Revising the Dream
Poets & Writers Magazine|March - April 2021
Publishing a debut novel in an uncertain world
By Laura Maylene Walter

Back in 2019, when I signed the publishing contract for my debut novel, Body of Stars, launch party ideas were already springing to mind. Perhaps I’d host the launch at a planetarium, which would complement the celestial theme of the book. I could serve sparkling rosé to mimic a fictional drink in the novel, along with star-shaped cookies and a cake bearing an image of the book cover. Finally, because my novel’s premise surrounds fortune-telling—it’s set in a world where women’s bodies predict the future—I could hire tarot and palm readers for the evening. Publishing my first novel was a lifelong dream come true following years of hard work, and I wanted to celebrate that with no less than stars and champagne, as well as the friends and community who helped me along the way.

Then 2020 happened. When the pandemic hit I didn’t dwell on the fate of my novel at first. Body of Stars wasn’t scheduled to publish until March 2021, a full year away, and surely the pandemic couldn’t last that long, right? Even as weeks of quarantine turned into months, I stubbornly kept hope alive. The state of the world was so dire and unsettling that to imagine a future in which my book launch could still happen was to imagine a future at all— one where literary events continued to thrive and I could gather with friends and family in person.

As the social distancing, canceled events, and existential panic dragged on, I gradually started to accept that my launch party fantasies weren’t going to pan out. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Releasing a first novel is a professional milestone, but it’s also an emotional one, and part of the dream involves tactile experiences: signing books in a bookstore, chatting with readers over drinks, and meeting other authors at festivals and conferences, all in-person experiences the pandemic has shut down for the foreseeable future. Although it’s certainly not a loss comparable to the larger fallout of a global pandemic, it’s a loss nonetheless.

I’m not alone, of course. Every writer who put out a book from March 2020 on is dealing with the same changes and sense of uncertainty. To gain some much-needed perspective, I checked in with other authors releasing their first novels in early 2021 to see how they’re adjusting to this new literary landscape.

For Eman Quotah, the thrill of her book deal will forever be tied to the beginning of the pandemic. Bride of the Sea (Tin House, 2021), her debut novel about the fractured marriage of two Saudi Arabian immigrants, received an offer of publication the same week as the first lockdowns in March 2020.

“All this bad stuff is happening, and at the same time the novel I worked toward for so long is coming to fruition. There’s obviously a lot of mixed emotions about that,” she says. “But because I’m outside of New York and don’t know many people who have gone through a book launch, I don’t think I had the same expectations some authors might have. Since I didn’t know what to expect, I don’t feel like my plans were dashed.”

Like so many people trying to get through the trials of 2020, Quotah had other concerns demanding her attention throughout the past year: caring for her two children, juggling her communications career, and hoping her parents could make the trip from Saudi Arabia to the United States in the future. When it came to her novel, she mostly felt appreciative that it would soon exist in published form.

“Getting the book deal in and of itself is the big thing for me. Every little success along the way—getting the first blurb, first review, first bookstagram post, and the cover reveal— has been really lovely and made me feel happy at a time when there is a lot of other stress,” she says. “The book has been a bright light in a difficult time.”

Still, she understands why some authors might be anxious about releasing their first novels during a pandemic.

“This is a career milestone, and you shouldn’t minimize the fact that it’s not turning out how you expected it to,” she says. “I also understand the worry that there could be effects on your career because your book came out at this time. I think that’s a legitimate concern for people, and of course writers work really hard to get to this point.”

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