Growing up, writing was something that wasn’t even seen as an option for a future career. I loved it, but I think in the back of my head, I always saw it as a hobby, not something I could actually do. But the way I grew up contributed a lot more to my writing than I ever thought it would.
I lived in two worlds growing up. One world was the private school I attended on scholarship, where I had to keep my grades at the top of the class to keep my scholarship and not be a disappointment. And I don’t just mean in school. If I failed, I would be a disappointment to everyone else on the scholarship program (because if one of us messed up, clearly none of us were truly meant to be there), my mother (a hard-working single mom who’d fought to help me get the scholarship in the first place), and my whole community, where I was seen as one of the few who’d “made it.”
After school and work, I’d go back home to the projects in Pittsburgh, PA. It was where I was from, but I felt like an alien because of the opportunities my school granted me. Everyone saw me as the person who would go off to college far away and make something better of herself. While my friends got more wrapped into poverty, gangs, drugs, and many other problems you shouldn’t have to deal with as a teenager, I had to act like I belonged at my school. It was putting on an act every day in both communities. Writing anchored me in both worlds, and was something I could do on the bus between work and school, or at night once I finished homework.
After graduating, I moved across the country to San Francisco for undergrad, studying International Relations and Linguistics. I got more scholarships to study abroad and do research projects abroad, too. I took a break from writing for much of college. I’d written all through high school—so many vampire books—then wrote two books in my freshman year of undergrad, and then took a break, only doing NaNoWriMo books each year and random scribbles otherwise.
Every time I visited my community, I was seen as someone who’d gotten out and made something of herself. And compared to many people there, I did. I was lucky enough to have my mom making sure I got those scholarships, but not everyone has someone in their corner when they’re young. It was hard to remember this sometimes, especially when, through a series of events, I became homeless in my last year of undergrad.
My mother and I had been homeless once when I was a child, which I hardly remember. I was again when I was 19, but it thankfully only lasted for a month and I came out of it okay. But when it happened again at age 22, something in me broke. I thought I’d gotten away from that. I thought I’d succeeded and had made something of myself, and that I’d escaped my roots. Poverty, though, is cyclical, and incredibly difficult to break away from. This time, the library became my refuge, and guess what? It was November again. NaNoWriMo time! I would spend about 2-3 hours writing each night during that time. And it wasn’t easy, because I was working two jobs and also homeless. But writing became my sanctuary. When there was so little I could control in my life, writing was something I could control. I could control entire worlds on the page.
When I finally got a place to live again, I was on the grind. It was my last semester of school, so I was writing my thesis, working three jobs, and writing 3-4 manuscripts. I did it by writing on my phone, mostly on my commutes.
I got a job as a Corporate Travel Manager after graduating. There wasn’t much room for creativity on the job, which meant I could be really creative outside of it. It was also pretty much the first time in my life after high school that I only had one job and had somewhere steady to live. Consequently, this is when I wrote the most. I finished somewhere from 8-10 manuscripts during that time, but it wasn’t until January 2017 that I started to write a book that I knew I would want to query. I hadn’t queried before, mostly because I forgot that “being published” was actually a thing that people could do. So throughout the next year, I wrote and edited, and signed with my fantastic agent, Peter Knapp of Park Literary & Media!
My agent journey started with a writing conference I attended where I could pitch my book to agents. I wrote my pitch, practiced for a few days, and pitched to four agents. One of them became my first offering agent. I’ll be forever grateful to this agent for opening up this opportunity to me and loving my book.
I participated in PitMad a few weeks after the contest, and once I got my first offer, I sent emails to all the other agents who had my query or full. Out of those, two other agents ended up offering. I spoke to the first two agents and they were both wonderful. It was going to be a really hard choice!
And then I had my call with Pete Knapp! Thank you to Pete for taking my early morning phone calls—I woke up at 6 for this since I couldn’t have long calls during work. We spoke for about an hour and he blew me away! Pete is basically some kind of rockstar-superhero-magician of an agent who GOT my book, was passionate about it, and had a lot of ideas about editing. And then he asked if we could schedule ANOTHER call because he had more to say! I mean, what kind of superhero is he?!
Everyone needs a different kind of agent for their book, the one that fits, and I am grateful that my agent is very editorial. He had ideas that basically turned my book upside-down and inside-out and I am SO GRATEFUL for it. There was a lot of editing, and at times I doubted myself and my writing, but it was so worth it in the end. I’m very happy with how the book turned out!
Early in June this year, I went to New York to attend Book Con with some writing friends. Here’s a picture of some of us!
I also met my agent! And he told me we were going to go on submission that very day! OMG!!
I was luckily still in New York for the next couple days to help distract me from sub, but after that, it was very difficult to not refresh my email every two seconds. I was rather lucky in my process, thanks to my amazing agent, and a little over a week after going on submission, I had an editor call with the wonderful Eileen Rothschild from Wednesday Books.
It was a very hot day outside of my ballet studio when I spoke with Eileen, and found out we had many similar ideas for what direction to take the book in! She was also super nice and easy to talk to, and when we hung up, my only thought was—I don’t think I want to work with anyone else.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to suffer any longer, because the next day, Eileen and Wednesday Books offered with a pre-empt deal that blew me away!
Now, more than any other time in my life, I feel like I’ve made something of myself, and I’m grateful for every bump in the road that brought me here.
And the book that got me the deal? I didn’t realize it in the first draft, because the words were just flowing and forming into some strange, book-shaped blob, but it incorporated a LOT of my own experiences, especially with poverty and homelessness.
DIAMOND CITY is about a city caught between the past and future, split between the magic and religion of tradition and the steam and electricity of industrialization. But most of all, it’s a story about how such change, and the conflicts that arise around it, affect the poor. At the center of this was a girl whose personal history with poverty and violence shaped her entire future. How can it not? Communities that are the playground of businesses and politicians, where things happen to them but they can do nothing, are surrounded by violence, drugs, alcohol, and a general lack of belief that if you’re from there, you can become anything more. So I wrote about a girl whose experience with homelessness and poverty have influenced her to adjust her expectations, to fear hoping for more but to want more anyway. She might not have the world at her fingertips, but she’ll do her best to touch her own sky.
I wrote this book for everyone who thinks they can’t reach higher, and for everyone who wants to reach higher but doesn’t know what’s waiting for them. For everyone who wants to speak but circumstances have robbed their willingness or care to do so. I write for everyone who has ever thought it’s impossible or foolish to hope for good things to happen to them, simply because they were born without.