In 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Cynthia Lim as she shaped and crafted her memoir. She had a tough topic she wanted to tackle -- her husband’s severe brain injury and her own response to it -- and it presented some difficult structural and thematic questions. In addition, her very life is far more demanding than most -- she was working for the LA Unified School District as executive director for data and accountability, overseeing the care of her husband in their home, and mothering her two boys. She worked incredibly hard to wrestle her story into shape, and then to wrestle her book proposal into shape. The resulting memoir is so moving and so real -- and to be perfectly honest, totally haunting. There are certain scenes that simply won’t leave my mind.
In 2014, Cynthia went out to agents with a really strong pitch package. She received rejection after rejection, and some of them felt very personal because Cynthia’s story was very personal. In February 2015, Cynthia signed with agent Paul Levine for her memoir, Wherever You Are. They took the book out to publisher after publisher and met with the same story every time: great writer, heart-wrenching story, but sorry we don’t know how to sell it. After months and months, Cynthia came to the conclusion that her book was not going to be picked up by a publisher.
Her agent, however, never gave up, and just last week, Cynthia learned that Coffeetown Press, a well-respected independent publisher based in Seattle, was going to publish her memoir.
I love this story of persistence and resilience and am so thrilled that Cynthia has agreed to answer some questions. Next week, I hope that her agent will answer some, as well.
Here is the query Cynthia sent out, which beautifully summarized her tale:
Wherever You Are is a story that begins with my husband’s severe brain injury, but it is not the story of what happened to him. It’s the story of what happened to me.
Ten years ago, I thought I had a perfect life: a husband who was a successful attorney, my own fulfilling career in education, two teen-aged sons in private school, a home in Los Angeles filled with books, music and art. The big decision each year was where we would go on vacation. Then my husband, Perry, suffered a massive heart attack while on vacation in Oregon and his brain received no oxygen for seven minutes. I stood by helplessly as I watched our lives shatter. For ten days, he lingered in a coma and when he slowly awakened, I didn’t know how much of his cognition or former self would return. His mind was agitated and his behavior became more bizarre and disjointed. Still, I maintained hope that he would fully recover; that he could resume his career as an attorney and our lives would continue as before. I fought to get him the treatment and care he needed even though it became more and more apparent that our lives would never be the same.
I struggled to find a connection with the man I once knew and loved, whose brain would never function the way it had in his prime. I wondered if I could continue loving a person who was brain damaged. I juggled with new roles of caregiving and being solely responsible for our teenaged sons and working full time, while fighting the urge to leave him in an institution and walk away.
As help from the medical community tapered off and our teenaged sons moved away to college, I wondered where I belonged and what my identity was now that he was disabled. I learned to give myself permission to take care of my needs and desires, discovering a strength and resolve I never had before.
Wherever You Are spans a ten-year period, from the moment my husband, Perry succumbs to cardiac arrest while on vacation in Portland, Oregon, to our present lives in Los Angeles. Our sons have moved out of our house and are launched in their independent lives. Perry stays in our home with a caregiver every day, and attends classes at the local community college, takes walks at the local park and attends therapy sessions every week. I work full-time as an administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Our favorite times are our quiet evenings at home and enjoying the serenity and peacefulness of our newly remodeled house. When asked if he would rather sit in the living room and watch TV or go into the den with me while I write, he always says, “Go in the den with you. I want to be wherever you are.”
Jennie: Cynthia! OMG! I am always thrilled when one of my clients gets this kind of news, but in your case, I was really just over the moon. Can you let us know how you felt when you heard the news? I mean the moment you heard?
Cynthia: About a month before, Paul got an email asking if the book had been vetted by an attorney. He responded that yes, it had since he is an attorney. I didn’t get my hopes up though because I didn’t want to be disappointed. Then they sent him another email weeks later asking about the promotional activities in the proposal and whether that was still the plan. Then finally, the email that they were interested. Paul called me after he talked to them on the phone to go over the offer. He thinks highly of the press but I don’t think it sunk in quite yet. I asked, “is it time to celebrate?” And he said, “Yes! Mazel tov!” I wanted to do a happy dance but I was at work so the first person I told was my administrative assistant who gave me a hug. And I was walking on air for the rest of the day.
