My old life ended at the South Coast Book Awards. I was the author of five critically acclaimed novels that no one had ever heard of. I was attending the awards ceremony because I was nominated in the Mainstream Fiction category for my most recent novel, My Self-Portrait of Someone Else. Sometimes people's lives change forever when they win something huge; mine changed because I lost something small.
It wasn't just this awards ceremony that made me want to chuck everything and start over from scratch. If my life had been a novel, readers would have seen the foreshadowing in any number of incidents that led up to that evening. What happened at the South Coast Book Awards wasn't the worst moment of my writing career; it was simply the last, the event that jerked my former existence to a final, screeching halt.
At the ceremony, I was sitting at a table with a group of writers of how-to computer books. They all knew each other. The event took place in a hotel meeting room. You may not think of southern California as a place where a lot of writers live. Most of the time, it seemed to me that I was living in a land of software engineers and biotech specialists. But once a year, I found myself in a room packed with writers of every physical description, ethnic group, interest area, and income level. Of course, many of them wrote about computers and biotechnology, but still, the room was so filled with writers that the waiters could hardly squeeze between the tables. Small talk nearly drowned out the Easy Classics tape. I didn't have a date for the evening. My boyfriend, Andrew, a software engineer, never came with me to these events. He said he wouldn't know what to talk about in a roomful of writers. I tried to explain that he would have more in common with most of the attendees than I would, but he was unconvinced. He asked me, "Why would I want to pay thirty dollars to eat a bad dinner, make polite conversation with people I don't care about, and listen to a bunch of boring speeches?" I didn't have a good answer for him, so I went alone.
"Who are you again?" a woman asked me, shouting over the noise of the crowd, as we waited for our drinks to arrive. I had already introduced myself a few minutes earlier.
"Charlotte Dearborn," I said again. "I'm a novelist."
"A novice?" a man across the table shouted, cupping a hand behind one ear. "We've all got to start somewhere!" He smiled magnanimously. Everyone nodded in agreement.
"Starting out is the hardest part," a young woman across from me said. "When I first started -- "
"No," I said, shaking my head. "I said I write novels. The one I'm nominated for is my fifth, and it's called My Self-Portrait of -- "
"Self-published first novel!" said a heavy man with a frizzy gray pony tail. "More power to ya!"
I shook my head. "It's published by Collard & Stanton. You know, in New York? It's about a portrait artist who -- "
I didn't continue because just then a waiter brought rolls, and everyone leaned forward to peer into the basket and see what kind.
I participated in this kind of event in the hope that the press coverage it generated might sell a few more copies of my books. However, there had been no media at all at last year's event. After winning the highest honor of the evening, I hadn't even ended up with my name in the San Diego newspaper. I was hoping that this year there would be some press. Now I put dressing on my salad and stayed out of the conversation at my table, which was about computers and people I didn't know.
After dessert, there was a rambling speech by a local television chef about the vast and varied writing community in our area, how fortunate we all were to live here. Then the awards presentation began. There were a lot of categories -- cookbooks, children's picture books, self-published poetry, eight different categories for books having to do with computers. Everyone at my table either won an award or was the date of someone who did. I clapped for each of them. As they returned to the table, I admired their plaques and congratulated them.
"And now," said Jim Shaw, after what seemed like hours, "we've reached the very last category and one of my own special favorites." I sat up straighter and felt for my lipstick in my purse. Almost home, I thought. Jim said, "It's the horror fiction category."
"What?" I said loudly.
Jim continued. "I've been reading scary stories since I was six years old. I love 'em. We're blessed with a thriving community of excellent horror writers from historical to sci-fi. So it gives me great pleasure to announce the three nominees in this category. They are Aaron Garner for Never-Ending Nightmare, Bonnie Chernoff for Screaming Bloody Murder, and Cheryl Dearborn for Self-Portrait of Myself." He began to open the envelope. He did this slowly to heighten the drama.
"Oh, no!" I said. I turned to the man on my left. "They got my title wrong, my name wrong, and my category wrong!" The man looked annoyed that I was talking during the presentation. I went on. "This is a mistake! I'm supposed to be in mainstream fiction!" I turned to the woman on my right. "This is not -- I can't -- what should I do?"
A couple of people at my table turned to me, smiling tolerantly, even though I was making noise and distracting them.
"And the winners are," said Jim, pulling the paper from the envelope, "in third place, Charlotte DiBone for Soft Portrait."
The people at my table smiled and clapped. I walked to the front of the room, took my award certificate, walked back through the tables, out of the room, down the stairs to the lobby, and out the door to the parking lot. I dropped the certificate in a trash can and drove home.
Of course, it wasn't the awards ceremony that made me decide to give up writing. When you lose a war, it probably doesn't end with the explosion of a big bomb or the death of an important general. While such a singular event may directly precede your walking out of your bunker with your arms raised, a white flag held high in one hand, defeat happens by degrees. And so it was with my career as a novelist. The award I didn't win was simply the last of a series of defeating events.
Copyright © 2002 by Sara Lewis