Esther Friesner: Princess or Myth?
The Short Story
Esther Friesner was:
BORN in Brooklyn, NY in 1951
EDUCATED at Vassar College (B.A. in Spanish and Drama)
Yale University (M.A. and Ph.D. in Spanish)
WORKED: At Yale teaching Spanish for a few years before going on to a full-time writing career.
LIVES in Connecticut
Has an IMMEDIATE FAMILY of husband Walter and two grown children
LIKES: Cats (Has two); Hamsters; History; Theater; All sorts of music; Reading; Travel; Comedy (Loves watching The Big Bang Theory, The Middle, Modern Family, The Simpsons, and Phineas and Ferb); Book signings (a great way to meet readers!); Dancing; Cooking and baking and eating; Acting; Graphic novels, manga and anime (Especially the work of Miyazaki).
And now, the Full Story:
The first thing you should know about me is that I’m a strong believer in the power of laughter. Being able to find something funny in the nastier things Existence throws at you can be a life-saver. I know this to be true.
I treasure having a sense of humor, and I like to think I came by it honestly. Which brings us to:
Where I Came From
I was born in New York—Brooklyn, to be specific, Flatbush to be needlessly precise. Both of my parents were teachers in the New York City public school system, though it was not always so.
Mom was a first-generation American and a wonderful English teacher, at both junior and senior high school level, but mostly the former. She also once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York and showed me the building when we were in the area. She got her job during the Great Depression, when competition for employment was fierce, so that should give you some notion of what a competent teacher she was. She also loved her work, which is even more important, if you ask me. In time she also became a Reading specialist, and when she left one school to teach at another, a delegation of mothers came to see the chairman of her department, demanding to know why they were losing such a good teacher!
Her idea of a good bedtime story was to tell me—not to read, but to tell–“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or any of the classic tales from American literature. She could also recite reams of poetry by heart, and often quoted a line or two when she was giving me advice and wanted to drive home a point. She left her textbooks where I could find them, the result being that as soon as I could read, I was steeping myself in junior and senior high school material.
Dad came to the United States after World War II from a part of Poland that is now in Ukraine. He had to attend night school because all of his academic records were lost in the war. He worked as a costume jewelry salesman until he was able to get his teaching license, then taught languages and sometimes a math course, first in junior high, then senior high school. He was a Spanish teacher but also taught French, Italian and Latin. He could have taught more, since he spoke eleven languages.
He was a Holocaust survivor. I write about girls who face challenges and assume heroic roles. It’s a shame that the words “hero” and “heroine” get tossed around so easily in the media, because it devalues what true heroism can mean. My father came from a large family—one of his grandmothers gave birth to twelve children—but all of them were murdered by the Nazis or by Nazi sympathizers. In spite of this, he came out of the war with a sense of humor, with faith, and with optimism. He didn’t just survive the Holocaust, he triumphed over the perpetrators of atrocities who tried to turn human beings into numbers. His life declared not only “You tried to destroy me, but you failed! I’m still here!” but also “I’m still here, I’m enjoying life, and I have not lost the gift of laughter!”
His idea of a good bedtime story was to read to me from collections of the comic strip Pogo, by Walt Kelly. (And if you have no idea what Pogo is, look it up and hunt it down in reprints. You will be very glad you did!)
He also used to watch cartoons with me, especially enjoying Rocky and Bullwinkle. In addition, we’d watch the Three Stooges, Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Victor Borge, Abbott and Costello, The Honeymooners— laughter, laughter, and more laughter!
Laughter is victory over darkness. Laughter heals.
Where I Got My Education
I began to learn some of the things that would turn me into a writer long before I attended school. Our home was a house of books. I’ve already told you how my parents read to me and told me stories, which I loved. Loving stories, I always wanted more, and like many children do, I’d insist that Mom and Dad read me the same book over and over until I had it by heart. One day, when I kept bothering Mom for another story, and another, and another, she finally exclaimed, “Learn to read and then you can have all the stories you want!”
So I did. [g]
I don’t remember exactly when or how I did it, just that I was very young. The reason I know this is Mom and Dad told me about the first time the neighborhood kids decided I was “weird” because I was three years old and told my little friends, “I’m feeling very disgruntled today.”
Three was also the age at which I handed Mom a drawing and told her there was a story to go with it. If I told her the story, would she write it down for me? She did, and I still have that picture and story because Mom kept it.
Eventually I went off to the local public elementary school where I flunked shoelace-tying in kindergarten, got a bad mark in 5th grade sewing (My stitches were too big), but did better in my other subjects.
From 7th through 12th grades I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. At the time it was an all-girls school. I had a 45 minute subway commute each way, but Dad drove me there in the early morning.
