Writer Tracy Strauss is about to publish her debut book, I Just Haven’t Met You Yet (Skyhorse Publishing, May 2019), an “open love letter” to her future life partner. It’s a memoir about relationships, reckoning with abuse, and finding a way to seen and understood.
The book – and its journey to publication – is also a remarkable story of persistence and commitment as an author. We asked Tracy about the book and about her path as a multi-faceted writer.
Where did I Just Haven’t Met You Yet begin, as a work of writing?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I started writing it in my mid-twenties while living in a tiny rural college town in upstate New York, where I was working my first job after graduate school. Other than the town planner (I knew her, which is how I know this fact!), I was the only resident older than a college student and younger than middle-aged. I was writing a screenplay, which, when I realized the story needed a genre that allowed for greater exposition, morphed into a novel about a young woman who was socially isolated and felt anxious and depressed but didn’t know why or how to go about finding the life her heart desired. In actuality, I was writing a memoir, but I wasn’t ready to face my own truth just yet. I Just Haven’t Met You Yet would take me another 15+ years of living, dating, and major self-exploration – and four different book manuscripts, which ultimately led to an 8-week writing spree in which I wrote what is now “the” book – to fully realize.
I know that your Publishers Weekly essay On Cowardice in Publishing was important to this book’s trajectory. Can you talk about the book’s journey to publication?
I was told early on that “the ick” (a phrase one well-known memoirist used to describe the mere mention of sexual abuse) in my book would be a major roadblock, if not a complete dead end, to finding an agent or publisher, and I was urged to wipe my book clean of it. A prominent editor on a Boston Book Festival panel that I attended told the audience that nonfiction manuscripts about sexual abuse should not be pitched to her, or anyone. A story about murder, however, was welcomed. Other publishing professionals said they wouldn’t acquire abuse stories because the market was flooded with them, or the opposite, that there was no readership. I heard such statements often and I found them unacceptable because they weren’t factually true. I didn’t know whether to call myself foolish or defiant, but I didn’t believe or listen to the naysayers, I just kept writing. I knew my story was much greater than “the ick” factor – yes, sexual abuse was part of the situational context for the obstacles I faced and overcame in my life, but it was not the whole story; yet to omit it would mean to remove the impetus and stakes for the journey depicted – and I had faith I’d find industry people who would understand that.
I spent many years attending writing workshops, in a variety of settings, in my attempt to master the craft of narrative nonfiction, and in the process I discovered the various psychological reactions people had to confronting sexual abuse and assault on the page. I came to understand the overall fear-based cultural conditioning around even acknowledging sexual violence, particularly incest, and within my narrative I had to find a way to disarm that conditioning, otherwise I knew my manuscript would remain buried deep in a drawer or tossed in the trash (as some workshop leaders, agents, and editors told me to do with it) despite the fact that so many readers told me they could relate to my story. In the process, I found mentors who believed in my writing and who became beacons on my path to publication.
Over the course of about ten years, I queried over 300 agents, was asked by about half to submit my manuscript or proposal for consideration and by over two dozen to chat by phone after they’d read my materials (most declined representation after the phone call, citing my lack of a New York Times byline, or other fact known before our chat, as the reason; some simply apologized and said they couldn’t take the risk on a story that had trauma in it), signed with three (of course not simultaneously, and each with different book manuscripts), and received much editorial praise for my writing but still publishers remained acquisition-shy. I could see there was interest, but fear seemed to dictate decisions. I got so used to rejection that I anticipated it with every submission, to the point that I wondered if I was being masochistic, rather than persistent, in continuing. In late January 2018, when my agent decided to stop submitting my newest book to publishers after eleven editors declined, I considered that it might be time to finally give up. I fell into a very serious depression for many weeks. A friend encouraged me to write an essay about my experience with the publishing world. I didn’t think it would change anything, but writing always gave me a sense of purpose, so I wrote the thing as a way of climbing out of my own pit. To my surprise, Publishers Weekly accepted and published the piece, and Ms. Magazine reprinted it. The editorial director at Skyhorse Publishing read it and reached out to me, asking to read my manuscript. Two weeks later, I was offered a contract. At the time I received the news, I was home in bed, sick with the stomach flu, and when I saw the email I thought I was having a delusion caused by my fever. Thankfully, I was not!
What has surprised you most during the experience of creating and publishing this book?
When I thought I’d exhausted all roads, when every sign pointed to “no” and all hope seemed to be gone, suddenly there was that green light: go(al)!
How did you select the title (I Just Haven’t Met You Yet)? And in general, how do you select titles for your essays and nonfiction?
I was stuck in traffic on Alewife Brook Parkway after picking up some cat food for my very sick cat. It was raining and I was feeling very stuck in my life and down about my lack of a partner after years and years of dating. The song “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” came on the radio, and although I’d heard it many times before, as I sat there in traffic it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I felt it captured the hopefulness I’ve always had even when things seemed bleak, and that’s one of the big threads in the book. So I decided to use the song’s refrain as my book’s title. In general, for essay/nonfiction titles I tend to use thematic phrases from the work itself, knowing the publisher will likely change the title for marketing/sales purposes.
What other artists, literary or otherwise, have helped shape your vision as a writer?
Oh gosh, there are too many to list! To name a few: Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and The Blind Assassin helped shape my sense of voice in prose. Adrienne Rich’s poetry, especially Diving Into the Wreck, helped shape my thematic vision, as did works by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and May Sarton. The sound sense of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and the music of Bob Dylan shaped my interest in the musicality of words. But my biggest influence came in the form of a rather famous film written by Stewart Stern, Rebel Without a Cause. During my freshman year of college, my parents were getting divorced and I was considering dropping out of a really tough required history class called “American Society Since 1945.” My professor played a scene from the film, in which James Dean’s character is sitting in a police station and his parents are yelling at each other and things become too much for him and he yells, “You’re tearing me apart!” The moment spoke to me deeply (and kept me enrolled in the class). I related so much to the humanness, the uncensored emotion, the message conveyed, and I remember thinking right then that connecting with an audience in the way I felt connected with this character in this film was what I wanted to be able to do as a writer.
If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Don’t let the naysayers, in writing or in life, ever define your worth or your potential for success. Never give up.
Possibly a novel, maybe a thriller. I have a story that’s been bumping around in my head for a while now, so I’m thinking of finally writing it down. Nonfiction is great, but I’m ready for a little escape!
Tracy Strauss will read at the Tell-All Boston Reading Series at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge (4/11, 7:30 PM). The book launch for I Just Haven’t Met You Yet takes place at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan (5/8, 7 PM), followed by readings including Harvard Bookstore (5/14, 7 PM) and Porter Square Books (6/13, 7 PM).