Becoming an Author: From the Corner Office to the Bestseller List

by Jean Hanff Korelitz

How do you go from being a single corporate executive to a married bestselling (and globetrotting) author? Lalita Tademy wrote the book.
Become an author
Author Lalita Tademy
Photo by Winni Wintermeyer
Leaving the Corporate World

In the early 1990s, Lalita Tademy, then in her 40s, was earning in the mid-six figures as a vice president at Sun Microsystems, a multibillion-dollar computer company in Silicon Valley. On a typical day, she would rise at 5:30 a.m. and commute 35 minutes to work, usually arriving before 8 a.m. She would endure a crush of back-to-back meetings, constant phone calls and as many as 150 e-mails—all while cramming down lunch at her desk and dealing with endless logistics—until leaving the office nearly 12 hours later. She would come home to prepared meals delivered in plastic containers to her front step. Often she would be so exhausted and so hungry that she would just stand at her kitchen counter to eat the food, dropping the empty containers back on her front step to be picked up. She was single but not dating. Once a three-times-a-week player of hard-charging racquetball, Tademy no longer even knew where to find her racket. She gained 40 pounds. So in 1995 she quit her job.

“I’d loved it for a really long time,” she says. “I loved doing deals. I loved the challenges and proving the impossible could be done. But it was no longer feeding me. Something in the back of my mind said, ‘This is not enough.’” After a career that had taken her from Philip Morris to Xerox to Sun, from New York to Los Angeles and back to the Bay Area, where she grew up, she could have scaled back or taken a leave. But Tademy knew that she had to make her move in such a way that there could be no escape back to corporate life. She had a financial cushion for three years, but she only allowed herself one: a year to take a deep breath and find a new direction.

“I made a contract with myself that I would not take any work, no matter what headhunter called or what opportunity came up,” she says. If she couldn’t think of something else to do, she figured she would then have two years to find the right job. Of course, what had felt like a sensible decision on Tademy’s final Friday at work was absolutely terrifying when Monday rolled around and she woke to a bafflingly empty schedule. She began phoning the people she wanted to reconnect with and found that (no surprise) they weren’t available in the middle of the day. “Suddenly,” she says, “I had to find something to do with 80 hours a week.”

Unearthing Her Story

What emerged from Tademy’s daunting new leisure was time to think. She had always been fascinated by her family’s history in a small Louisiana town called Colfax. She started spending time at her local branches of the National Archives and the Mormon Family History Center, “working the genealogy like a job,” as she puts it. Along the way, Tademy amassed roughly a thousand documents—land deeds, census records, birth certificates and newspaper articles—and learned about the generations of slaves and slave owners, massacres and injustices, repression and ascension that formed her family’s history. As she read the documents, she says, “The stories started to pop out and dovetail with the things I had heard as a child.”

In the 1950s, Tademy’s father, Ted, had formed a loose association of five African-American families and purchased land, through a white front buyer, in a white suburb of Oakland, California. His intention had been to build houses for each of the newcomers, but his own family, the first to make the move, was shunned. The new neighbors were so resistant to the integration of their town that they pooled their money to buy back the land—at a profit. Ted declined the offer. “We were the lone black family there for a while, and it was very tough,” Tademy says. “The kids that I made friends with were constantly being snatched away because their parents forbade them to play with me. I found that books were my friends.”

Tademy went back to that childhood love of stories and, using her stacks of research, put together a collection of character sketches and family trees. When she presented her first efforts to her niece and nephews, their eyes glazed over. “I thought, if this doesn’t pass the test with my own family, I’ve got to do it in a different form,” she says. So she tried fiction as a way of bringing the experiences to life, and found that she was drawing on the discipline she’d developed as an executive. “I had a lot of rules,” she says. “I had to write for three hours a day, whether it was good or bad, even if I threw it away.”

Tademy was, says her friend and former Sun colleague Lora Colflesh, every bit as focused as she had been in her corporate life: “She totally threw herself into it, did the hard work and just took off.”

