I am so excited today to introduce my friend Alison Singh Gee, whose debut memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and a Search for Home, is on sale TODAY.
Where the Peacocks Sing is the beautiful saga of a glamorous Jimmy Choo-wearing magazine journalist living in Hong Kong who falls in love with an Indian journalist who just happens to be a prince whose ancestral home in rural India is a 100-room palace. Mokimpur, however, is crumbling, and Gee’s relationship with her new in-laws is anything but smooth. Eager to embrace her cross-cultural marriage, however, Gee trades her high heels for Birkenstocks and learns to cook parathas while soaking up the beauty of the expansive estate’s mango trees, bougainvillea and, of course, singing peacocks.
MW: How did you get your agent?
ASG: I was lucky enough to get an agent before I even truly had a book. I had a book idea and about 20 pages of writing. Probably one the most essential decisions I made was to tell myself that this book was going to happen no matter what. I built the hype within my own head and then started convincing others around me. At the time I was a features writer at People magazine, so the position came with a solid author’s platform and lots of contacts. Many of my colleagues were already writing books during their spare time. So I spread the word about my book and that I was looking for an agent. One colleague, Sophfronia Scott, introduced me to her agent, an up-and-coming junior agent at a well-respected Boston/New York agency. A proposal-writing friend edited my agent letter, and I sent it off. Within a day, the junior agent emailed me back, saying my letter had so much energy she had to talk to me. I got extremely lucky. She was young and looking for new clients; she took me on and helped me write and shape my proposal.
MW: How long did it take you to write your book after you sold it?
ASG: Let me first back up a bit because this might make you laugh. My agent sent out the proposal for my memoir just as I was deciding whether or not to take a big buyout from Time Inc. (I worked as a features writer for People at the time.) As I went through the existential crisis at the workplace—wouldn’t I miss stalking Katie Holmes, dressing up for the red carpet, and reporting about the lunchtime crowds at the Ivy?—I considered the likelihood that the book would get bought. Something in me told me it was just a matter of time. So I quit. The week after I handed in my resignation letter, my book sold. Talk about clearing space in your life for your destiny to take over.
I left my huge job with about eight months of severance pay, full medical benefits *and* a book contract. The book, which I sold in proposal form, would be due in one year’s time. I was fully funded, had just gotten rid of an overwhelming job, and had a book contract with a big publishing house who adored the proposal. Perfect conditions to write, right? Apparently, my brain didn’t think so. I was absolutely paralyzed with fear. I had sold this story of a decade of my life but I now I was scared. Did I really want to put my life story out there? A year passed—as did my deadline—and I hadn’t written much, maybe 50 pages. My (amazing, patient wise) editor started turning up the heat. “We need your book” became her stern mantra. “We are putting you on a writing schedule.” I would write two or three chapters and send them off to her assistant, who would then dutifully read them and tell me they were great, now we needed the rest of the book.
I was running out of severance pay and book advance money and cobbling together a brisk life as a book editor/ghostwriter, writing professor and freelance features writer. So now I was back to trying to find time to actually write this book. In all, it took me about three years (not including revisions). I recall the manuscript was finally, truly due on January 31, 2011, and I pressed SEND on the entire manuscript at around 11:53 pm that evening.
Why did my editor give me three extra years to write this book? I think she knew I was approaching the book in an ambitious way, that there was this story I wanted to tell, and it was multilayered, required loads of research, crossed oceans and continents, and went back and forth in time. I think she knew I was allowing the book to evolve and take its true, fated shape. Did I succeed? I look at the book now and know that I wrote it to the best of my abilities. Did I really need to spend three years working on it? I believe I did. I am incredibly grateful to my editor for having this faith in me.
MW: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing your book?
ASG: The biggest surprise: That it took me three years to finish the first draft of the book. A few people in my life kept asking me what the problem was—why was I taking so long. But here’s the truth, folks. Most of writing is thinking. I had to make sense of everything that had happened during that period of my life, and what the big lessons were. Having gone through this entire experience of having married a man who grew up in a broken-down palace, how had I actually changed? I had to do a lot of deep excavation of my entire life.
That type of exploration doesn’t happen overnight. One of my favorite writing students read the advance copy of my book and said, “You know, every one of those years you took to write this book is justified. There is so much craft and thought in it. I’m surprised it didn’t actually take longer than it did.” Of course, smart woman, she always gets As in my class!
Actually, the biggest unspoken compliment is that my editor gave me several extra years to write the book; she said when she saw the chapters I sent into her she knew I was straining to write a really ambitious book. Several years after buying my book, she has shown me that the time was worth it—every single day of it. During our book launch, she has made Where the Peacocks Sing one of St. Martin’s Press priorities.
Thank you so much to Alison for taking time out of her busy schedule to visit Writerland today! Be sure to pick up a copy of Where the Peacocks Sing and to check out Alison’s book tour schedule, so you can meet Alison in person. Also, be on the lookout for her next memoir: Cooking for the Maharani: Four Continents, Six Iconic Chefs and One Tall Glass of Revenge.
ALISON SINGH GEE is an award-winning international journalist whose work has been translated into eight languages and has appeared in People, Vanity Fair, In Style, Marie Claire, International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. For eight years, she was a staff features writer/correspondent for People magazine. She won the 1997 Amnesty International Award for Feature Writing for her Asiaweek cover story about child prostitution in Southeast Asia. Alison lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.