WRITING LIFE: Finishing Proud by E. Dolores Johnson

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The route to book publication is a marathon, not a sprint, someone in the New York publishing world told me around my eleventh draft. As a first-timer, who’d never written a book nor run a marathon I didn’t know what that meant. But I found out, having to muster the endurance needed for every segment of the road, the skill development to get up every heartbreak hill along the route and the determination to cross the finish line. I had to, so readers could understand those of us they don’t see—mixed race people.

So many people told me I should write a book about my family’s multi-generational separation, fear of lynching or mandatory prison time and secrets in their mixed race life, because this was a hidden slice of America’s racial history. But who knew that pulling the through-line of the story out from the tangle of events and beliefs to put only the relevant meat on the bones was required to get in the starting block? Once committed to the road, about a decade ago, it took me 6 years of getting people to talk about their lives while we cried over so many kitchen tables, studying legal cases and 100 years of Census records, a year’s memoir writing class, three more years of summer writing conferences and artist colony residencies and more revisions than I can count. There were times I just lay against the road barrier, unable to go on, to fix the structure, or make the ending more relevant to today’s world. But yes, I did make it to a solid manuscript, the halfway mark in the marathon.

A cheerleading agent signed me but set my manuscript aside to lead me through the creation of a non-fiction proposal. Who knew the next four months would go into developing a 45-page document used to convince publishers the book was good enough, i.e. had the revenue potential for them to invest in Say I’m Dead? That segment of the race was all business, citing target markets, competing titles, and publicity vehicles I could bring in as well as succinct but colorful chapter summaries to show there was a whole story, though they hadn’t yet seen it. The process made clear what a bestseller’s agent who turned me down had said: “I don’t care what the story is about. All I want to know is if this book will sell 30,000 copies at $28 apiece.”

I had to pace myself, from the thrill as nuggets of the story got published, to the knife in my gut as nineteen editors turned me down. But one in-person conversation with a young white female editor at a Big 5 publisher put a bottom on it. She asked who I thought the audience was for a book like mine. All Americans, I said, with Barack Obama, Derek Jeter, Meghan Markle, and the family down the street raising awareness of the accelerating numbers of mixed-race people.

“Well, no,” she said. “Mixed race is an unpleasant topic people don’t want to read about.” And there is the white publishing gatekeepers’ insensitivity to the worth of stories about minorities’ lives. I felt like quitting, but black and brown writers had warned me to expect white people not to get itLatinx writers whose immigration stories were unpublished in favor of a white author’s version in American Dirt, or Asians turned down because “we already have an Indian story”.

My agent kept working until she landed me a contract for Say I’m Dead with a small press. That publisher’s enthusiasm for the book they called important and wonderful was the dose of fuel I needed to keep running.

As the book moved through editing, production, and marketing and publicity plans for a June 2, 2020, release, COVID-19 hit the United States. My events at major conventions, festivals, and bookstores were canceled with no further commitment. With the book already at the printer, my legs pumped harder, searching for ways virtual events might work, while getting the word out on my book without seeming tone deaf amid a pandemic. When the publisher furloughed critical employees due to the abrupt downturn in print book revenues caused by the crisis, an editor stepped in to support my launch, for the story she believes in.

Now we’re participating with the angels sponsoring virtual book tours, devising video plans, and possible later opportunities. The finish line is June 2, 2020. I’m wondering how many people will know or care when I cross it?

The supportive writer community, circle of friends, and family who fed me the carbs to keep me going will. And those quarantined at home that need a great read will. And those that want to learn how strong women changed race norms. And certainly me, the one whose strength, skill, and satisfaction have surpassed any expectation, gained from finishing proud.

E. Dolores Johnson is the author of Say I’m Dead, A Family Memoir of Race, Secrets and Love, on sale June 2, 2020. Her essays on inter-racialism and the browning of America appeared in Narratively, The Buffalo News, Pangyrus, and elsewhere. Johnson was a Finalist in the 2017 Fourth Genre Essay Contest and was awarded writing residencies at Djerassi, Ragdale, Blue Mountain Center, VCCA and Voices of Our Nation. Long committed to social justice, Johnson consulted on diversity for corporations and universities and oversaw the digitization of President John F. Kennedy’s papers. Follow her on Instagram: @edoloresjohnson; and Twitter: @e_dolores_J.

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