February 16, 2003
A Writing Life
N the corkboard above Beth Ann Bauman's desk, a washed-out photograph hangs from a tack: Ms. Bauman, age 2, stares out at the camera, her blue eyes stubborn and searching, her mouth pressed into a resolute line. "I love how stoic I look," she said, fingering the edge of the picture.
At 38, Ms. Bauman knows something of stoicism. Like so many young men and women over the years, she came to New York to be a writer. For the past decade, she has lived in a West Village studio and worked as an $11-an-hour temp to support herself, barely. She has watched her friends publish books, have babies, buy houses, get tenure.
She has spent her days sending faxes and watering plants for lawyers and junior vice presidents in the city's anonymous office towers, among them the World Trade Center, in a 105th-floor office of Cantor Fitzgerald where she worked until just a few days before the attack of Sept. 11. Her nights were spent at her desk working on draft after draft of stories about funny, smart young women, many of them New Yorkers, in various stages of life.
Finally, those nights have paid off, and Ms. Bauman has become one of those few writers whose labors see daylight. Next month, her first book, a collection of stories titled "Beautiful Girls,'' will be published by MacAdam/Cage, a small San Francisco firm. The stories have been nearly 10 years in the making, a period in which Ms. Bauman has sacrificed much of her social and financial life.
"I'm so consumed by this, by writing stories, by trying to arrive somewhere as a writer,'' she said. "Sometimes, when I look back on everything, on how long it took me to get where I am, I'm just overwhelmed."
In 1992, Ms. Bauman moved to New York to write a novel, armed with a master of fine arts degree, a dossier of stories praised by her professors and an unwavering belief in her own abilities. ìI began temping because I donít have any skills,î she explained. ìWriting was it.î
A waiflike blonde, Ms. Bauman in person is rather like her stories. She moves around her little apartment like a slender cat, making cups of peppermint tea, laying out plates of cookies that she will not eat (refined sugar rarely passes her lips), pulling well-worn photographs from a carefully organized box of memorabilia.
Outside her apartment, which is on Seventh Avenue near 14th Street, sirens wail and car horns blare. Ms. Bauman has learned to shut out the racket and enter the world of her stories, which she writes, at times, on her soft brown couch, a pad on her lap, clad in pajamas.
Writing was the last thing her parents expected, or hoped, she would do to make a living. Ms. Bauman grew up in Metuchen, N.J.; her father was a police officer, her mother a secretary. A writing workshop at Richard Stockton College in southern New Jersey made her want to be a writer. After graduation, she moved back in with her parents, wrote stories and waited on tables. The following year, she entered Brooklyn Collegeís master of fine arts program, didnít like it much and transferred to the University of Arizona. In 1992, after three years in Arizona, she moved to New York.
The novelist Mary Elsie Robertson, Ms. Baumanís mentor at Arizona, had pegged her as one of the few who would make it.
ìAt a place like Arizona, the students are all fairly talented,íí Ms. Robertson said, ìbut there was something really special about Bethís work. There was a quirky quality to it. But she also has that absolute persistence. She is a writer, she has to write and she will, at all costs.î
Ms. Robertson didnít imagine, however, that it would be more than a dozen years before her prize student published a book. She assumed Ms. Bauman would follow the traditional route for M.F.A. graduates: publish stories in small literary magazines, land an agent, publish stories in glossy magazines, teach, publish a novel.
Soon after Ms. Baumanís arrival in New York, thatís the way things were headed. In 1994, she took a writing workshop with the novelist Michael Cunningham, a few years before ìThe Hoursî propelled him to the upper echelons of literary fame. (ìShe clearly had a gift,î Mr. Cunningham said recently of his student, ìand she became a sort of monster of determination.î)
In class she met a Daily News reporter, Karen Avenoso, who was so taken with Ms. Baumanís work that she called an agent friend named Tina Bennett. Ms. Bennett, of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, later became famous for securing a $1 million advance for Malcolm Gladwellís book ìThe Tipping Point,î but at the time she was pretty much of an unknown.
ìI was just starting out then,î Ms. Bennett recalled. ìKaren said: ëThere is this writer in the group who is just so much better than the others. Youíve got to take a look at her stuff.í Beth sent me her stories, and I loved them.î
But short story collections are hard sells. Ms. Bennett told Ms. Bauman that she wasnít interested in taking on a collection, but asked her to send along the novel she was working on when it was done.
ìI called it ëthe long thing,í íí Ms. Bauman said with a laugh. ìTina would call and check in with me. She would say, ëHowís that long thing coming?í î
The long thing never came to be. Ms. Bauman went back to writing stories, and author and agent mostly fell out of touch.
