Why I don't have a real job and other frequently asked questions
Have you ever had a real job?
Yes! I'd just finished my doctorate — this was 1995 — and like my heroine in Loose Lips, Selena Keller, I was beginning to realize that the next step in my life, the expected step anyway, was to apply for tenure-track teaching jobs. Every time I thought about this I felt a keen sense of mounting desperation.
I was paging desultorily through a copy of The Economist when I noticed a classified ad: An Asian publishing group was planning to launch a pan-Asian daily newspaper based in Bangkok, and was looking for "experienced sub-editors with an extensive knowledge of Asian languages and politics." I wasn't even sure what a sub-editor was, and would have been hard-pressed to locate any Asian country on a map — I could have found China, maybe — but on a whim I sent them my resume. They wrote back, inviting me to an interview in a hotel room in London. The curtains were drawn, the room reeked of smoke, and the two men interviewing me — a Thai with terrible skin and a German whose entire body was yellow with nicotine stains — were clearly drunk. As luck would have it, they just happened to ask me the one question I could answer: What did I think of the Nick Leeson bond scandal? The night before I'd been at a dinner party hosted by a pair of mathematicians, and had heard an earful about Leeson. I promptly relieved myself of a detailed discourse on Stochastic calculus, Markov methods, and the characteristics of economic equilibria that support Black-Scholes option pricing — having no idea whatsoever what any of these terms meant, of course. Fortunately, they asked no follow-up questions. Their only query was whether I smoked. "I don't," I said. "But if the job requires it, I'll learn." It seems this was the right answer.
Next thing you know, I was flying to Bangkok, installed in an orchid-filled apartment with a cohort of bowing servants, and working behind the scenes at a paper quite unlike any news organ I'd ever imagined — a place where money was never an object; where the correspondents received salaries so profligate as to make the playboys of the Saudi royal family blush; where from time to time the publisher strode in accompanied by a dozen stunningly beautiful Chinese courtesans, made cryptic pronouncements about countering the White Man's neo-colonial journalism, and then took to his heels and strode out, leaving us all mystified; and where we never — I mean never — produced an article anyone would ever want to read. Everything we turned out was bilge: lists of unreadable economic statistics, bizarre theories about secret conspiracies between Mainland China and Taiwan; ranting incoherent editorials about the perfidy of the IMF. We were the only newspaper in the world that defended the SLORC. Yet there was so much money flowing through that place! And no one ever cut it off!
I simply couldn't figure it out, although I wasn't inclined to ask too many questions, because it was a really cushy job. I have many stories about that newspaper. Our features editor was thrown into a Thai dungeon on trumped-up drug charges, our deputy editor-in-chief was found to be moonlighting as a brothel-owner, our Burma correspondent fell into a sewer while literally chasing a story and nearly died of blood poisoning. But those are for another book.
Anyway, one day, a woman I'll call E., our correspondent in a country I'll call Klong-Klong, strode into the office for a quarterly meeting with the editor-in-chief, a man I'll call Vindaloo. I remember her well: She was an attractive, well-put-together woman in her mid-thirties with an air of breezy self-assurance. She wore very bright red lipstick. She invited me to get a massage with her, and over the course of the afternoon E. told me two very fascinating secrets — first, that she had slept with Hugh Grant, who was "nothing to write home about," and second, that the newspaper I worked for was "obviously" a highly elite, ultra-secret economic intelligence gathering unit for the CIA.
The second she said that, it all fell into place....
Was it true? I have no idea. I'll never knew the truth — how could I? But the more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. From that day, I began to look at everyone around me in a different light. And once you start looking at things that way, you never stop.
I've been intrigued by the CIA — and the people who work there — ever since.
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How did you write Loose Lips?
The first draft took me about six months, and rewriting it took another six months. My brother Mischa and I collaborated in the final revisions, working together via Instant Messenger. Here's the way we worked:
Mischa: I'm still having some trouble with the counterplot.
Mischa: The counterplot seems a little bit of a repeat of the PINEAPPLE scene.
