What Is Success Supposed to Feel Like?

Megan Abbott. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Shutterstock

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Payday, we talk to notable women about making it big for the first time.

Megan Abbott has been called “Hollywood’s next big novelist,” and with good reason. Three of her ten published books are currently being adapted for TV, including one (Give Me Your Hand) that was snapped up by AMC before it even came out in 2018. She’s also a staff writer for HBO’s The Deuce, starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But no matter how good the paychecks have gotten, Abbott isn’t one to bask in her successes. Here, she discusses her constant fear of losing health insurance, how she celebrated her first novel, and why she’s trying harder to enjoy her wins.

I was always writing, but I didn’t trust that I could make a living from it, so I wanted something secure. I got my Ph.D. in literature and thought I’d be a professor. While working on my dissertation, I started my first novel on the side, mostly to distract myself from that grind. It was hard to admit I actually wanted to write fiction for a living, not papers.

I finally realized that I couldn’t be both an academic and a novelist, because both were too consuming. So I got a day job as a grant writer for a nonprofit in East Harlem and wrote proposals to get government contracts or private funds for all these social-service programs. It was very gratifying, and it used different quadrants of my brain than fiction. It also gave me security and health insurance. I stayed there for ten years while I published six novels on the side. It was nice to feel like I was contributing to the world, rather than just writing stories for myself. Novel-writing is a privilege, in a way.

I got my first agent very quickly, by sending out queries. The day we sold my first book, my husband at the time and I went to Bemelman Bar at the Carlyle Hotel and I ordered a gimlet for $20 — and this was 2004! I’d never done anything like that before. I emailed my agent and said, “Are you sure we really sold it? Before I order this gimlet?” Then I drank it. It was worth every penny.

After that, I was writing so fast I really couldn’t stop. It was actually counter-productive, too fast for my own benefit, because I hadn’t built a readership yet. But I had come out of academia and I was used to having a 9-to-5 job and then still writing at night and on the weekends, because that’s how you finish a Ph.D. I had so many ideas.

You don’t get a salary when you publish novels, and most books do not become best-sellers. It always felt like a gamble; I didn’t ever feel confident. I kept telling myself that it could blow apart at any moment. The books did well critically and won awards, and they’d sell well in some months, but overall progress felt slow.

I sold film and TV options from my very first book, but I didn’t even know what that meant until my agent told me — it means someone in Hollywood, a producer or writer or studio, has paid to have a limited time window in which they can develop it into either a movie or TV show. I was so thrilled, but he cautioned me that projects don’t always get made into anything, and it might not bring in much money, unless there’s a bidding war or some other factor. Still, they start to throw lists of actors and actresses at you and it’s all very intoxicating. You get swept up, and then nothing happens.

With that first option, I didn’t think I could ask, “Can I try writing this show?” And when my agent told me I could, I was terrified. He had to convince me.

My seventh book, Dare Me, came out in 2012. It’s about cheerleaders and a crime, and it got a big reception and a lot of Hollywood interest. Because of that, I was able to sell myself as the writer and get a bit more money from the option. Being the screenwriter allowed me to join the Writers Guild and get health insurance, so I could finally quit my job at the nonprofit. That was a major turning point in my career: getting health insurance through the Writers Guild! The things we do to feel safe.

People will ask me, why are you worried about health insurance? Or about money? I often find that people think my publisher employs me. I ask them how many hardcover books they’ve bought in the last year, or in the last five years. Think about it! If more people bought hardcover books at full price, I might not have to worry about money. But for now, the industry still feels very fragile to me.

Right now I’m a co-showrunner of Dare Me, and that is hugely new; it was ordered to series in January, and that was big, because most shows in development never make it to a pilot, and most pilots never make it to a series, so this feels like a unicorn. It took seven years to reach a screen, seven years pushing a boulder up a hill.

I feel imposter syndrome constantly. The only time I don’t feel it is creatively, because the characters, the voice, the story, this world — I care for it a lot, having fought for it for so long, sold it and resold it so many places. I’m working on only this right now, 60 hours a week, and it starts airing in July. I have the wonderful studio, Universal, and a great team of producers. At one reading we had last week, there were literally 45 people convening to talk about this little story I had in my head about characters I made up during my day job at a social services agency. That was really surreal.

In terms of how I spend money, my life hasn’t changed. I’m still in the same one-bedroom apartment in Queens, in Forest Hills, that I’ve had since I was writing grants. And I still worry about health insurance. I save most of my money because I feel like all of this could be illusory. I suppose I could be spending more, but as a freelance writer, the rainy-day fund is the plan. I’m not someone who has a financial planner. I’m one of those under-the-mattress people — I never know when I’m going to need this money, so I’d rather stuff it under the mattress.

Intermittently, I’m able to celebrate the success I’ve had. Actually, my therapist and I were just talking about this; I’m trying to do it more. Now, I buy myself fresh flowers, which I wouldn’t have done before. They die so quickly, but I love them. And I also just found out one of my books hit the best-seller list in England, which is a first. I took that moment and let myself feel it. Someone had brought this bottle of Champagne over a few months ago, for a party, so I did crack that open even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it on my own, and that most of it would go flat. I made myself mimosas the next morning, too, so I fully enjoyed it. It was a really nice bottle, Veuve.

The real success, though, is that you realize you’re reaching a lot of people. That’s all we’re really trying to do when we write, right?

What Is Success Supposed to Feel Like?