Poverty Becomes Less Cute
The years passed. Weeks and months blurred into one another: days at the office, nights at the computer.
ìEveryone around her was getting published first,î said Alice Elliott Dark, the author of the much-praised story collection ìIn the Gloamingî and one of Ms. Baumanís teachers in a writing workshop. ìIíve seen this happen to a number of really talented people. Itís very flukey.î
Finally, in the spring of 2000, Ms. Bauman realized that she had enough new, strong stories for a collection. She called Ms. Bennett. ìI didnít think she would want to see it,íí Ms. Bauman said, ìbut I thought she could put me in touch with someone who might. She surprised me. She said, ëSend it to me.í íí
Ms. Bennett liked Ms. Baumanís stories as much as ever, but felt that the collection as a whole needed work: two of the stories didnít fit thematically with the rest. If the author would replace those stories, Ms. Bennett would try to sell the collection.
Ms. Bauman got to work. Or tried to. At the time, she was working as a temp in the legal department of Cantor Fitzgerald. While she liked the job, temping was becoming increasingly draining, and she was finding it harder to write when she got home at night. She was 36. Poverty and instability no longer held quite the same charm.
ìWhen youíre in your 20ís and youíre writing short stories, itís cool to be poor,î said Sara Eckel, a freelance writer and a close friend of Ms. Baumanís. ìEveryoneís doing it. Then, at a certain point, people drop out. Because itís not much fun in your 30ís. Suddenly your friends can go to dinner in nice restaurants and go skiing in Colorado. And poverty is just not cute anymore.íí
In the spring of 2001, while Ms. Bauman fretted over the new stories, Ms. Bennett sent Ms. Baumanís older stories to Bill Buford, then the fiction editor of The New Yorker, who was seeking stories for the magazineís debut fiction issue, devoted to previously unpublished writers. The stories made it to the fiercely competitive final rounds of the selection ó the short list of finalists had 200 names ó but didnít survive the final cut.
Virtually all the chosen writers became superstars overnight, and for Ms. Bauman, the rejection was devastating. ìI wanted it so badly,î she admitted with a nervous laugh. ìI had to really get over my disappointment, my damn disappointment.íí
Ms. Bauman was still temping at Cantor Fitzgerald in August 2001 when an easygoing executive offered her a long-term assignment, working as his secretary. Ambivalent about making a commitment to something other than writing, she decided to finish her current assignment. The executive hired a temp to fill in. The temp did a great job. The executive decided to keep her on. September 2001 found Ms. Bauman nearly broke and panicking. Her assignment at Cantor Fitzgerald was over, and the temp agency had nothing more for her. She e-mailed a friend at Cantor, telling him of her plight. You should come back and work for us, the friend replied. O.K., she said, O.K.
You know the end of this story: A few days later, the friend was killed, along with almost all the other co-workers in Ms. Baumanís department, including the woman who had accepted the job offered to her.
ìIf I had taken that job, I would be dead,î she said. ìI knew so many people who died. I still canít wrap my brain around it. The sheer numbers. I think: Debby and Fred and Fran and Anna and Steve and Monique. The list goes on and on.î
As a long-term temp she found herself at once a part of the Cantor Fitzgerald family and an outsider, albeit one with a singular perspective on her co-workersí lives.
ìAs a temp,íí she said, ìyou sit at peopleís desks and you take on their lives for a few days. You see their pictures. Anna had this 2-year-old boy. His photograph was her screen saver. I stared at it all day. I can still see it.î
Heading West With $20
Before the Sept. 11 attack, Ms. Bauman had been awarded a fellowship allowing her to spend a month in a house in the tiny Minnesota town of New York Mills, where she could write in complete solitude. On Oct. 1, with $20 to her name, she got on a plane heading west.
The residents of New York Mills proved warm and friendly and interested, of course, in Ms. Baumanís experiences in New York. ìShe was just so quiet,î said Heather Price, who runs the residency program. ìMy feeling was: ëDonít push, donít pry. This is someone whoís very fragile.í íí
The break provided a brief respite. But back in New York, Ms. Bauman became overwhelmed, faced with the slowly recovering city, the sinking economy and her own tattered finances. In December, she went back to work as a temp at Cantor Fitzgerald in the firmís new office on Park Avenue.
She didnít have much choice. The market for temps had dried up after the attack. She took what she could get. Ms. Bauman avoided writing about Sept. 11 itself; yet her anger and sadness made her determined to finish those last two stories. She began writing and revising intensively, working around the clock. In March 2002, two full years after she had sent Ms. Bennett the collection and eight years after the two were initially in touch, she finished the new stories, titled the collection ìBeautiful Girlsî and sent them on.
