When I see my name in print next to the phrase "debut novel," I can't help but picture my hardcover yanking at an ill-fitting cotillion dress that keeps falling off its shoulder. The descriptor seems off somehow — it's right, but not quite that. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is my first novel, but I wrote it 10 years ago, in 2003, and in 2013, I completely rewrote it again. In this 10-year span, there have been other works of writing — bound manuscripts too sprawling to deserve any other moniker than "mess," short story collections, unwieldy essays — but none of them ever showed as much promise as my first book, which, instead of "debut novel," I like to think of as "born again."
When I first wrote I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, I was 24 and living in Paris, and I hadn't been writing for some time. Mired in a bad relationship with a Frenchman who had a penchant for drama (he once launched all of my belongings out of our fifth-story apartment, and when he remembered I had clothes in the washer, he tossed my wet things out, too), my first three years in France were dedicated to trying to secure a visa so that I could have an independent (and legal) life. Between those efforts and running after my defenestrated clothing, I didn't have the time or mental stamina to write.
But when I finally got a visa and thus the legal documents necessary to rent my own apartment, I gave the Frenchman a long-delayed heave-ho and was on the lookout for a writing prompt. I found it in the form of a Post-it note stuck on the outside of a gallery door in Paris's sixth arrondissement. "Mr. Architect," it read in French, "You were wearing an elegant hat, and you wanted to buy the blue bear. Please get in touch."
Who was the architect? What bear was he referring to, and why was the bear blue? And what was up with the Post-it note? Did the person who wrote it have something against phones?
My interest was piqued, and I set out to write a short story, which didn't end up being very short at all. When I hit 30,000 words, I knew that it was unpublishable as such, and because "novella" and "chapbook" weren't options that I was familiar with at the time, I decided that I might as well keep going. Who knew? I thought. Maybe it was a book!
At the time, I was working as a party promoter for Corona Extra, a hedonic job that didn't require any professional efforts on my part until five p.m. at night. And write I did, like a woman possessed, the words flying into the rickety keys of my work laptop — a Dell "Latitude" that weighed roughly 700 pounds.
It was such a joyous time for me back then. I was naïve, and innocent, and I didn't have a single writer friend. My colleagues at Corona didn't give two hoots if I was writing a novel or not — they wanted to know whether I could confirm four hostesses in yellow catsuits for a beer promotion at Planet Hollywood that night. Without anyone to compare myself to, I had no performance anxiety whatsoever. During the day I was just doing this exploratory typing, and at night, I sold bad beer. These were some of the best years of my life.
When the story was out of me, I realized I had done it — I'd gone and written a book. Without an MFA or even a major in English to guide me toward my next step, I turned to a beat-up seventh edition of Literary Market Place that I found in an English-language bookshop, and started querying like mad. I had just turned 24 and I was happy and in great health — when I got an agent and an interested editor in short time, I remember feeling like I was off to the races.I was young, and this was Paris. Why shouldn't everything work out?
I spent the summer of 2005 revising the book for the aforementioned editor, cutting out what she found repetitive and diving deeper into places where she wanted more. We didn't have a contract and no numbers had been discussed, but she'd been calling me on my cell phone, long distance, to France. In her emails, she said she wanted me to move to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, because that's where all her other authors were. In my little bubble, this is what it looked and sounded like to have a dream come true.
And this is what it looks like to have that dream fall apart: A week before we were finally meant to meet in person, the editor (let's call her, Mona, shall we?) wrote to say that she was sorry but she'd changed her mind. And then she quit her job. Some years later, when I finally did have writer friends, I found out that there's a name in the literary world for this experience: I'd been orphaned.
My then-agent (who, in order to stay with the M theme, we'll call Mike) was undeterred, sending my manuscript out on a first, a second, and then a third round. There were 18 rejections before Mike finally gave up and gave me the "time" lecture: all first books have their time, their moment. And this wasn't mine.
Because I'd gone into the whole process as an unscathed innocent, it took me years to get over my Icarus-like brush with publication. When editor after editor wrote that they didn't find the protagonist, Richard Haddon, sympathetic enough, all I heard was that these editors weren't risk takers, that they had problems with a woman writing from a man's point of view, that my voice was too "original" for them.
It's amazing to me now, the ego I had then — the pride that was unmerited, writing roots that were just lying there on topsoil, not even planted in the ground. That book, originally called The Blue Bear, went into a box in my bedroom, and it took many, many years for me to stop thinking of it as a failure and to see it instead as my first try.
But I finally did it. I pulled myself back up. And now I see it as a blessing that I wasn't published back when I was young, and ignorant, and kind of a jerk. Back then, I took writing for granted. It was something that was easy. Now I know that you have to sweat and ache and scab up for your stories, or else they don't count.
Ten years after The Blue Bear went into a box, encouraged by my new agent, Rebecca Gradinger, I took it out again because she suggested — nay, promised — that it deserved a second chance. When I read it over for the first time in ages, I finally understood how deeply the first draft was flawed. But I believed her — there was something there worth saving. I decided to give this manuscript my bruised and battered all.
In 2013, I wrote the book over entirely from scratch, using everything I had learned about life and writing in the decade that had passed. In June of 2014, the book was published under the title I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and it is a better book, a stronger book; it's the debut it should have been. I am a better writer for having been disappointed and rejected time and time again, and I am a better person for never having stopped writing in the face of those rejections. And if I could go back and do it over, I'd have it play out exactly the same way. Reject, reject, rejection. Fail better. Try again.
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Courtney Maum is the author of the novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. The humor columnist behind the "Celebrity Book Review" on Electric Literature and an advice columnist for Tin House, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City, where she works as a brand strategist and a corporate namer.
Books mentioned in this post
Courtney Maum is the author of I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You