Mischa: I'll tell you what:
Mischa: I will write the counterplot tonight, as a one page story,
Mischa: and you can add it in as appropriate,
Mischa: in Selena's voice, OK?
Claire: OK perfect ...
Mischa: I LOVED the soccer game, though.
Claire: my idea was that something about this guy would strike her as not right ... and she would insist that they put a tap on his phone before recruiting him, and they would thus discover that he was actually a Sikh intelligence agent in Canada fundraising for Sikh separatist activities.
Mischa: I'll think about that.
Mischa: My thinking was entirely different ...
Mischa: I was thinking that the counterplot should be about fish.
Claire: Oh! I see ...
Mischa: Really dirty, nitty-gritty,
Mischa: dull intelligence,
Mischa: of the sort that is entirely necessary,
Mischa: but not glamorous.
Claire: Well, I'll give it a try ... let's see how it works.
Mischa: I mean, spooks in Canada study fish, no?
Mischa: And that stuff is pretty necessary, if you think about it.
Claire: Yep ... but don't forget, this is the DO not the DI.
Claire: Anything analytical is handled by the DI
Mischa: Claire, it can be anything we want, no?
Claire: Yes and no ... I want it to be accurate.
Mischa: OK, so that means there needs to be an agent,
Mischa: or an operation,
Mischa: and instructions to the agent,
Mischa: and so on?
Claire: That's what the DO does.
Mischa: But I think it would be a real coup if
Claire: Brainwork is the DI's purview.
Mischa: we made a fisheries dispute compelling.
Claire: Yes, I agree.
Mischa: So it could be a GATT negotiator,
Mischa: with mixed loyalties,
Mischa: letting on that the Canadians are cheating, no?
Mischa: OK, let me do some research on Canadian fisheries,
Mischa: and come to understand the dispute.
Mischa: Keep going on your end,
Claire: To which I shall now return
Claire: Thanks, Mate!
Mischa: Good on ya, Sheela!
This culminated in a three weeks of deadline-inspired collaboration. We holed up together in an apartment in Washington D.C. Mischa woke me up every morning by charging into my bedroom and yelling AIRBORNE! -- the way the jumpmaster does in the parachuting scene from Loose Lips. Whenever we figured out how to solve a plot problem, we'd say "kudos!" like they do in CIA cable traffic. We both agreed that the characters in Loose Lips had become more real and meaningful to us than any of our friends.
During those weeks, we discovered a previously unknown neural particle, the Creaton. Creatons are manufactured during sleep. They are highly unstable, and burn off quickly upon waking. Nothing new can be written without Creatons, and it's very important to take advantage of their accumulation in the brain by working immediately upon waking. By lunchtime, they're gone. A problem that admits of an instant solution when Creaton levels are high will seem insuperable when they're low. Creatons figure prominently in my new novel, Lion Eyes.
I couldn't have finished it without Mischa. He's an editor of genius, like Maxwell Perkins.
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How did you sell Loose Lips?
I had just finished Loose Lips, and I had no idea how to sell it. I was also broke. My brother had just been laid off from his job consulting to a company in Silicon Valley that specialized in e-commerce. He too was broke. We were both sinking into a funk. Mischa was living in Washington, D.C., but when I remember that time I tend to forget that: We spoke every day via Instant Messenger, so it seemed as if he existed as disembodied words on my computer screen. He could equally have been next door in Paris, or on the moon.
Mischa: I am afraid to answer the phone, for fear it might be the landlord wondering where his money is.
Claire: Perhaps you'd feel less anxiety if you called him preemptively,
Claire: and just explained that you're a little late because all your money was in Enron?
That day, Mischa proposed publishing Loose Lips on line. That seemed a bit far-fetched to me — after all, who buys books on line? — but he thought we had nothing to lose, and nothing better to do, so why not try.
So Mischa built a website for the book. He put the first chapter on line. At the end of that chapter, readers could pay .95 to download the rest of the book in PDF format. He decided that we would give away the book for free to anyone who linked to the site from their website, or forwarded the URL to 20 of their friends. He had me write personal letters to people who might link to the book. I wrote to hundreds of bloggers, introducing myself and pleading with them to read Loose Lips. To my surprise, many of the people I wrote to did link to my book. Suddenly, traffic began pouring in to the website. People were reading the first chapter — and some of them were buying the rest. We celebrated each sale:
Claire: SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE! SALE!