ìBecause Iíd been working for so long in obscurity, when I sent her those last stories, I wasnít quite sure what she was going to think,íí Ms. Bauman said. ìI wasnít quite sure what I thought. Two days later she called and said, ëWeíre ready to go.í íí
Ms. Bennett sent the manuscript to a slew of editors, thinking that they would love Ms. Baumanís voice as much as she did. Editors did, in fact, love the book, but most were nervous about taking on a short story collection, no matter how charming and accessible.
Toward the end of April, as the rejections piled up, Ms. Baumanís apartment was burglarized, and she lost, among other things, her laptop. Though she had copies of her stories, she didnít have renterís insurance, or money to replace her stolen belongings.
The collection, she thought, had to sell soon.
In August, the stories landed on the desk of Anika Streitfeld, a young editor at Mac- Adam/Cage, a hip San Francisco publishing house that was started five years ago as a showcase for literary fiction. It has made waves in the publishing world for its unusual business model: rather than handing out massive advances, the company spends up to $40,000 ó an extraordinary sum for a typical first-time author ó on marketing the book.
The approach seems to work: A disproportionate number of the companyís titles have been selected for Barnes & Nobleís Discover series, Bordersís Original Voices program and the prestigious BookSense 76, a list of recommendations from independent booksellers. Recent MacAdam/Cage hits include Mark Dunnís ìElla Minnow Pea,î a lavishly praised epistolary novel, and Katherine Towlerís ìSnow Island,î a novel set in New Hampshire during World War II.
Ms. Streitfeld said she read ìBeautiful Girlsî the day it arrived, proclaimed the stories ìone little miracle after another,íí called Ms. Bennett and said, ìI have to have this book.î By Sept. 11, 2002, a deal had been worked out. Ms. Bauman grieved on the 11th, the anniversary of the attack, and celebrated two days later.
Hoping to Beat the Odds
Hundreds of short-story collections are published each year, and most sell, at best, only a few thousand copies. First efforts are especially risky.
"I love short stories, but debut fiction tends to sell modestly in the first place, and debut collections tend to sell sub-modestly,íí said Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown & Company.
ìMost readers are looking to settle into something deep,íí he added. ìUsually what you ó the publisher, that is ó are selling is a story. Youëre persuading people that theyíre going to be drawn into this deep, complex narrative, in which theyíll meet new and interesting chracters. Itís much harder to do that when youíre describing 12 discreet stories.íí
MacAdam/Cage is hoping that Ms. Bauman will beat the odds and that her book will appeal to the women who gobbled up ìThe Girlsí Guide to Hunting and Fishing,î Melissa Bankís best-selling stories about a wisecracking young woman seeking love in the West Village. Ms. Bauman received only a modest $3,000 advance. But her publisher is planning a first printing of 16,000 copies of the book, whose cover features a slightly provocative photograph showing the legs of a young woman clad in slouchy, knee-high stockings. Sigrid Estrada, a star in the author- photograph firmament, took Ms. Baumanís picture.
ìWeíre putting more behind this book than any other book that weíve ever published,î said David Poindexter, MacAdam/Cageís publisher. ìWeíre going to do anything and everything that makes any sense at all, short of standing on a street corner and screaming its praises.î
Early response has been encouraging. Barnes & Noble placed a large order; womenís magazines are calling about excerpts, and places like Barnes & Noble and the KGB Bar, the hip writersí outpost on East Fourth Street, have booked Ms. Bauman to read. The first advance review, from Kirkus Reviews, compared Ms. Bauman to Mary Robison and Grace Paley, calling ìBeautiful Girlsî a ìpowerful start.î
Most of the stories are about women 25 and under, slowly awakening to the world around them. In ìWash, Rinse, Spin,î based loosely on the death of Ms. Baumanís father, a Manhattan lawyer makes daily treks from her pointless ìno-job jobî at an anonymous Midtown corporation to the New Jersey hospital where her father is dying of cancer, never quite finding the time to do her laundry. ìWildlife of Americaî follows an aging hipster who leaves her life in New York to ìrehabilitateî at her sisterís and brother-inlawís house in a suburban town, where she rides a bike, dates a local criminal and, ultimately, realizes she has to return to Manhattan, to her real life.
ìAll of the characters are waiting for something,î Ms. Bauman said. ìTheyíre all waiting for their lives to unfurl.î Which is, of course, exactly what she has been doing all these years. ìI have,íí she agreed eagerly. ìI have been waiting, feeling trapped by my circumstances ó the day job, never having enough time to write, wanting something larger and more comfortable, a better life. Maybe not a better life, but just wanting to arrive somewhere.î
Joanna Smith Rakoff is a contributing editor and columnist at Poets and Writers, a New York magazine.