I HIT NUMBER THREE ON THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST THE following
Wednesday. Daniella emails me with the news: Congratulations, June! No one’s surprised here, but I know you were anxious, so here’s the official proof. You did it 🙂
Brett follows up a few minutes after that. WOOOHOOO!
Emily in publicity puts out a blast on Twitter, which sparks a flurry of joyful tweets, Instagram posts, and DMs. Eden’s official account tags me in a tweet with that GIF of the two ladies jumping around over a bottle of champagne. JUNIPER SONG, NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR!
Oh my God. Oh my God.
This is everything I’ve ever wanted. We’d known from the preorder numbers that my hitting the list was likelier than not, but seeing the evidence printed in black and white sends me into paroxysms of delight. Here is my stamp of approval. I’m a bestselling writer. I’ve made it.
For a full half hour I sit at my desk, staring blankly at my phone as more congratulations messages trickle in. I want to call someone and scream all my joy into their ear—but I don’t know who. My mother won’t care, or she might only pretend to care, and ask inane questions about how the list works, which will feel worse. Rory will be happy for me, but she won’t understand why it’s such an achievement. The fourth name down my call history is an ex, attempting a booty call when he was swinging by DC for work, and I certainly can’t tell him. I’m not close enough with any of my writer friends that the news wouldn’t come off like a classless brag, and there’s no satisfaction in telling my friends who aren’t writers—I want someone who is in the know, who can really understand that this is a Big Fucking Deal.
It takes me a minute to realize that the first person I would have called, the only person who would have understood this news for what it was, and wouldn’t have reacted with petty jealousy or feigned support, is Athena.
Congratulations, I tell her ghost, because I can afford this generosity, because by now the disturbing sight of her at my reading has faded to the back of my memory, crowded out by my present, vicious delights. It’s easy, now, to chalk that vision up to nervous hallucinations; easier still to forget that it happened at all.
I tweet my news to the public instead. I write up a long thread about why hitting the list means so much to me, especially after the failure of my first book; about the long, painful slog in publishing that has finally, finally paid off. Not everyone becomes a bestseller overnight, I observe sagely. For some of us, it takes years of hard work and hoping and dreaming. I always hoped my moment would come. And here, now, I guess it has.
The infusion of likes and CONGRATULATIONS responses are precisely what I need to fill the void. I sit in front of my screen, watching the numbers tick up, enjoying that little serotonin boost every time I get another flurry of notifications.
At last I have to pee, which forces me to tear myself away from the screen. While I’m up, I order a box of a dozen cupcakes from Baked & Wired, one of every flavor they have on sale that day. When it arrives, I sit down on my floor with a fork and eat until it tastes good.
THE LAST FRONT HANGS ON TO THE LIST AT NUMBER SIX FOR ANOTHER week, and
at number ten for the week after that, where it sits for an entire month. That means I didn’t hit the list by accident. I’m selling well, and selling steadily. Eden’s investment in my advance has paid off. I am, by every possible metric, a major success.
Everything changes. I’ve now moved into an entirely different class of writer. I receive a half-dozen invitations to speak at various literary events in the next month alone, and after attending a few, I find I enjoy them. I used to hate these events. Big author gatherings—awards ceremonies, conferences, conventions—are like the first day of high school, but even worse, because the cool kids actually are that cool, and there’s nothing more humiliating than being shut out of a conversation circle because your book didn’t sell enough copies, didn’t get enough marketing, or wasn’t critically acclaimed enough for everyone else to treat you like a human being. At one
of my first literary conferences, I bashfully introduced myself to a writer whose work I’d loved since middle school. He squinted at my name tag, uttered the words “Oh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you,” and promptly turned his back on me.