Mischa: We have broken the 100 mark!
Claire: I do believe that EVERYTHING is going our way now!
Mischa: Yes, it's easy street from here on out!
Mischa: Life is a breeze!
Mischa: Although I do wish that I had the rent for this month now.
Mischa wasn't satisfied. His next idea was to promote the book — in the personal ads.
Subject: (wanted) *** WANTED: WRITER SEEKS READER ***
MISSED YOUR CONNECTION? DON'T FEEL BAD. TRY READING THIS NOVEL INSTEAD.
BEAUTIFUL YOUNG NOVELIST with sparkling prose style seeks sensitive reader for high adventure, intrigue, romance, and plot twists.
Please read my first novel at
Send me a note if you like it ...
Subject: (wanted) WRITER CHICK SEEKS READER
Hey you — yes, YOU, the reader who saw this ad last week and didn't check out the novel, that was OUR DATE WITH DESTINY you missed. I saw you. You were kind of shy, you wondered, "is this some kind of spam?" You thought about it, our eyes met for just a second but then you looked away and my heart broke.
No, no, no: I don't mean someone else, I mean YOU. This is a personal message for just the right kind of reader. Sensitive but strong. Tender but tough. You know who you are.
BEAUTIFUL YOUNG NOVELIST with sparkling prose style seeks YOU for
high adventure, intrigue, romance, and plot twists.
Please read my first novel at
Send me a note if you like it ...
AND THIS IS NOT SPAM. BECAUSE THE FIRST CHAPTER IS FREE.
Subject: (wanted) *** WANTED: WRITER SEEKS READER ***
I keep missing my connection to a publisher who wants to give me a contract for this great novel. I know we've almost met, many times. I've seen your face in my dreams. I've imagined the phone call so often I feel like it's almost happened. "Hey," you say kindly, almost tenderly, "what a great book! It's funny, it's sexy, it taught me all this stuff about CIA training that I never knew! Would you like me to publish you ... all over?"
If you're a fun-loving reader who likes espionage, plot twists, sexy women and a good laugh at the CIA's expense, check out my novel at
And if you're my publisher, damn it, call me.
Not everyone appreciated our marketing strategy:
This is really more like an advertisement and we really don't allow that on Craigslist...can you please not post this?
Some people were confused. They kept writing to ask me out. A few readers turned into rather persistent stalkers. But other people loved it, and bought the book.
It was a good development, but it still wasn't enough to pay the rent.
Mischa's final idea was the best of all. He had me collect the email addresses of hundreds of journalists, book critics, and editors of literary reviews. He split the first chapter into five installments, formatted them into HTML, and began spamming them with a serialized version of beginning of the book: Part one on Monday, Part two on Tuesday, and so on until Friday, when we figured they had to be hooked. We sent the last part with a note at the end: "If you want to find out what happens to Selena Keller, click here!" The link took them to our website.
When you're a spammer, your perspective on spam really changes.
Mischa: We're spamming...
Claire: Spam, spam spam spam, Spam, spam spam spam,
Claire: Beautiful spam!
Claire: They would have to have hearts of stone not to respond to that one.
Claire: I have just been offered yet more barely-legal teenage lesbian action.
Claire: Why don't they do better demographic research before sending that stuff out?
Mischa: Well, because email is free,
Mischa: as you know.
Mischa: So there is not much reason for them to winnow out the crop.
Mischa: It's not like their brand identity will suffer,
Mischa: because you now associate Acme Smut Corp.,
Mischa: with teenage barely legal lesbianism,
Mischa: instead of All-Slut Gang Bang Orgies.
Claire: I guess.
Mischa: The choice of the word 'Action' is peculiar, though.
Mischa: I am not sure if I am enticed by the notion of 'action.'
Claire: I have tried many times to have myself removed from their mailing lists,
Claire: but it doesn't work.
