I'd been writing for thirteen years, received over 260 rejections, and had just gotten -- thank God -- my first book published! The year was 1973. I was thirty-three years old, in Long Beach, California, at a CATE conference, meaning California Association of Teachers of English. I was in the back room along with five other writers. All of the other authors had previous works published. We were waiting for the main speaker to show up. This writer wasn't only published, like the rest of us; no, he'd had a best seller, was a nationally recognized speaker, and was going to show up any minute and give the keynote address to the luncheon of the whole CATE convention.
Karen, our publisher's publicist, was nervous as hell, pacing the room and trying to figure out what to do. The national best-selling author should've arrived at least thirty minutes ago. He was supposed to have flown in from the East Coast the night before on the red-eye.
Myself, I was pretty nervous, too. I'd never been in a room with so many writers before. In fact, I'd never even met a published author until about six months back, and that was when I'd been in the Los Angeles office of my New York publisher and I'd finally found out that yes, yes, yes, I was really going to be published! I immediately called my mother and father, screaming to the high heavens -- I'd been so excited. Bantam from New York was going to publish my book Macho!
The room we were in was small, but felt much larger because of all the excitement. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I stood in a corner by myself, playing it safe and just watching everything. Hell, the only reason I was even here was because our publicist Karen Black -- who was actually white -- had called me up out of the blue yesterday afternoon, I guess, as an afterthought, and said, "Don't you live just south of Long Beach?"
"Yes, I do," I'd said.
"Good. I hope you're not too busy or will take offense that I'm calling you so late, but you see, we're going to have several of our authors giving workshops at a CATE conference in Long Beach this weekend, so why don't you drive up the coast and join us?"
"Cat? What's that?" I'd asked.
"No. CATE, California Association of Teachers of English. They buy a lot of books. This conference is very important for us, and could be for you, too."
"Oh, I see. Yeah, sure, I'll come," I said, taking a deep breath. "Will I be attending one of the workshops?"
"We thought you might present a workshop."
"Yes, of course. You are a published author."
My heart began pounding. "What would I give a workshop on to English teachers?"
"On your experiences in writing. On that special English teacher who inspired you to become an author," she said full of honey. " 'Bye now. We'll see you there. Don't worry. You have a creative mind. You'll come up with something."
She gave me the address, and then this morning, I drove in my white van up from Oceanside, where I still lived on the ranch on which I was raised, to Long Beach. I'd never heard of CATE in all my life, much less did I know what it meant to "present" a workshop. All I knew was that I'd flunked the third grade twice because I couldn't learn to read, had a terrible time all through grammar school and high school. Then after ten years of writing, I was finally able to sell my first book to a leading mass-market paperback publisher in New York.
And now, standing in a corner, I felt pretty green. After all, these other writers in the room had been published before and they were talking to one another like they were all best friends, swapping publishing stories, laughing happily, eating cookies and drinking coffee. I was drinking water. One sip of coffee would have shot me through the roof. Listening to the conversation around the snack table, I was beginning to understand that these other writers had not only already had several books published, but that most of their books had first come out in hardback, then had come out in mass-market paperback.
I was quickly learning that it was not very prestigious for me to have first been published in paperback. Because paperback books didn't get reviewed, and reviews were what got an author attention, respect, and sold books. Hell, I was still so wet behind the ears that I hadn't even realized what a review was until a few weeks back. So I said nothing and just kept listening closely, trying to learn all I could without showing my ignorance. Also, I could now see that these other writers were dressed more like city people. I guess that it had been a mistake for me to come in Levi's, cowboy boots, a big belt buckle, a Western shirt, and my old blue blazer.
Behind the closed doors of the next room, we could hear the low, rumbling noise of all the people at the conference eating lunch. I figured that it had to be a good-size crowd of people by the sound of the ruckus of plates and conversation. Our publisher's publicist was now chain-smoking as she paced the room. Checking her watch for the umpteenth time, Karen now sent her assistant, Sandy, to check for any messages at the lobby, then told her to also go out to the parking lot and glance around. Boy, it was all like a movie. Here I was in the back room with a bunch of real writers, and any second now a nationally recognized author was going to come rushing down the hallway and lead us through the two closed doors where a whole convention of teachers was waiting to meet us ... Burro Genius
. Copyright © by Victor Villasenor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.