While at Hunter I learned about J.R.R. Tolkien, Star Trek, Mad Libs™, and vanity presses. That last one happened when I was in 7th grade, and it’s a very instructive story for anyone who wants to become a professional (that is to say, a paid) writer.
I don’t remember when I decided that writing stories for my own amusement wasn’t enough, that I wanted a wider audience than just my parents and that I wanted to be paid for my work; in short, that I wanted to be a professionally published writer. It had to be before 7th grade, because that was when I found myself flipping through the Manhattan Yellow Pages, checking out the listings for “Publishers.”
And that’s where I found a most encouraging listing, a small rectangle that said (more or less) “First-time writer? Need a publisher? We want to publish your book!” I scribbled down the address, wrote to them, and shortly thereafter received an information packet that said yes, they did want to see my work, yes, they did want to publish me, and yes, yes, YES!. . .they did want me to pay them for doing it.
Oh, please. I was only in 7th grade, but even at that age I knew this was not the way professional publication was supposed to work! I threw out the brochure.
This “publisher” sent me more brochures. For years. They did not give up. They were absolutely crazy-eager to see my work. Obviously they knew—even without seeing one page—that I was an absolutely brilliant writer and they simply could not wait to work with me.
And my money.
I threw out a lot of brochures from that same “publisher” over the years. At least it was a Learning Experience.
From Hunter I went on to Vassar College, where I was able to complete a double major in both Spanish and Drama. The high point of my work in the Drama department was having Meryl Streep apply my make-up for the lone play in which I got a part.
Another Learning Experience I had at Vassar came from the two Creative Writing courses I took. The only thing I learned about creative writing from these was that the definition of what’s “creative” is strictly limited by the professor. If the professor has a fixed idea as to which writers are the only ones worth emulating and which subjects are the only ones worth writing about, you have two choices: Go along with it or get a bad grade.
It was amazing how quickly I brought my own grades up the instant I stopped writing stories that actually had some action and turned to writing “serious,” action-free meditations about Mortality.
I’d really been looking forward to learning something about Creative Writing, so it’s a shame that the only thing I got from these courses was the feeling of doing jail time, but I suppose you could say it was an exercise in how to write to suit the specific demands of a particular audience rather than to satisfy myself.
That was useful to discover, but mostly I learned that writing that way is not fun, that it takes the joy out of the work, and that I am much happier as a writer if I can maintain my independence and personal creativity.
I went on the graduate school in Spanish at Yale University, where I received my M.A. and Ph.D. While there I met my future husband, married, taught for a few years, and gave birth to our first child.
Throughout all of that, I kept on writing. I wrote notes for books I wanted to write when I should have been taking notes in class (Kids, Do Not Do This! Bad Idea! Bad, Bad Example!) I worked on my stories and novels while expecting my first baby, and after his birth, and– Well, any time I could.
This is one of the reasons I roll my eyes whenever someone tells me, “I’d love to write, but I just don’t have the time.” If you truly love to write, you make the time!
But not when you should be taking notes in class. Really.
How I Got My Start as a Professional Writer
I knew I wanted to be a professional writer for a long time before I managed to make my first sale, and I made mistakes along the way. The worst one was letting rejection slips get me down.
I started sending out my stories to various magazines when I was in college. It went like this:
1. FINISH story. (You can’t avoid this step, though a lot of people do. If you don’t finish your story or book you can’t send it out to potential publishers, which means you can’t have it rejected! Brilliant, no? No. Not trying is not the same thing as not losing.)
2. SEND story to a magazine/book to a publisher where it has a reasonable chance of being accepted. (Example: I wrote a story about a lonely merman so I sent it to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Not to Woman’s Day. [G]
So far, so good, but now. . .
3. AGONIZE while waiting to hear back from the editor. Worry that it’s taking too long. Worry that I forgot to include a SASE (self-address stamped envelope) and the editor simply threw away my manuscript and I would never know what had become of it! Worry that the manuscript got lost in the mail. Worry that the editor’s response got lost in the mail.
Wrong. The best thing to do while waiting to hear from an editor is start writing your next book/story. It will take your mind off the fate of the first one, and even if you finally hear that the editor is not interested in Project #1, you will be ready to send off Project #2 (and #3, #4, #5, etc.) immediately!
4. SULK when the rejection slip arrives. Take the rejection personally, as in: “Oh my God, the editor hates me!” Take the rejection to mean that I will never be able to write anything good! Stop anything new for weeks or even months, because [sob!] “What’s the use? It’s all soooo futile!”
Worst. Mistake. Ever.
5. RECOVER the drive to write.
I’ve forgotten when I got over my mistakes, especially #4, but I did, and began sending out my stories and book manuscripts with more consistency and persistence.