Mischa: It is impossible, once they have found you.
Mischa: Let me ask you, though: Do you think there are just some excited, entrepreneurial, barely-legal teen lesbians out there,
Mischa: so excited to make a little money and maybe break into the big time?
Mischa: And they feel sad when you continue to reject them?
Claire: You mean, like we do?
Mischa: Well, mutatis mutandis.
Claire: No, I suspect that barely-legal teen lesbians don't get rejected quite as much as aspiring novelists.
Claire: They probably have their hands full, so to speak.
It's true that we did receive a number of indignant emails.
Claire: This woman just asked us to stop spamming her.
Mischa: Hold on. Let me see.
Mischa: Oh, she's just getting the second installment.
Mischa: Perhaps you should reply: "Awww, baby. Don't be like that." Women love that.
Claire: Yeah, I guess I could.
Mischa: If you were nice enough to give her your work,
Mischa: I think she should be gracious enough to read it.
Claire: I agree.
Claire: But what can you do?
Mischa: People are so touchy.
Claire: Yes. They are.
Mischa: I wonder if she was having a hot flash.
Mischa: Maybe we should ask.
Claire: We could ask,
Claire: but I think perhaps that would be too forward.
Mischa: How does one ask these things, in society?
Claire: There's a fine line between charming and totally fucking offensive, you know.
Mischa: Yes, a fine line.
Mischa: I'm missing Seinfeld!
Mischa did all this work, I should add, with a slow dial-up connection.
Mischa: I need to restart the spamalizer.
Claire: I see.
Mischa: Otherwise I would go to bed and read White Teeth,
Mischa: which I purchased today.
Claire: Oh! How exciting!
Mischa: Yes. Did you know we are averaging $.08 per visitor?
Claire: That's good! All we need now is a billion visitors, and we are SET.
Mischa: Yes. That is only one fifth of humanity.
We wouldn't accept no for an answer. If they hadn't bought the book after a week, and hadn't yelled at us, we sent them this email on Monday morning:
SUBJECT: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE BUY MY BOOK!
Surely you were a little bit intrigued? Surely you were a little curious about what happened to Selena Keller? Look, I swear to you, it's a great book. It's got everything — CIA gossip, funny stories, satire, romance, understated eroticism, intrigue, betrayal, the whole nine yards. What's not to like? You won't be able to put it down. If you don't think so, I'll give you your money back — no questions asked. And hey: I'm practically giving it away. It costs way less than a double latte and a scone.
Look, help me out here. I'm a young writer. It's hard to get noticed and published. I'm trying to be innovative. I mean, have you ever seen a book campaign like this? It's creative, isn't it? Don't you want to help a creative young woman pursue her dreams? I mean, you had fun with the first chapter, didn't you? Look, I hate to plead, but I NEED YOU TO BUY MY BOOK. I think it would really work out well for us both. Come on, don't be coy. I need your help. You can save the young writer, or you can turn the page. Please?
This was the strategy that got us our big break. One of the people we spammed, a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, downloaded the book and called his agent, Kathy Robbins of the Robbins Office. He suggested she take a look. Her assistant called me and arranged a phone date for me to speak to Kathy. Mischa and I were so excited we could barely stand it.
Mischa: When you talk with Kathy Robbins tomorrow,
Mischa: do not forget that she called you.
Mischa: If she hears desperation in your voice,
Mischa: you will be less attractive to her.
Claire: Of course.
Claire: I am well aware of that.
Mischa: Of course.
Mischa: I'm just reminding you.
Mischa: Don't, for example, offer to sell the rights to your life's work
Mischa: for the February rent.
Claire: I wouldn't dream of it.
Claire: I will tell her that I will take nothing less than one BILLION dollars.
Claire: Anything less is an insult!
Mischa: Don't start giggling insanely, and muttering, "Rich! I'm going to be rich!"
Mischa: A billion dollars is not what it used to be.
