How to Be a ‘Ferocious Protector’ of Your Time, and Other Lessons From Lawyer-Turned-Author Cristina Alger Wang
May 31, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
A decade ago, Cristina Alger Wang — a Harvard-educated attorney at a Manhattan law firm — began noodling on a novel (you know, in all her spare time) set during the financial crisis. The Darlings was published in 2012 and quickly became a hit. Soon after, Wang was offered a second book contract, which lured her away from her steady job to try writing full time. It was every aspiring novelist’s dream — until a tough bout of postpartum depression derailed her plan. We visited her at home in New York City to hear how she beat her sophomore slump, found her way back to writing, and became a “ferocious protector” of her time. Her latest book, Girls Like Us, comes out July 2.
I WROTE MY FIRST BOOK WHILE I WAS STILL A FULL-TIME ATTORNEY. I worked about 100 hours a week, but I traveled a lot, so I was often in towns where I didn’t know anyone. I started writing a novel during these trips, and it became a passion project. It was like training for a marathon, in that it was a hobby that I was very focused on. Every Sunday night, I would sit down and map out the hours during the coming week that I could write. I found that I could steal hours here and there if I planned well enough. When I had a long flight, I would write instead of watching a movie. Or in the evening, I’d write instead of going for a run.
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MY HUSBAND AND I HAVE A SUNDAY RITUAL. We prepare a big family meal, and my mom comes over and eats with us. Then, after the kids are in bed, we coordinate our calendars for the week, including travel and childcare. Mondays have always been overwhelming for me, but if I sit down for an hour or two on Sunday night and map it out, it feels more manageable. I put literally everything in my calendar. If I’m going for a run, it’s in my calendar. If I’m doing a phone call, it’s in my calendar. With little kids, schedules are always subject to change, but planning out when I’m going to write gives me reassurance that I have built in time to work, and those hours won’t slip away from me.
ANOTHER REASON IT’S IMPORTANT TO PLAN WRITING TIME is that it’s so nebulous. There’s no one watching over my shoulder to make sure I’m doing it when I tell myself I’m going to. I have to monitor myself, especially since parts of my day can be a gray zone. When you don’t have a traditional office job, people are always asking you to do things during the day, and you theoretically are “free.” Unless you’re ferociously protective of your time, it’s easy to let your day get eroded. I write for three or four hours a day, and the rest of my time is spent with my children.
BEFORE I WROTE MY FIRST NOVEL, I hadn’t written fiction at all. In college, I thought I was going to become an English professor, so I studied pre-1600 literature — super practical, I know. I did write bad poetry, but I think everyone writes bad poetry in college. During my senior year, I had put the wheels in motion to continue on to get my Ph.D. But then my dad passed away and my priorities changed very dramatically. I wanted to come back to New York so I could be close to my family, and I wanted to get a job that would pay well enough that my mom wouldn’t worry. There was a dropbox for Goldman Sachs at the end of the hallway in my senior dorm, so I put in my resume and they hired me, which I still find baffling. It was one of the few banks that hired people without any kind of quantitative background. I ended up in their legal group, which was a good fit.
AFTER TWO YEARS AT GOLDMAN, I applied to law school, which was what most people in the legal group did. I went to NYU, and then I got hired by a mergers and acquisitions group at a law firm. I started writing my first book in my early thirties, during the financial crisis. It was a fascinating time and such a rich setting for a novel. I needed a creative release, and I slowly chipped away at it for a couple of years.
WHEN I TELL PEOPLE I WROTE MY FIRST NOVEL while I was still a practicing lawyer, everyone says, “Oh my God, was that so hard?” But it wasn’t, because there was no pressure at all. I had no sense that anyone would read what I was writing. I didn’t have an editor or an agent. I was writing purely for myself. It was a cathartic exercise, like cheap therapy. Now I work with a team and I am legally obligated to produce what I’ve said I will. That’s awesome, but it’s a different experience.
