My agent sold the book in January 2008, the manuscript was due January 2009, and it came out in November 2009, so it was about two
years from signing the contract to holding a finished book in my hands.
Q: What were your favorite parts about writing NIUBI?
I love having a filter for looking at the world, and working on a long-term writing project like a book gives you that. What that filter is changes with whatever I’m working on at the time. But for the year I was working on NIUBI, I looked at the world through the filter of language and slang, and I really enjoyed having a consistent thing I was always looking for and thinking about. It was really fun to go to parties, sit in cafes, hang out with friends, hang out with strangers – it didn’t matter who or where – and ask people, “Do you know any interesting slang?” The answers were always fascinating, though they didn’t always make it into the final book. And I enjoyed the experience of walking around on high alert, keeping my ears pricked for any interesting language I might overhear. It’s like being a detective.
Q: Did you feel your vision of NIUBI differed from the publisher’s and if so, how?
Not too much. I’m an unusual case because NIUBI was part of a series of slang books for different languages, so I had the benefit of having seen some of the previously published books (for Japanese and Russian, for example) and knowing the format and also how kooky (and dirty) it was okay to be.
One thing I did bring up with the publisher was that I didn’t love the illustrations in the older books. They agreed the art was outdated and let me be involved in the process of finding a new illustrator. I ended up liking the work of the guy they recommended, Chris Murphy, so there was no drama there.
Q: How did writing NIUBI change/affect your future writing?
The most valuable thing the book gave me was a feeling of legitimacy. When you’re young and still struggling with writing, you always feel kind of sheepish telling people you’re a writer – or at least I did. Just a few weeks ago I had a pretty typical conversation where someone asked what I do, and I said I’m a writer, and they said, “You mean you’re actually a writer writer, or you just want to be a writer?” And in the past, even after I’d published a few journalism articles, I still had trouble saying I was a writer because it felt more aspirational than real. Once I’d written the book, though, I could feel like, yes, I am. Of course you should have the fortitude to believe in yourself with or without the publishing stamp of approval, and I really admire the writers I know who are able to be totally unwavering in that belief, but, you know. Self-doubt is a demon for everyone.
Also, having written a book demystifies the whole process and enables you to envision writing more books down the line. It makes everything tangible instead of this hard-to-tackle abstraction.
Q: What were your LEAST favorite parts about writing NIUBI?
The feeling of constant, low-level terror that I was going to somehow screw it up? I guess either by writing something terrible, or missing the deadline, or even not turning in a manuscript at all. I had a year to do the manuscript, but because I knew I was going to leave my job at some point (which at the time was editing a business magazine in China), I kept putting off starting on it until I left the job. That ended up being just four months before the manuscript was due, so for nearly four months straight, I parked in a cafe from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day, seven days a week, working on the book and trying to just hold myself together and not panic. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and looking back don’t think I could do that again. It’s also clear to me now that I could have worked a lot less hard, and it still would have turned out okay, but at the time it felt like I had to be killing myself for it and that still wouldn’t be enough.
Q: Were there any changes Nadia asked for that surprised you?
Not really. Nadia was a very chill editor. Her edits felt minimal to me, and they all made sense. I was only ever grateful to be getting an outside eye on everything so I always trusted her judgment. Nadia inherited me from her old boss, who had been the acquiring editor on the book but then left Penguin, so she suddenly had to deal with a bunch of new authors all at once and probably wasn’t sure what she was going to get with any of us.
Q: How did you feel about the book when it was in its final form?
Now I feel great about the book! But when I first got the advances, it was like I still had PTSD from the writing process, so I could barely even look at it. Other people would read it and tell me it was great and I’d be like, “If you say so.” It took a few months after the book was out, and after I started receiving fan messages from readers on Facebook and praise from people in media, that I finally absorbed that I had really finished this monumental task and could actually relax and be happy about it now. I had coffee sometime that year with a former boss who’s an editor at Little, Brown, and when he asked me how it felt to be an author, I said it was a lot more awesome than I realized it was going to be.