Kathy asked whether she could represent me. I said that I'd like that — very casually, with no hint of desperation or excessive gratitude in my voice. I think. About a week later, she asked me to come to New York to meet publishers who were interested in Loose Lips. When we saw the list of publishers Kathy had arranged for me to meet, we realized that something very big was happening. On the eve of my flight to New York, however, I came down with food poisoning.
Claire: These seem to be the most important editors in the world!
Mischa: Claire, no doubt: These guys are the big time.
Claire: Gosh, I will feel SO BAD if I puke on even ONE of them.
Mischa: Yes, you must get the puking under control ASAP.
Claire: I have tried EVERYTHING.
Claire: Even homeopathy.
Claire: Although oddly, I feel better now for having eaten a big cheese sandwich.
Mischa: Nan Graham is the editor at Scribner who works with E. Annie Proulx and Frank McCourt.
Claire: I thought that our dad was being most unsympathetic when he said, of my stomach ailment, that I was simply to ignore it and get on that fucking plane and smile.
Claire: But I guess I can see why he said that.
Mischa: "At Random House, Menaker edited the international bestseller Primary Colors by Anonymous (Joe Klein), and books by Vassily Aksyonov, U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, Ted Conover, Deborah Garrison, George Saunders, Elizabeth Strout, and others."
Claire: At this point, I am so eager not to be sick for these meetings that I would eagerly try a high colonic if I thought it would work.
Claire: I wish SO BADLY that my stomach didn't hurt.
Claire: I have so much to live for!
Unfortunately, Kathy thought it was best that we take our website down. We couldn't help but be sad about that.
Mischa: I MISS the site.
Claire: Me too.
Claire: I loved the site.
Mischa: Me too.
Claire: I need to go pick my stuff up from the dry cleaner now.
Mischa: I feel like I really came to understand the spirit of the Net in a new way.
Claire: Me too.
Mischa: Don't go!
Claire: but I can't miss closing time.
Mischa: Another ten minutes...
Claire: Or I won't have clean clothes for my trip.
Mischa: Yes, you know how people are always talking about the original spirit of the web? Creative and honest and cooperative?
Mischa: That's what I really found from this venture.
Mischa: I miss the Site also because I had hoped it would pay our rent for another month.
Claire: Me too.
Mischa: And with the site, success and failure was so clear.
Mischa: Sale = success.
Mischa: No sale = failure.
Mischa: I'm ready to go back to selling the book.
Claire: It was so easy to sell, too.
Mischa: No, that it wasn't.
Mischa: We worked very hard for every sale.
Claire: People WANTED to buy Loose Lips. Once people understood how important it was, they WANTED to buy it.
Mischa: I wonder why you are supposed to meet with the editors in person?
Claire: I guess to demonstrate that I am mediagenic.
Mischa: After all, if THAT book doesn't suggest your personality,
Mischa: what book ever would?
Mischa: Our final conversion rate for Jan was 1.45 percent.
Claire: You know,
Mischa: We averaged 111 visitors / day.
Claire: That's impressive, I think ...
Mischa: And sold 1.6 books per day.
Claire: I was about to say,
Claire: make fun of him if you like,
Claire: but I can kind of understand why it annoyed John Ashcroft that every time his speeches were broadcast,
Claire: there was a big erect nipple by his nose.
Mischa: Yes, but he should have known that draping those statues would make him the object of very many snide comments.
Claire: Those prisoners at Guantanamo Bay sound weird.
Mischa: I read the same article.
Claire: Why do you think they're putting toothpaste in their butts?
Mischa: Of course,
Mischa: it's basically weird to fly planes into skyscrapers.
Mischa: Everything else is just kind-of passing weird, after that.
Claire: Well, I still kind of wonder about the toothpaste.
Mischa: If they had teeth in their butts, it would make sense.
Claire: Yes, that must be it.
Mischa: But that is a big if.
Claire: But how did they get there?
Claire: The teeth, that is.
Claire: I mean,
Claire: that is a hell of a spontaneous macro-mutation.
Mischa: Perhaps it is common in their culture, and we are just insensitive.
Claire: Common to have butt-teeth?
Claire: That must make buggery quite the risky proposition.
Mischa: Well, it must be said, that these are not a people terribly concerned about danger.
