Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney shares the story of her late success at Pasadena Festival of Women Authors

   

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I’ll be posting articles about five of the authors’ presentations (the four main speakers and Jung Yun; I was unable to attend the McKenzie or Thorpe breakout sessions), starting with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

D’Aprix Sweeney opened the festival with an engaging explanation of her decades-long path to “overnight success” with her debut novel, The Nest. After graduating college with a journalism degree in 1986, D’Aprix Sweeney moved to New York City to work in corporate communications. A few years later, she was in grad school but really “wanted to write fiction and sleep.” She sent a letter to friends and family announcing her intention “to be a serious writer in the style of Jay McInerny.” Even now, she can’t help but laugh and roll her eyes at her younger self’s naivete. She bought a Tandy 1000 computer (“which was really just a word processor”) and mostly played solitaire on it.

Working at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as a night operator, she tried to write during the day. She kept working and writing, but she remained disappointed in her writing. She “read like a maniac,” hoping it would “light something on fire in my brain or heart” and then she would sit down to write. She realized she “loved fiction as a reader, but not as a writer.” So she became a freelance magazine writer for the next ten years.

When, in her 40s, she moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn, she met writers and “got the itch again.” But she felt like there was a writers’ club with a sign that read “Keep Out, Middle-Aged Lady.” She was “a good literary citizen for [her] writer friends” but was not writing her own fiction. In 2005, she read an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert in the New York Times Magazine’s “True Life Tales” feature; inspired, she wrote one and submitted it. It was rejected, but the editor told her, “We all agree you are a very fine writer.”

She began to write again, mostly “essays about myself.” When a writer friend read one of her essays, she told D’Aprix Sweeney she should turn it into a short story, but she demurred, saying she didn’t know how to write fiction. Her friend’s advice: “Write the essay, put it in third person, and you get to add things you make up.” So, at age 48, she attempted fiction again. She applied to the Bennington MFA program and was accepted. She tossed her first manuscript, saying she liked only two paragraphs of it. Eventually, she realized, “You have to write the pages you hate to get to the pages you love.” Eventually, she wrote a story that would become “The Nest.” Her thesis adviser, Bret Anthony Johnston (Remember Me Like This) thought there was a novel in it, and in time that’s what it became.

D’Aprix Sweeney ultimately signed a seven-figure contract with Ecco Books. The Nest went on to become a massive New York Times bestseller and has been translated into two dozen languages. D’Aprix Sweeney described the experience of the past year as “like being hit by a rogue wave and trying to swim back to shore.”  The book is being made into a movie for Amazon Films by producer Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent.”

The recent passing of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott reminded D’Aprix Sweeney of one of his best-known poems, “Love After Love,” which she feels captures her perspective at success age 55.

“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

D’Aprix Sweeney explained that, after many years, she now has compassion for her younger self and is able to love the stranger she was. “She hung around for 30 years to share in my overnight success.”

During a brief Q&A session following her speech, she was asked how she liked living in Los Angeles after spending most of her life in New York. “I love L.A. and I love N.Y. They’re two totally different places, and my heart is big enough for both of them.”

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

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Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction finalists announced

11th April 2016: The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 shortlist, comprised of 6 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist has been announced. The Prize for Fiction, the UK’s only annual book award for fiction written by a woman, celebrates excellence, originality, and accessibility in writing by women from throughout the world.

Making the cut from the longlist of 20 books are:

Ruby  Cynthia Bond credit Jay Harris (1)

Cynthia Bond — Ruby

The Green Road  AnneEnright

Anne Enright — The Green Road

Glorious Heresies  Lisa McInerney photo FINAL

Lisa McInerney — The Glorious Heresies

Portable Veblen  Elizabeth McKenzie credit Linda Ozaki

Elizabeth McKenzie — The Portable Veblen

Improbability of Love  Hannah Rothschild credit Harry Cory Wright

Hannah Rothschild — The Improbability of Love

A Little Life  Hanya Yanagihara credit Jenny Westerhoff

Hanya Yanagihara — A Little Life

“Our choices reflect a really diverse mix of brilliant writing from new and established authors around the world and we hope that everyone will find much to enjoy in them,” commented Chair of Judges Margaret Mountford.

Syl Saller, Chief Marketing Officer of Diageo, the parent company of Baileys, added, “What a range of beautifully crafted and excellent stories originating from Ireland to Texas – the judges have selected a truly exciting range of novels for this year’s shortlist. In partnership with the Women’s Prize, Baileys is thrilled to celebrate these inspiring female authors and bring the pleasure of their writing to readers across the world.”

The winner will be presented with a check for £30,000 (US$42,645) and a limited edition bronze statue known as “the Bessie,” created by artist Grizel Niven. Both are anonymously endowed.

The award ceremony will take place in The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, on June 8.

The 2016 finalists are from the U.S. (Bond, McKenzie, and Yanagihara), the U.K. (Rothschild), and Ireland (Enright and McInerney).

Previous winners are: Ali Smith for How to be Both (2015), Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014), A.M. Homes for May We Be Forgiven (2013), Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles (2012), Téa Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife (2011), Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna (2010), Marilynne Robinson for Home (2009), Rose Tremain for The Road Home (2008), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), Zadie Smith for On Beauty (2006), Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005), Andrea Levy for Small Island (2004), Valerie Martin for Property (2003), Ann Patchett for Bel Canto (2002), Kate Grenville for The Idea of Perfection (2001), Linda Grant for When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), Suzanne Berne for A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999), Carol Shields for Larry’s Party (1998), Anne Michaels for Fugitive Pieces (1997), and Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter (1996).

The judges for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction are:

Margaret Mountford (Chair), Lawyer and Businesswoman

Naga Munchetty, Broadcast Journalist

Laurie Penny, Writer and Journalist

Elif Shafak, Author

Tracey Thorn, Writer and Singer

 

The 2016 longlist included:

Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins

Shirley Barrett: Rush Oh!

Cynthia Bond: Ruby

Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord

Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Jackie Copleton: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

Rachel Elliott: Whispers Through a Megaphone

Anne Enright: The Green Road

Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory

Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky

Clio Gray: The Anatomist’s Dream

Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies

Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen

Sara Nović: Girl at War

Julia Rochester: The House at the Edge of the World

Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life