AJ Mayhew

 

A.J. Mayhew's first reading — Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC, March 29, 2011

 

Introduction by Laurel Goldman

 

I fairly regularly get to witness a writer navigating every stage of a novel, from first sentence to last; from everything that goes into getting an agent (many tedious tasks and lots of waiting and angsting) and everything that goes into getting a publisher (more waiting and angsting).

And sometimes I’m privileged to witness a writer’s transformation – as I was with A.J. – and that’s what comes to my mind before anything else when I think of A.J.’s journey (eighteen years to write a book, four months to get her agent - that’s fast - and three years and three months before she got to her editor at Kensington and signed the contract for The Dry Grass of August).

From the beginning of her time in the writing group (she came in 1987), A.J. really had what she needed: she was very smart, a quick study, an omnivorous reader, a sensitive and penetrating critic (she’s been a devoted writing teacher running very successful fiction and non-fiction groups for sixteen years), a natural born copyeditor – and she had writing instincts and knew her way around a paragraph.

The first piece I remember A.J. reading was science fiction, and I remember the first couple of chapters of a psychological mystery thriller. Then A.J. read from the first chapter of what’s become The Dry Grass of August. You could tell (even before the critique started) that everyone in the group was thinking the same thing: "this is A.J.’s real material, this is her voice, this has the magic."

So A.J. had, as I said, all the gifts she needed to succeed, but her faith in those gifts came and went, leaving her at the mercy of every careless remark, every negative comparison she made between her work and the work of the writers she admired.

There were times in the old days when an unexpectedly rough critique in class could flatten her. In that moment, she couldn’t see how fixable the problem was, or how well-equipped she was to fix it. In that moment, her confidence was erased by what she’d heard or thought she’d heard.

Like most of us in that scenario, she literally hadn’t heard the good stuff that was said. She was hearing the odd, internalized demon voices who love to whisper their poison in our ears: "what makes you think you have anything worthwhile to say? who do you think you are? you can’t do this, give it up."

I remember an especially dark time when A.J. contemplated leaving the group and abandoning her novel. But she didn’t. It’s incredibly difficult to persist when you’re surrounded by doubts, but she did. She persisted and persisted and persisted. And those demons, who never give up trying to derail us, are nevertheless particularly put off by persistence.

Now, and for many years – when a critique (or anything else in her life) is disappointing and difficult, you know that in an hour or a day or certainly by the next week, A.J. will have had a few choice words to say to those old demons voices, she will have taken a deep breath and sorted through her options, and she’ll be well on her way to figuring out how to proceed.

The A.J. I first knew would not have had the confidence that would allow her to successfully navigate the tricky territory of a three-year relationship with an agent, who never got an e-mail he wanted to answer in a timely fashion, but whose faith in her book was unshakeable.

Time after time, A.J. chose her moment and her words in a way she’d figured out would maximize her chances of getting a response from her agent, a good response that would sustain her for the next round of the writing game. I watched her exercise that same combination of restraint, firmness and appreciation as she worked with her editor and copyeditor, and then with her publicists, so she could meet all her commitments, do all the tasks she was asked to do and do them well.

A.J.’s novel is, as most good books are, a triumph – not just of talent – but of will and spirit. By any measure I can think of, A.J. has come into her own as a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a wife (for the last 10 years she’s been married to the very supportive Jean-Michel Margot), a teacher and a writer.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to my generous-hearted friend, Anna Jean Mayhew, reading from her wonderful first novel, The Dry Grass of August.