Suddenly now, I’m important enough to acknowledge. Now, guys hit on me and buy me drinks at the bar. (We call bar gatherings at literary events “barcons”—watering holes for people who have been waiting all year to rub shoulders and get into dick-measuring contests over their advances and print runs.) An editor from a small press corners me in the bathroom to tell me what a big fan of my work she is. Film agents give me their cards and encourage me to be in touch. Writers who have snubbed me ever since my first novel flopped start acting like we’re best friends. Oh my God, how have you been? Funny how time flies, huh? Hey, would you consider blurbing my next book? Would you introduce me to your editor?
At this summer’s BookCon, which you can think of as publishing prom, I receive invitations to multiple after-parties around the Javits Center, where I’m passed around and introduced to a series of successively more important industry people until I find myself in a circle with Daniella and three of her bestselling authors—Marnie Kimball, who’s written several bestsellers about a sexy blonde waitress fighting supernatural crime and romancing vampires in seedy bars; Jen Walker, who’s just been on the Today show to talk about her memoir about becoming a rich and powerful CEO before she turned thirty; and Heidi Steel, a severe and handsome romance novelist whose titles I’ve seen on Target racks since I was a child.
“Is it just me or are the debut writers getting younger?” asks Marnie. “They look like children.”
“They’re all getting signed right out of college these days.” Heidi shakes her head. “No offense, June. I had a girl on my romance panel who was still a sophomore. She’s not even old enough to drink.”
“Is that wise, though?” asks Jen. “Giving them book deals before they’ve had time to develop frontal lobes?
“One of them came up to me in a signing line and asked for a blurb,” says Jen. “Can you believe it? Title I’ve never heard of, from some small press I’ve never heard of, and she comes up to me with a bound ARC, beaming, like of course I’m going to say yes.”
Marnie shudders with horror. “What did you say?”
“I said I don’t have the bag space for print books, but she could have her agent send an epub file to mine. Of course I’ll never open it.” Jen makes a whoosh noise with her lips. “Straight into the trash.”
They all chuckle. “Diplomatic,” says Heidi.
“Go easy on them,” says Marnie. “They’re not getting marketing support, poor things.”
“Yes, it’s a real pity,” sighs Daniella. “I hate watching these small presses acquire good novels just to throw them to the wolves.”
“It’s diabolical,” says Jen. “Their agents should know better. This industry is vicious.”
“Oh, I know.”
We all nod and sip our wine, relieved that we are not part of the unfortunate masses. The conversation moves on to the latest independent publisher that’s recently laid off half its staff, including all but one senior editor, and whether the writers in their stable should try their luck in the imminent shuffle or try to get their rights reverted and jump ship to another house. Publishing gossip, it turns out, is a lot of fun when you’re speculating about other people’s misfortune.
“So what got you interested in the Chinese Labour Corps?” Marnie asks me. “I’d never heard of them before your book.”
“Most people hadn’t.” I preen, flattered that Marnie knows what my book is about at all. I won’t inquire further about her thoughts—it’s good etiquette among writers not to ask if someone has read your work or is just pretending. “I took a course on East Asian history at Yale. A professor referenced it in a discussion section, and I thought it was surprising that there weren’t any novels in English about it, so I thought I’d make that necessary addition to the canon.” The first part is true; the rest is not—I spent most of that class reading about Japanese art history, meaning tentacle porn, but it’s been a convenient cover story for questions like this.
“That’s precisely my approach,” Heidi exclaims. “I look for the gaps in history, the stuff no one else is talking about. That’s why I wrote an epic fantasy romance about a businessman and a Mongolian huntress. Eagle Girl. It’s out next year. I’ll have Daniella send you a copy. It’s so important to think about what perspectives aren’t embraced by Anglophone readers, you know? We must make space for the subaltern voices, the suppressed narratives.”
“Right,” I say. I’m a little surprised Heidi knows the word “subaltern.” “And without us, these stories wouldn’t get told.”
Near the end of the party, I run into my former editor while standing in line at the coat check. He comes in for a hug like we’re best friends, like he didn’t butcher my very first book baby, set it up to fail, and then leave me out in the cold.