Claire: I suppose,
Claire: but then why the concern about dental caries?
Claire: You see, it just doesn't make sense.
Mischa: One can laugh at danger, but still take reasonable precautions against it.
Claire: I guess ...
Claire: Should we be putting toothpaste up our butts, just in case?
Claire: I mean, I don't want cavities ... anywhere.
Mischa: I am pretty sure that I do not have teeth in my butt.
Claire: How would you know?
Claire: When is the last time you put your head up there?
Mischa: I see your point.
Mischa: I think it is high time you got your dry cleaning.
Mischa: I keep checking to see if we sold a book.
Mischa: But then I remember that our days of sales are over.
Claire: I know.
Claire: It's so sad.
Claire: So very sad.
Mischa: Do you think that the publishers will compete amongst themselves to woo you?
Claire: I hope they send things like fruit baskets, and champagne.
Mischa: I hope they fly you on junkets.
Claire: Big baskets from Williams Sonoma, you know?
Mischa: Filled with delicious little things.
Claire: With ginger-lemon cookies, and all sorts of fancy preserves?
Mischa: Yes, that would be lovely.
Mischa: Although I'd also like some more creative things than a food basket, too.
Mischa: Maybe a puppy?
Claire: Ooooh! What a nice idea!
Claire: Or tiger cubs!
Mischa: I'm seeing one of those all white little puppies.
Mischa: The kind that are super-fluffy.
Claire: Yes, like a bichon frise ...
Claire: with an itty-bitty black nose, like a button.
Claire: yes, I hope they send those.
Mischa: That would surely motivate you to sign up with that publisher.
Claire: Oh yes.
Claire: I mean, that and a fruit basket and one billion dollars,
Claire: and surely I would be theirs.
Mischa: Perhaps now is the time to cultivate a variety of charming but utterly mad eccentricities.
Claire: Perhaps I should insist that I travel nowhere without Dr. Wilson?
Mischa: Or that you frisk every editor for surveillance equipment?
Claire: Or refuse to enter a room where dairy products are served?
Mischa: Yes, there are a great many opportunities for mirth forthcoming.
Mischa: I look forward eagerly to no longer being a loser.
Claire: Indeed. It shall be jolly when our ship comes in!
When Jon Karp at Random House bought the book, my whole family celebrated.
Claire: I had such a nice day with our Pop.
Claire: He is SO proud of us.
Claire: It's so sweet.
Claire: He said the only way we will ever understand how proud he is
Claire: is when we have children too.
Claire: He said he's more excited — far more —
Claire: than when he sold his first book. He says he's so excited he can barely eat or sleep.
Claire: And he thinks you are the greatest genius since Einstein, Beethoven maybe.
Claire: I am still not quite sure how I will pay the rent for this month, though.
Claire: I hate having no money.
Mischa: You will have money soon.
Mischa: And life will be easier.
Mischa: And much later,
Mischa: you will be very nostalgic for this time in your life,
Mischa: when you had no money,
Mischa: but were very innocent.
Claire: Maybe I'll write a book about it.
Claire: About being a poor writer in Paris.
Claire: I'll call it, "A Moveable Feast," or something.
Mischa: Good idea.
Mischa: Gosh, I feel so justified in the faith I had in Loose Lips.
Mischa: You know, we only launched the web site six weeks ago.
Claire: Yes, I cannot really ever thank you enough for that, you know.
Claire: But I will try to do so by giving you a lot of money.
Mischa: 51 days exactly.
Mischa: I counted.
Claire: I think that is a nice way to thank someone.
Mischa: That is so little time, actually.
Claire: I know.
Claire: What do you want to do with it?
Mischa: Let's talk about money later.
Mischa: Let's exult in being right for now.
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Are you a full-time writer now?
Yes, I am, Thank God.
Mischa: Remember when you and I were chatting on-line, when it looked most like you were going to have to get a job?
Mischa: Man, we missed gainful employment by the skin of our teeth, this time.
Claire: We sure did ... but God saved us yet again.
Mischa: Let's never get so close to needing a job again.
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