Never underestimate midlife career change.
My next job is going to be writing for Hallmark. I'm going to launch the "How to torment a writer — any writer" series.
My first card will open to:
When is your book coming out? This is a particularly apt choice for someone whose last book came out more than a decade ago or for someone whose other books have now fallen out of print. For the latter, also: Have I heard of you?
Do you have an agent? might be good selection for an aspiring writer.
Akin to What do you do?
"Nothing," I remember once saying in answer to that question, asked by a bald man across from me at a round table. His wife, wearing pearls, whispered.
My date later explained, "Next time, you could say you work at blah blah blah and you're writing a novel."
That same year a friend of mine lied and said that she had a contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Within the year, she had sold her novel to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I always thought she might have made her own luck, the way I often had done by coming down with the flu after I'd cancelled by telling people I had a cold.
Writers tend not to ask each other about publication dates. But people who aren't writers do, often in apparent innocence. They may even wear a look of envy, as the writer stammers, as if they were asking about the date and location of a thrilling party, with a red carpet, champagne, tuxedos, and ball gowns.
When in fact, publication day is like the birthday of a pet adopted from the pound: one is never quite sure when it is.
Publishers assign a date, but then, on-line, a book is apt to be assigned a different birth. Some writers have found their books shipped and on store shelves weeks before the publication date; others see no trace of their gift to the world a month after the alleged launch.
Then, before or after or around this amorphous date, there's always the threat of reviews and the chance to suffer humiliation in public. In what other profession could your perfectly honest work of years be derided in a newspaper read by the parents of your children's classmates on an otherwise average weekday morning?
And what finally does happen on this much disputed and difficult-to-pin-down date is, like much of life, absolutely up to the writer. Nothing is ordained. (The literary agent Maxime Groffsky used to call each of her authors on their assigned publication day, so at least something happened.)
Whether or not there is a party depends entirely upon the writer and his or her friends' habits of celebration.
There are writers given to ball gowns and champagne, and writers who prefer to keep to the grid of a normal working day. Novelists, after all, live like athletes perpetually in training for an Olympics which never transpires.
The writer Allan Gurganus answers requests for social activities with the comment, I'm in training.
"Your book! Your book, is it finished?" I heard someone ask a writer on his putative publication day.
Oh, that happened a long time ago, he said.