“Congratulations, June,” he says, smiling broadly. “It’s been wonderful to watch you succeed.”
I’ve wondered often for the past year what I would say to Garrett if I ever came across him again. I always held my tongue while I was his author; I was terrified of burning bridges, of him spreading the word that I was impossible to work with. I’ve wished I could say to his face how small he made me feel, how his curt, dismissive emails made me convinced the publisher had already given up on my work, how he nearly made me quit writing with his indifference.
But the best revenge is to thrive. Garrett’s imprint has been struggling. He hasn’t landed anything on a bestseller list aside from titles from the literary estates of famous, deceased authors that he’s clinging to like a lifeboat. When the next economic contraction comes, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s out of a job. And I know what the whisper networks are saying behind his back—Garrett McKintosh had Juniper Song on his list, and he let The Last Front go. How stupid do you have to be?
“Thank you,” I say. And then, because I can’t help it, “I’ve been really happy with the support I’m getting at Eden. Daniella is wonderful.”
“Yeah, she’s brilliant. We were interns together at Harper.” He doesn’t elaborate, just smiles at me expectantly.
I realize, horrified, that he’s trying to make small talk. I don’t need to impress him. I’m impressive enough as is. He wants to be seen with me.
“Yeah,” I say, smiling tightly. “She’s so awesome.” And then, because I’m irritated now and because I want to twist the knife, “She really gets my vision, you know, in a way that’s wonderfully collaborative. I’ve never worked with someone so incisive before. I owe all my success to her.”
He gets the hint. His expression sags. We trade some other niceties, give all the usual updates—I’m working on something new; he’s just signed an author he’s excited about—and then he makes his excuses. “Sorry to dip out, Junie, but I’d better go say hi to my UK counterpart before she leaves.
She’s only in town for the weekend.” I shrug and wave. He walks off, and hopefully out of my life for good.
THE FOLLOWING JANUARY, I GET MY FIRST ROYALTIES STATEMENT FOR The Last
Front. I’ve earned out. This means that I’ve sold enough copies to cover my already sizable advance, and that from here on out I get to keep a percentage of all future sales. And sales, if this statement is anything to go by, are astounding.
I’ve been wary of spending any of my advance money so far. I’ve read enough cautionary tales to know that advance money dries up fast, that there is no guarantee of earning out, or of securing another book deal approaching the amount of the first. But I treat myself this month. I buy a new laptop; finally, a MacBook Pro that doesn’t shriek and shut down whenever I try to open a Word file bigger than two hundred pages. I move to a nicer apartment—nothing quite as fancy as the Dupont place Athena had leased, but nice enough that anyone who visits will assume I have inherited wealth. I go to IKEA, order whatever I want without looking at the prices, and pay the extra fees to have it all delivered and assembled by two very handsome college seniors I solicited on TaskRabbit. I let them flirt with me. I tip well.
I get a liquor cabinet. I am now the sort of person who has a liquor cabinet.
I write a check for the entirety of my remaining student debt, lick the envelope, and send it off to the Department of Education. No more Nelnet emails for the rest of my life, thank God. I get health insurance. I go to the dentist, and when it turns out I’ll have to fork over several thousand dollars to get all these undetected cavities drilled out, I pay the bill without blinking. I see a primary care physician, even though there’s nothing wrong with me, just for a physical, just because I can.
I start buying nice whisky, even though I can’t taste whisky without thinking of Athena and those stupid old-fashioneds. I start shopping at Whole Foods. I become addicted to their jalapeño corn bread. I start getting my clothes at brand-name outlets instead of the thrift store. I throw out my cheap Etsy jewelry and stop wearing anything that doesn’t feature ethically, sustainably sourced gemstones.
When tax season rolls around, I ask my sister, Rory, who’s an accountant, to handle things. I send her my 1099s for this year; within
minutes she responds, Jesus Christ, are you serious???
Hell yeah, I email her back. Told you writing would work out.