I was still getting rejection slips, but as time went on, I began to get a few that were different. Editors would sometimes add a personal note. A mystery novel that I sent out was rejected, but with a cover letter saying that two out of the publisher’s three editors wanted to buy it. Once I even got a rejection slip from The New Yorker on which the editor had written “Sorry.”
My first professional sale could be used as a textbook example of the old saying, “Write about what you know.” Our library had adopted a cat-in-residence, a charming little girl-kitty everyone loved. I decided it would be fun to write her story, sent it to CATS Magazine, and. . .it sold!
I was happy to have made the sale, but I still wanted to break into the fiction market. Fortunately for me, at that time the editor of ASIMOV’S Science Fiction Magazine was George Scithers. Mr. Scithers did something for aspiring writers that was rare, precious, and encouraging: He used a graduated system of rejection letters, as follows:
- First: The generic “This does not suit our needs. Good luck elsewhere” rejection.
- Second: The “You are making the following common mistakes” checklist rejection. (This included general writing guidelines like “Show, Don’t Tell!” and science fiction-specific ones like “Not another And-the-only-two-people-left-alive-on-the-devastated-planet-were-named-Adam-and-Eve story!”)
- Third: The personal note, handwritten on the checklist rejection. (It was wonderful and extraordinary that he made the time to do something like this, given how many manuscripts he had to read.)
- Finally: No note, no letter, no checklist, nothing but a contract and a check! My first fiction sale! Hooray!
Other sales followed, though so did other rejections. However, knowing I could sell my stories kept me going, and here I am!
It would not have been possible—or at least it would not have happened as soon as it did—if Mr. Scithers hadn’t told me where I was making mistakes and if I hadn’t paid attention and working on correcting them.
What I’ve Accomplished as a Writer (So Far)
In terms of the numbers, as of early 2011 I have had the following projects published or accepted for publication:
- 37 novels
- 188 short stories (in anthologies and magazines)
- 3 short story collections
- 13 poems
- 13 articles
- I’ve edited 10 anthologies
- I’ve had one play professionally produced, twice, and never got to attend a performance even once!
- My work has been translated/reprinted into Japanese, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Portuguese
- I received the Nebula Award (presented annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America) for short stories in both 1995 and 1996. I was a Nebula Award finalist in two other years, as well as once being a finalist for the Hugo Award (presented yearly at the Science Fiction Worldcon), but. . .you can’t win them all.
- Most important, I’ve enjoyed my work and have gotten a great deal of personal satisfaction from writing. (Which is another way of saying that I’ve had lots of fun doing what I do, and hope that the future holds more chances to continue!)
Where I’ve Been
I’ve gone to many places, both in the United States and abroad. Travel is one of my passions and I’ve enjoyed it on an international scale since I was four years old and my parents took me to Quebec. As teachers, they had long summer vacations, so when we went to Europe we were blessed with the time to see each place at leisure and in depth rather than rushing along with a tour group, giving a day to Florence here, a day-and-a-half to Paris there. When we wanted to travel across the United States, we had the time to drive, never being at the mercy of plane or train schedules. It was wonderful!
If I had to list all the places I’ve been, they’d include every single one of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel and Japan.
I want to go to China, Singapore, my father’s home town that’s now in Ukraine, Greece, the islands of the Mediterranean and Aegean, Egypt, Aruba, Ireland, and Wales.
But that’s just for starters.
I’ve had lots of experiences while traveling—some good, some bad, very few that could be duplicated, none of them that failed to teach me something useful and interesting. Above all, they taught me how to deal with unforeseen circumstances, how to think on my feet, and how to be independent.
Travel has also taught me that there are still adventures to be had.
While in Alaska to view the grizzy bears at Brooks Camp, I learned that when you’re in bear country and someone yells, “Get on the plane NOW!” you don’t pause to ask “Why?” You get on the plane NOW because there’s a full-grown grizzly galloping down the beach, heading right for you!
I got on the plane.
I’ve also learned that while on the road, it is a great advantage if you know the language of the country you’re visiting. However, if you don’t, you can get by with a courteous smile, a polite attitude (Don’t presume everyone else must speak English), and a few phrases including “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me” and “I am very sorry but I don’t understand [local language].” It’s the least you can do if you want to be a good guest!) I don’t speak Japanese, but even so I was able to spend a week going all over Tokyo on my own and even wound up joining the Harajuku Guardian Angels as part of their street-cleaning public service project. I’ve got the hat and t-shirt to prove it!
Where Do I Go From Here?
Onward to new adventures, great and small. Forward to more travel, more research, and to new ideas for the next Princesses of Myth books!
You can find all the details elsewhere on this website, by reading my blog and checking my Appearances calendar.
I’ll see you there.