The Day My Dad Changed My Life
By Tosca Lee
Authors often get asked what they hope readers will take away from their books, what their publishing journey was like and what’s next for them.
But my favorite question is this:
“How did you get into writing?”
I’d always written as a kid and even won awards every now and then in school. I’d even had a story about the death of my beloved bulldog, Oliver, published in a pet lover’s newsletter (when newsletters were printed on paper and delivered to real mailboxes!) in third grade. But I hadn’t ever thought of pursuing writing because I was dead set on becoming a professional ballerina. I devoted my entire early life to this goal, dancing with a company after school and spending my summers away from home. Until an injury as a teenager made me rethink my options.
So off I went to college.
Home during spring break my freshwoman (I went to Smith :D) year of college, I was in the car with my dad talking about how great books are like roller coasters—with such great twists and turns. I don’t remember where we were going, only that at some point I blurted out, “I think I really want to write a book.” The idea was that maybe I could create a roller coaster ride like other authors had for me. I bemoaned, however, the fact that I had no idea when—between school and my summer job—I’d have time to try it.
College was hard work for me and I was supposed to spend that coming summer working as a bank teller downtown—a job I had done the summer before and was not great at. In part, because I don’t do math accurately, and apparently this is important when handling money. I don’t know how many times my poor manager stayed late to help me balance my cash drawer… or how many times local celebrities (Tom Osborne, anyone?) walked in and I thought, “Wow, that guy looks familiar…”
That day in the car, Dad—a professor of business at the University of Nebraska and academic author—said, “Okay, Tosc., I’ll make you a deal. I’ll pay you what you would have made working at the bank if you write your first novel this summer, full-time, and treat it like a job.”
I don’t know what inspired him to make me that offer. What stroke of parenting—or teaching—genius that struck him while driving, but I agreed on the spot. I totally forgot he had also signed me up to study Economics at Oxford the first month of that summer. Nor had anyone told me it wasn’t possible to write a sweeping, epic, historical novel about the Neolithic people of Stonehenge in two months…
So I did it.
It was very bad.
I didn’t know that when I submitted it to Writers House literary agency with a 23-page synopsis (I’m dying, typing this—did I mention I have made alllll the mistakes in my career?).
Suffice it to say, they didn’t accept me. But I figured if I’d written one novel, I could probably write another.
My dad changed the course of my life that day. Not because he offered me the equivalent of a few paychecks, but because he believed I could do it. And I’ve believed him ever since.
My dad turned 84 this month. Each time I have a new book come out or a translation of one of my books arrives in the mail, I give it to him to put on his shelves.
PS: His books still take up more room than mine, but I’m trying to catch up.
PSS: That first novel, Twilight of the Ancients, remains in my basement with the skeletons.
Dad finding the Korean translation of his latest book and my novel, Demon, in the same bookstore in Korea