GETTING MY BOOK PUBLISHED was a total surprise. I have a friend who’s a writer, and we would get lunch from time to time. We had worked on the literary magazine together at Harvard, and she was always encouraging me to write. When I told her I had started a novel, she said, “Oh, send it to me.” I had about 150 pages at the time, I’m sure all of which eventually got thrown out, and I gave them to her. She read them and then sent them to her agent without telling me. Then her agent called me and asked if we could have lunch. I didn’t even know what an agent did, but I said, “Sure.”
AFTER THAT AGENT SOLD THE BOOK, I said, “I should probably let my firm know about this. I don’t want to get in trouble.” And the partner I worked for was incredibly supportive. I was kind of taken aback by it. My law firm gave me a sabbatical so that I could take a few months and work on the edits. And during that time, we sold the film rights for the book to HBO, and HBO asked if I wanted to co-write the script. If I said yes, I would have to quit my legal job.
I WAS TERRIFIED TO LEAVE MY LAW FIRM. I was a bankruptcy lawyer, so the financial crisis meant that my business was booming. It was a strange time to step away from a career that was going well. Having the offer from HBO helped me feel like I wasn’t just walking off into an abyss. I kind of baby-stepped my way out of corporate life into freelance life. The HBO project eventually withered on the vine, as so many film projects do. But by then, I had sold another novel.
THE SOPHOMORE SLUMP IS VERY REAL. When I sold my second book, it was a very heady time, because my first book had done really well. Then I had my daughter and fell into what I now identify as postpartum depression. I was completely unable to work. I couldn’t think clearly, I wasn’t sleeping, and I had a lot of guilt about not being a stay-at-home parent because I didn’t have a traditional job. I’d just made this huge career leap and we were definitely not planning to get pregnant as early as we did. My life had changed so fast, and that was very destabilizing. I wound up giving back my advance on my second book because I knew I was going to miss my deadline, and it was awful. I had never considered the possibility that I might not be able to produce writing. I had always been successful in that if I say I’m going to do something, I do it. That was the first time in my life when I was like, “Oh, my God. I can’t.” There’s a sizable gap between my first and second books for a reason — my black hole.
AFTER I GAVE BACK MY BOOK ADVANCE, I sort of went back to zero, in the sense that I didn’t have any pressure to produce anything. A couple of years slipped by and I think most people had forgotten who I was. What finally got me back on my feet was coming to two conclusions. One was that I was not happy as a full-time stay-at-home parent. I have total respect for stay-at-home parents, but I need to work for my own mental health, to have some balance. And secondly, I love to write. When I’m moving forward on a project, there’s no better feeling. I remember my husband saying to me, “You have to get back to the place where writing brings you intrinsic joy. It may not feel good in the moment, but in the larger picture, it’s something that you value.” When I finally wrote my second book, I was writing it for myself, the way I did my first one.
NOW, I JUGGLE TWO THINGS: MY WORK AND MY CHILDREN. And my children will trump my work any day. They put it all in perspective. My boundaries between work and home are physical. I leave my apartment and I go to the library to write. When I come home, I put my phone down. Home is very much about my kids, and it’s a wild melee. That’s by design. In general, New York is a very structured, adult place for children to grow up, so our household is informal on purpose. I encourage our kids to be feral creatures.
I HAVE A GROUP OF WRITER FRIENDS AT THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, and we all work there. They’re my fake colleagues. We go for coffee breaks together, and we all roll in around the same time and leave around the same time. It gives us a sense of community.
I’M CURRENTLY PREGNANT WITH MY THIRD CHILD. My daughter is now six years old and I have a son who is three. I have a book coming out in July, so I’ll be on tour for most of that month — which is really convenient, since I’ll be only eight and a half months pregnant! But that’s just how the chips fell.
AS SOMEONE WHO NORMALLY WORKS IN PAJAMAS, I find M.M.LaFleur’s clothing to be great for book tours because it packs so well. It’s tailored but not too corporate looking, which is perfect. I want to dress in a way that’s appropriate but not necessarily like, “Look at me!”
Photographs by Mathew Priestly. Styling by Liz Young.