Jennie: Did you tell Perry? Was he able to understand the good news? What about your boys?
Cynthia: He has short-term memory loss so I have told him several times and he has the same response each time. His eyes light up and he smiles and says, “Wow, that’s really exciting!”
My boys are thrilled. Zack, my oldest, lives in New York now and called. Paul is in the Air Force and stationed in Afghanistan but he called when he heard because he was so excited for me.
Jennie: Did you know that Paul was still pitching the book or did this come as a surprise?
Cynthia: Paul cc’s me on all his correspondences so I knew he had sent out another round. Right after he sends out a round, there are several responses that come in rather quickly. And up to now, it’s been, “nice story, good writing, but it’s a crowded shelf out there.” So I didn’t think anything would happen with this round.
Jennie: Paul has been an outstanding advocate for you from the very beginning. Can you tell us how you came to sign with him?
Cynthia: I worked with you on how to seek out agents to query and that was tremendously helpful. I had no contacts in the industry and all of my queries were cold queries. I used Query Tracker and researched agents that were accepting memoir. Then, using your advice, I studied their websites. I liked that Paul was local (from Venice, California). I sent out 40 queries to agents and got some follow-ups but Paul called back. After we met, I liked his approach (he said that he never gives up). But more importantly, he believed in the book.
Jennie: After all the publisher rejections back in 2014 and 2015, I remember you were pretty devastated. You’d landed a great agent and now you were getting roadblocks thrown up by publishers. It was a tough time, wasn’t it? Can you talk about that?
Cynthia: Each time, I got an email from Paul, my heart would jump. At first, I was heartened by the responses, even though they were rejections. They weren’t saying it wasn’t a good story or that there was a problem with the writing but it seemed insurmountable. I didn’t think the book would ever get published and then I started doubting myself as a writer. Was I really a writer? Who even wants to read what I write?
Jennie: Did you ever consider self-publishing? Why or why not?
Cynthia: I was going to give it more time before considering self-publishing. To me, it meant doing more research on how to self-publish and market and cover design -- all of that seemed daunting to me. I am retiring from my job in July so I was going to give it a little more time and then start looking into how to self-publish.
Jennie: Have you spoken with your editor yet?
Cynthia: Not yet.
Jennie: You have been writing articles and taking classes working on your writing all the time. In fact, Barbara Abercrombie, who many Los Angeles writers know and love and who teaches at the UCLA Writer’s Program with me, said she recently heard you read a piece of the memoir at a spoken word event. How has your writing life been going in general?
Cynthia: Through a Writer’s Studio at UCLA, four of us formed a writing group that meets every month. It is through this wonderful group of writers that I was able to pound out this book, chapter by chapter. I have been writing about other topics since finishing the memoir although it’s always difficult due to the demands of my job. I published an essay about my father’s death in a plane crash when I was seven in Witness and am working on several others. I also started a blog at www.cynthialimwriting.com. I am excited about being able to devote more time to writing.
Jennie: I worked with you while you developed your book proposal, and for non-fiction, it always includes an extensive marketing plan. You identified many channels that would allow you to connect with other caregivers as a writer and a speaker. Are you thinking now about implementing some of those ideas? If so, which excites you the most?
Cynthia: It scares me to think about! I planned to connect with local brain injury groups and caregiving alliances and that is still the plan. Now that I will have more time, I can devote more attention to those venues. I can also update my blog more frequently and look for ways to get more followers to reach a larger audience.
Jennie: When is the book expected to be published?
Cynthia: Spring 2018, which is perfect timing.
Jennie: Are you itching to write other books?
Cynthia: I’m planning a trip to China in the fall to visit our family’s ancestral villages so I think there may be a book in there somewhere.
Jennie: What advice would you give to other memoir writers? Or new book writers in general?
Cynthia: Keep writing! It gets discouraging at times but keep plugging away. Be picky about writing groups -- you want one that will give you critical feedback and not just praise. Be willing to accept tough feedback, it always improves your writing. View each draft as a draft and not the final product. And always remember, you are a writer!
Jennie: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cynthia: Just to thank you profusely, Jennie, for being such a great book coach.
Jennie: That is so sweet! Thank you. I can’t wait to watch this book come into the world!