After nine months, Tademy had a first draft of a novel she would eventually call “Cane River,” a reference to the area north of New Orleans where her mother’s family had come from. When she sent it to literary agents, the rejections—13 in all—were crushing. “If I was lucky, the agent would give me something I could use, like the characters weren’t developed or there wasn’t sufficient tension,” she remembers. After each rejection, Tademy allowed herself 24 hours to pout. “I could crawl under the covers, go to back-to-back movies, whatever was required. But at hour 25, I had to be back in my chair, rewriting so I could send it out again.” Finally, Tademy realized that she needed some guidance. She signed up for a course at UC Berkeley Extension with novelist Donna Levin, who was immediately impressed by the uniqueness of Tademy’s subject.

“When Lalita mentioned that she had found the bill of sale for her great-great-great-great-grandmother,” Levin says, “that just made me shudder.” Tademy worked on the book extensively under Levin, who introduced Tademy to her own literary agent, Jillian Manus. With Manus’s input, Tademy rewrote the book again; in all, she produced 14 drafts. When Manus finally sent the manuscript to editors, “I braced myself for the same experience,” Tademy says. “A ton of rejections.” The manuscript went out to 14 editors on a Friday, and on Monday the offers started coming in. “There was a bidding war!” Tademy says. It was won by Jamie Raab, the publisher of Warner Books.

“I adored it,” Raab says now of the manuscript she read that weekend. “I loved the characters and wanted to have a part in making sure their stories were read.”

Getting the Call

The book was published in 2001 and was doing relatively well—and then Oprah called. Winfrey got right to the point. “She said, ‘I think it’s an important book, and here are the reasons why,’” Tademy recalls. “We talked for a while but I was in such shock, I don’t remember what I said.” “Cane River” became Oprah’s Book Club’s summer 2001 selection, and sales skyrocketed.

Today Tademy, 59, is living an entirely different life. She still wakes up early, but not because the alarm clock is ringing. She might spend some time lying in bed, thinking about what she is writing. “Then I figure out what I’m going to do: reading, errands, going to the gym,” she says. She likes to clip things in her garden to tidy it up, and she eats out often (no more meals at the kitchen counter). Time with friends has gone from work-related problem solving to, in Colflesh’s words, “solving the problems of the world” as they hike the trails in the hills near Stanford University. “Whatever comes, comes,” says Tademy, who still writes for three hours at a stretch but never more “because my brain just collapses in on itself.” She admits it isn't a very structured life.

“The truth is, I don't like to have more than three things in a day to do.” Those aren’t the only changes she has made. Tademy had assumed that she would never marry, but six years ago she met Barry Williams, a corporate executive, at a friend’s house. Williams, now 63, is “a larger than life kind of guy,” Tademy says, insisting he’s as extroverted as she is introverted. The two married in 2004. During the period she now refers to as “the crazy years,” she says, “I had neither the time nor the mental flexibility to develop or nurture a relationship. I’m not convinced that I could have appreciated Barry, or found the time to try.”

Tademy is realistic about the financial realities of life as a writer. Even phenomenally successful first novels are seldom followed by equally lucrative second books, and this has been the case with her own sophomore effort, “Red River,” about an 1873 attack on a black community in Colfax, which was published in 2007 and sold only modestly. “I had a huge financial success with the first book, but I will never hit those heights again,” she says. But “the second novel’s story was something intensely important to me, one that I’d wanted to share for years, so I’m grateful I had the chance to do just that.” Changing careers was never about money for Tademy; she knows she would have earned much more if she’d stayed in the corporate world. But the price was too high. “I couldn't have gone on in business without what I think of as great soul damage,” she says. “Writing is what I know I have to do, regardless of the economic consequences.”

Featured with permission of MORE magazine. Copyright MORE 2008.

by Jean Hanff Korelitz | Friday, March 27, 2009 | Career Change, Dream Careers

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