Some of us are destined to spend our lives feeling like social misfits, the uncool kids who were lucky to scrounge up a date, any date, to the senior prom. And then spent the whole evening standing alone by the punchbowl. I’m thinking about my own inherent dorkiness right now, after having had one of those “things never change” epiphanies while I was at the Miami Book Fair over the weekend. The Book Fair itself was great fun, a place for writers and readers to meet and mingle. But what sticks with me now, days later, is a moment that took place on Saturday night. I had heard whispers of a “secret party” to be held late that night, an exclusive soiree that was said to be the smash hit of the whole event. Although I was not actually invited, I hitched a ride there with fellow authors Chuck Goldstone and Joe Finder.
Our destination was a stunning private residence on Flamingo Drive, its entrance barred by a young woman checking THE LIST. Only Chuck’s name was actually on THE LIST. I am embarrassed to report that I resorted to the desperate fib of “I’m with him,” and scooted through the door, clinging to Chuck’s shirt-tails.
Joe Finder, thinking fast on his feet (as befits every good thriller writer) said: “and I’m with her!” and scooted in right after me.
This is how we found ourselves in the land of the Cool People. Hundreds of them. Sipping champagne, slinking across the room in sequined gowns, balancing gracefully on stiletto heels. A Keith Richards look-alike glided by in a brocade pirate’s coat. Candace Bushnell was rumored to be somewhere among the blondes. Chuck marveled that this party was the coolest he’d ever been to. “In fact, this is such a cool party,” he said, “that 99.99% of the women in this room would never dream of sleeping with me.” Which is Chuck’s ultimate yardstick for coolness.
I didn’t know who all these beautiful people were, but I somehow doubted they spent their workdays trying to glue the pages back into their overused thesauruses.
We wandered outside onto the marble terrace, where we found a few other authors wandering around, looking equally dazed by all the glitter. Or maybe by the scent of marijuana wafting through the crowd. It was there on that terrace, standing among my writer friends, that the subject of our youthful dorkiness came up.
One of the guys suddenly confesses: “My high school girlfriend left me for a football player.” He says it matter-of factly, but surely there has to be pain there. He had gone on to study at Yale and Harvard and was now a bestselling thriller writer, but he still hasn’t gotten over being dumped by a girl who preferred the class mesomorph.
Another guy says, “The kids who were really popular in high school, they wouldn’t have a thing to do with me back then. Now they pretend we were best friends.”
Someone else confesses: “My old classmates, the football players and cheerleaders, can’t believe I ended up doing better than they did.”
Then it’s my turn to confess. Something so painful I almost never talk about it. “In high school,” I say, “my boyfriend’s parents told him that he’d be smart never to marry me, because a Chinese wife would be bad for business. And he’d never make as much money.”
The others all stare at me for a moment. As if they can’t believe they’re hearing this.
Then Chuck says, “Have you shown him your latest royalty check?”
Here we are, four accomplished people, all of us reasonably attractive. And decades after our high school years, the stab wounds of rejection still haven’t healed.
In my case, I’ve always chalked it up to race, to the fact I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. I wanted to be white like everyone else, wanted it so badly that whenever I looked into a mirror, I’d be shocked that a Chinese girl looked back at me. I thought I had every good reason to feel like a misfit.
But that night, standing with those three amazingly talented people, hearing their own stories of feeling like misfits, it became clear to me that you don’t have to be a minority to feel like you don’t belong. Maybe we all feel like the outsider; maybe we all identify with the dorks.
Maybe that’s why books about misfits and underdogs resonate so powerfully with readers.
If you’d like to see an online video interview of me about VANISH, check this out!