A few weeks ago, I received my very first (real) developmental edit letter from my editor at Sourcebooks, Deb Werksman. She’s a powerhouse in the industry, so I’d been eagerly awaiting this day since back in November when she offered me my book deal. Since the publishing industry is known for moving slower than many would like, I busied myself writing the second book in my “bookish rom-com universe.” I was thrilled when I finished the first draft of that book on January 31st. I sent it over to my agent for a read-through, and she loved it – so I thought I’d be in a really solid place by the time I got my editorial letter for book 1.
But, then, the unthinkable happened. On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine.
I write light, easy romantic comedy, so this shouldn’t have had an impact on my books, right? I mean, of course, it impacts the entire world, not only because it quickly escalated into a humanitarian crisis but also because of the economic impacts felt everywhere… but as far as my books were concerned, it shouldn’t have been something to worry about.
We live in a time where the #ownvoices movement is something that authors and readers take very seriously. Beginning in grad school, when I was a fledgling writer, I learned that unless you have an authentic biological connection to a particular culture or ethnicity, you should tread very lightly when bringing a character into a fictional work who does not share that background. I respect the movement and understand its origins and the need for diversity in publishing. It’s a fine line to walk, especially as a comedy writer. I want to be funny, but not offensive, so I work hard to stay in my lane.
Biologically, I am a European mutt. Growing up, I knew I was from a mix of places because it was a big deal (to my extended family) that my parents were not from the same religious upbringing. My mother is an Ashkenazi Jew, hailing from eastern Europe, specifically Poland and several of the countries which made up the former USSR. My father, by contrast, was born into a Roman Catholic family comprised of Irish, Italian, French, German, and English lineage.
In my upcoming debut, THE YEARBOOK, I created a character (Melly Andronikashvili) who shares my mother’s background. She’s the protagonist’s best friend and stars in her own story in book two (THE GUEST BOOK). Loosely based on my best friend from third grade, Melly comes from a kooky but extremely warm, inviting family. They speak broken, heavily accented English and believe that any problem can be solved with a hot plate of food, no matter what time of day it is. Their native language is Russian, and when I originally wrote the first draft, I intended for them to be from Russia, despite the fact that the last name, Andronikashvili, is inherently a Georgian name. (Georgia is a small, democratic republic southeast of Ukraine.) I wrote jokes upon jokes starring the characters in Melly's family because I thought I could. I mean, #ownvoices, right?
When I met with my editor via Zoom in the middle of March, three weeks after the crisis in Ukraine began, I was expecting to be 100% cancelled. Like, so much so that I was ready to offer her a totally different manuscript to replace the one that I assumed would have to be shelved for a time in the far-off distant future when the nightmare in Ukraine had settled. Additionally, I tackled the guilt that came with even thinking that way – as if my author-problems were anything to even consider knowing that such a horrific tragedy was happening to an area of my ancestry.
Thankfully, we are given editors for a reason. (Agents, too, but that’s a story for another time.) Deb walked me through some strategic changes we could make to Melly’s lineage to untangle her from such a sensitive current event, without sacrificing the humor that her fictional family brings to the story, and without sacrificing my personal cultural connection. Because Deb's a professional (whereas I am merely a small, debut-author-
fish swimming in a giant pond), she was able to see things from a global perspective and bring new ideas and compromises to the creative table that would enhance the story infinitely. She put my mind at ease and enabled me to dive back into the manuscript for my first major round of edits – edits which involved so much more than just that one topical element.
When I entered my MFA program in 2019, I had written a total of fifty pages of fiction in my adult life. I was hungry for an education – I wanted to learn everything I could about the publishing industry. For as much as I discovered in graduate school, I’ve learned even more in these few short months since being signed by my agent. It’s been a whirlwind, but a great one, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m lucky and blessed to have so many incredible people willing to share their knowledge with me. This journey has been daunting but amazing so far. I can’t wait to keep you posted on next steps.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider giving to one of the following organizations who are organizing humanitarian aid for Ukrainians:
Until next time...