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.”

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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.