips. Stila Stay All Day, I think wildly, because I know this, because I read that stupid Vogue feature with Athena’s makeup tips a dozen times before my launch. Beso shade.

Calm down. Perhaps there’s some other explanation. Perhaps it’s her sister, someone who looks exactly like her—a cousin, a twin? But Athena doesn’t have a sister, or any extended family in her generation; her mother had made that very clear. It was just me and my daughter.

The spell breaks. Dizzy, dry-mouthed, I stumble through the rest of the Q&A. I’ve lost whatever hold I had over the audience. Someone asks me whether any of my coursework at Yale influenced The Last Front, and suddenly I can’t remember the names of any classes I’ve ever taken.

I keep glancing down at Athena, hoping she’ll have disappeared and that she was a trick of my imagination, but every time I do she is still right there, watching in that cool, inscrutable way of hers, judging every word that comes out of my mouth.

Then the hour’s up. I sit through the applause, trying desperately not to faint. The store manager guides me over to a table at the front of the signing line, and I force a grin on my face as I greet reader after reader. There’s an art to smiling, making eye contact, making small talk, and signing a book without misspelling your own name or the name of the person you’re personalizing it to. I’ve had some practice at prerelease stock-signing events now, and on a good day I can juggle it all with only one or two awkward silences. Today, I keep fumbling. I ask the same person “So, how’s your evening been?” twice, and I flub one customer’s name so badly that the store offers them a free replacement copy.

I’m terrified Athena will appear before me, book in hand. I keep craning my head to search for her green shawl in the line, but she seems to have vanished.

Has no one else noticed? Am I the only one who’s seen her?

The store staff can tell something is wrong. Without consulting me, they rush the rest of the signing line along, reminding everyone to keep their questions short as it’s getting late. When we’re done, they don’t ask me out to dinner or drinks; they merely shake my hand and thank me for coming. The store manager offers to call me an Uber back to my apartment, and I gratefully accept.

At home, I kick off my shoes and curl into bed.

My heart races; my breaths are shallow. My brain buzzes so loudly that I can hardly hear my own thoughts, and I feel a tug at the base of my skull, like I’m withdrawing into and then away from my body. I can feel a panic attack oncoming—no, not oncoming, peaking; I’ve been low-key suffering an attack for the past hour, and I’m only now in an environment private enough to experience the full range of symptoms. My chest constricts. My vision fades to a pinprick.

I try going through the checklist Dr. Gaily taught me. What do I see? This beige comforter, stained on one side with my foundation and streaks of my mascara. What do I smell? The Korean food that I ordered for lunch today that’s still sitting out on the table because I was too jittery before the event to eat; the clean detergent scent of my freshly laundered sheets under my nose. What do I hear? Traffic outside, my own heartbeat in my eardrums. What do I taste? Stale champagne, since I’ve just noticed the half-empty bottle from this morning.

It all brings me back down a bit, but my mind is still racing, my stomach still curdling with nausea. I ought to stumble to the bathroom, should at least take a shower and wipe off all this makeup, but I’m too dizzy to get up.

Instead I reach for my phone.

I search Twitter for Athena’s name, and then my own, and then our names in conjunction. First names only, last names only, first and last names; hashtag, no hashtag. I search for mentions of Politics and Prose. I search for the Twitter handles of every bookstore staff member whose name I remember.

But there’s nothing. I’m the only one who saw Athena. All everyone’s talking about on Twitter is how brilliant the event was, how passionate and articulate I sounded, and how very excited they are to read The Last Front. My search for “June+Athena” yields only one new tweet in the past hour, written by someone I assume is a random audience member:

Juniper Song’s reading from The Last Front tonight was absolutely gorgeous, and it’s clear why she feels this book is a homage to her friend; indeed, as she spoke about her creative process, it felt as if Athena Liu’s ghost was right there in the room with us.

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