“They turned the lights off yesterday, in the apartment,” my husband, Ryan, said when he picked me up from the airport. I saw his hands trembling on the wheel. “I didn’t want to ruin your happiness.”
I’d just returned from New York with a surprise win at an awards ceremony for my debut book, “Tinderbox.” This was nearly a year before the COVID-19 pandemic overtook America. Awards don’t equal money. We had none. I put my hand on his shoulder. He knew I was sorry but didn’t want to hear another apology.
My words got us into this mess: My book had eaten our relationship. It was a critical hit still netting accolades — but it hadn’t earned royalties. It claimed our 401(k). Then it exhausted our lines of credit. We went from living check to check to day to day. Ten dollars became a saving grace.
When we got home, Ryan went into the bedroom and wept audibly. I tried to hold him there, to comfort him, but it was no good. My arms shielded him from nothing. I set my new award across from me, on the shelf in our living room, and I stared into the statue’s sphinx-like face occasionally lit by the headlights of passing cars.
After more than a year of that game ― fronting prosperity while touring the book basically for free ― I found Ryan one evening sitting in the kitchen with a whiskey. He told me he had to beg his parents for more money — a shameful, pathetic thing in this country. He told me I’d been selfish with my book career, which monopolized my time and didn’t pay the bills. He said he used to trust me with our finances and now needed space.
“My words got us into this mess: My book had eaten our relationship. It was a critical hit still netting accolades — but it hadn’t earned royalties. ... We went from living check to check to day to day. Ten dollars became a saving grace.”
I started crying, terrified, knowing what he said to be true. He cried seeing me cry, and I asked if we were separating. It turns out we were ― functionally if not legally. He took the dog, the one I’d raised since puppyhood, and his computer, the one he used to retouch photographs and earn our income while I traveled the country giving lectures and readings. He went off to stay with his parents in rural Kentucky, and I remained in self-isolation in New Orleans. Then COVID-19 hit.
How did we get here?
I had dreams of publishing a book that mattered, which required four years’ research on the typical modest advance awarded to debut authors — $22,500, the second half delivered almost a year late and without interest in 2018. The effort sapped our finances and pushed us to the brink of starvation. According to the Authors Guild 2018 Author Income Survey, most who define themselves as full-time book authors earn a median income of $20,300 per year. The lucky ones skate beneath the federal poverty line, presenting themselves as charismatic members of the intelligentsia when they’re actually paupers. One quarter of all published authors, according to the same survey, would predictably earn $0 in book income last year, like me.
The media industry, in contraction since the late 2000s, already existed in perpetual purge, sweeping full-time journalists and their costly benefits from payrolls. Ayn Rand won. Only Titans matter. With the COVID-19 downturn, this dynamic will likely accelerate, converting more full-timers into shit-out-of-luck freelancers, who will join the swell of 20 million-plus Americans filing new jobless claims.
Every author in publishing is, by contractual definition, a freelancer; when contracts end, you’re out of work. Presently, few readers want reading materials delivered to their door, and books are being delayed or not sent from Amazon warehouses. As indie bookstores plead through GoFundMe campaigns and authors launch titles using Zoom, publishers fear that each release will become the literary equivalent of stillborn.
Ryan and I appeared to be at the end of our “first marriage” when COVID-19 struck. We both woke up, alone, more than 500 miles apart. And then he called. It was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, right when Spain closed its borders. He said he was scared. This is my fault, I told him. He said he missed me. I asked if he was so fed up that he needed to shelter out the pandemic in separate places: “Are you mad enough to risk dying apart?” He paused a long pause, and I thought he was going to ask for a divorce. But no — I’m stupid lucky. He asked me to join him and take refuge with his family at their remote place in Kentucky.
After a harrowing ride to the airport, with the Uber driver hacking phlegm, I texted my husband, “I love you.” Armstrong airport looked like the last scene in “12 Monkeys,” with crowds of people laughing and hugging and handshaking and high-fiving while a virus had an orgy. Ryan promised to pick me up in Nashville, and my flight left the gate with half the cabin empty.
After we landed, I caught sight of my husband in the car and nearly fainted from relief. He smiled and winked at me. His hazel eyes shimmered. I’d still want to date him if we met as strangers. Before I hopped in, I stripped my outer clothes in the arrivals line and place them in a trash bag. I tore off my mask and latex gloves and tossed them in a nearby can. Then I “deloused” in our back seat with sanitizer. “Thank Goddess!” he exclaimed as he pealed out. “I’m so glad you made it.” When we got to my in-laws’ house, I did a final decontamination with soap and water in the outside shower.
“We started living by plague rules, and plague rules usurp the usual pantomime of class respectability. Plague rules turn the tables and place life over livelihood, while the opposite is usually true. ... They ask the big questions — not 'Where’s your savings?' or 'How big of a nest did you make?' but 'Who do you love?' and 'What did you make of this game of existing?'”
Imperceptibly, we started living by plague rules, and plague rules usurp the usual pantomime of class respectability. Plague rules turn the tables and place life over livelihood, while the opposite is usually true. Artists do well by plague rules, which remove all guarantees and say anyone living is richer than anyone dying. They ask the big questions ― not “Where’s your savings?” or “How big of a nest did you make?” but “Who do you love?” and “What did you make of this game of existing?” With your last cough and breath, it doesn’t matter if you packed your nest like Pharaoh packed his tomb. Nothing in the nest is going with you, and nothing in the nest is going to save you.
I was of the generation that believed all the Eminem bullshit about taking your one shot ― one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in a moment. You white-knuckle the risk and hope everything pays off like a magic trick. When I published, my mentors warned me never to let an audience see me sweat; because success or failure can’t be random in showbiz ― the instant someone gets the whiff of a book in commercial peril, they’ll fault the work and sideline the writer. Ayn Rand smiles from the grave. Titans rule. Third prize is you’re fired.
This is what you do if you’ve wanted to write and publish a book that matters since you were 5 years old but were born in the middle of Midwest nowhere: You hide the hustle. You affix a smile and hide the damage where no one sees it, where only he can see it. You fail your husband when you should have failed your book.
The day Ryan kissed me again, after a morning hike, was the same day I applied for a $1,000 grant from the PEN America Writers’ Emergency Fund — a charitable lifeline for impoverished authors that recently expanded to help those affected by COVID-19. By chance, that day also happened to be our second wedding anniversary. Before I pressed “send” on the online submission, I asked my husband if it was OK to spill our broke-ass story to the PEN folks. Yes, he said. It’s time we stop lying for your publisher, for your pride. As the novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
My husband put his hand over mine. We pressed “send” together, and our rings clinked. “It’s all bullshit,” he said. “The way they treat artists … and the shit people do to feed themselves. The way the rich and their companies can break us.” We stood and kissed. It was the long kiss of a couple that kissed for 15 years and then stopped kissing for two weeks. In a capital world, a paper-thin dollar became the one barrier we couldn’t overpower. But that was before a deadly disease, which broke the markets and brought us back together.
Robert W. Fieseler is the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Journalist of the Year and the acclaimed debut author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation,” winner of the Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime and the Louisiana Literary Award. Fieseler graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School and is a recipient of the Pulitzer traveling fellowship. He’s sheltering out the pandemic with his husband, the artist Ryan Leitner, in rural Kentucky.
This essay was reported and published with generous support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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