I DO PAY THINGS FORWARD. I’M NOT LYING WHEN I SAY I WANT TO make a positive
contribution to the Asian community. I make a check out to the Asian American Writers’ Collective for two thousand dollars, just as I’d promised, and I’ll keep making those yearly contributions so long as my royalties are this good. I graciously accept a request to serve as a mentor for Scribblers’ Fairy Godmothers, a program that pairs an underrepresented writer with a published writer who can coach them through the vicissitudes of the industry.
I’m glad to be spreading my generosity. Athena never made efforts to send the ladder down to her fellow writers of color. If anything, she found them annoying. “My inbox keeps filling up with wannabe writers who think I’ll spend hours writing them advice letters just because we have the same vaguely ethnic background,” she’d complain contemptuously. “‘Hi Miss Liu, I’m a sophomore in high school, and as a fellow Asian American woman I admire you so much.’ Shut up. You’re not special; you’re a dime a dozen.”
Athena seemed more than just minorly irritated that Asian American writers clustered admiringly around her. She seemed to actively despise them. She hated it whenever I brought up debut novels that were compared to hers in the press. She’d bitch about how they were unoriginal, too try-hard, too obviously catered to an ethnic niche in the marketplace. “Write something else!” she’d complain. “No one wants another feel-good immigrant story. Boohoo, did they think your lunch smelled bad? Did they make fun of your eyes? God, I’ve read it all before. There’s no originality.”
Maybe it was Highlander Syndrome—I’ve read about that before, the way members of marginalized groups feel threatened if someone else like them starts finding success. I’ve experienced that, too—every time I see a publishing announcement about a young girl hitting it big with her debut, I want to claw my eyes out. Maybe she was terrified someone was going to replace or surpass her.
But I’m going to be better than Athena. I am a woman who helps other women.
I’m matched with a girl named Emmy Cho, who sends me an effusive email about how much she admires my books. Emmy is based out in San
Francisco, so we do our first mentoring session over Zoom. She’s pretty in a fresh-faced, innocent way—like a cute bunny rabbit, like a defanged Athena, and I instinctively feel an urge to sweep her under my coat and protect her.
She tells me about her current work in progress, a coming-of-age novel about a queer Korean American girl growing up in the Midwest in the nineties, based largely on her own experiences. “It’s a bit like that film The Half of It, if you’ve seen it?” She has this adorable habit of tucking her hair behind her ears every time she finishes a sentence. “I’m kind of worried, you know, that the industry isn’t that interested in this kind of story. Like, growing up, I didn’t see any books like that on shelves, and it’s more of a quiet, introspective literary novel instead of, like, a high-octane thriller, so I don’t know . . .”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” I assure her. “If anything, it’s easier now than ever to be Asian in the industry.”
Her brows furrow. “Do you really mean that?”
“Absolutely,” I say. “Diversity is what’s selling right now. Editors are hungry for marginalized voices. You’ll get plenty of opportunities for being different, Emmy. I mean, a queer Asian girl? That’s every checkbox on the list. They’ll be slobbering all over this manuscript.”
Emmy laughs nervously. “Well, okay.”
“Just write the best thing you can and put it out there,” I say. “You’ll be a hit, I promise.”
We chat a little bit more about how her querying process has gone so far (lots of partial requests, but no solid offers yet) and about her feelings toward the manuscript (she’s confident in her narrative voice, but doesn’t know if she’s attempted too many overlapping timelines).
As the hour draws to a close, Emmy clears her throat and says, “Um, if you don’t mind me asking, are you white?”
My surprise must show on my face, because she immediately apologizes. “Sorry, I don’t know if that’s cool to say, I just, um, like, Song, that’s kind of ambiguous, so I just wanted to know.”
“I am white,” I say, more frostily than I’d intended. What is she insinuating? That I can’t be a good mentor to her unless I’m Asian? “Song is my middle name. My mother gave it to me.”
“Okay,” Emmy says, and tucks her hair back behind her ears again. “Um, cool. I was just asking.”