We’re spoiled by today’s expectations that an author should publish a book once a year, and I blame overachievers like Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and Lee Child for setting us up to anticipate such a rapid rate of productivity. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain breed of writer who doesn’t seem to write for profit or even necessarily as a career. You know, the authors who have a story to tell and seem to generate a bestseller organically. Those are the writers who torture readers, making us wait forever, hoping and wishing for a new book. What happens to the authors who write one bestseller and then disappear?
The “what are they writing now?” question comes to mind because I recently came across a copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, which came out in 2006. For all the hype and backlash surrounding Pessl when she received an outrageously high advance for a first novel (and many claimed it had more to do with being young, intellectual and attractive than being a writer of substance), the book lived up to the high expectations.
A thriller of sorts, Special Topics centers around a motherless young student named Blue who meets a charismatic teacher with a tragic secret. Blue spent most of her life driving between college towns with her father, a brilliant poli-sci professor. She grew up discussing radical class warfare and classic writers and poets such as Homer, Steinbeck, and Neruda. Blue’s father dislikes the teacher Blue has come to worship, and her first act of rebellion is to disagree with him on this one opinion. When the teacher is found dead, Blue plunges into her own investigation, determined to discover why and how her mentor died.
Although criticized for prose and dialogue filled with overly intellectual and obscure references, what makes Pessl’s book so good is the way the narrator’s voice seems to roll off her tongue. Yes the story is shrewdly plotted, but it’s also told in a way that sparkles and remains utterly unique.
The enormous success of Special Topics could very well have thrown Pessl into a state of insecurity over publishing again, because with that kind of success it seems like the only place to go is down. But what do I know? That’s merely speculation on my part. But I’ll admit, I’m curious. What happened to her? Some online research suggests she has a new novel coming from Random House in 2013, but I’ll believe it when I see it, especially since the book was bought in 2008 based on a proposal, not a manuscript.
There are a few other writers I’d like to check up on, like David Wroblewski, who memorably arrived on the scene in 2008 with his modern retelling of Hamlet set in Wisconsin, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Arthur Golden, who published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997. I’d be the first in line for a new book from either Wroblewski or Golden, but there are no signs that will happen anytime soon. Both of them took years to produce their first bestsellers, so chances are if there are new books, we’ll be waiting a long time.
More classics than you might think were one-hit wonders, like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in 1847, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in 1936 and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from 1960. Great writers are not necessarily prolific.
I’ll be honest, sometimes I get anxious about the authors that are still alive and well, possibly puttering in their gardens or just busy raising kids. How do we motivate them, especially if money isn’t satisfactory bait for the selectively creative mind? Unlike the choosy A-list movie stars who wait for their agent to send them the perfect script, writers have to generate the motivation almost entirely from within. I know little about Arthur Golden, but I’m willing to bet that the more agents and editors called and wrote him suggesting he write a sequel or perhaps a new novel about geisha vampires, the less he answered his phone.
For certain writers, each book is like having a baby and driven a great deal by nature rather than sheer determination. So I suppose it’s out of everyone’s control. But that doesn’t mean I intend to stop hoping for a sophomore efforts from Pessl, Wroblewski and Golden. Even if the books are terrible, at least we’ll know they’re still trying.
What about you? Are there more particular writers you’re hoping to hear from again?
Miriam Landis’s own babies—twins!—are due in mid-September. Landis is a web monkey for Island Books on Mercer Island, WA, where she also writes for the store’s journal, Message in a Bottle. A former professional ballerina, she’s the author of two novels about ballet, Girl in Motion, and the sequel, Breaking Pointe.