Mr. Smith’s book was inspired by the experiences of his father, an attorney who was ashamed that he heard voices in his head. He passed away in 1998. “I basically signed up to think about my father and his most painful secret every day for the next three years. I basically could sign myself up for mourning every day for three years, which is really not a fun way to spend someone’s life,” Mr. Smith said. “Thinking about insanity every day for many years also is very uncomfortable, because it’s like thinking about death—it’s one of our two greatest fears.”
At one point, said Mr. Smith, the writing was so miserable, “I thought about getting into painting houses or digging ditches, doing anything other than writing—making watches or something like that.”
Mr. Smith faced the problem that many authors struggle with: being stuck with their subjects for one, three, even 10 years at a time.
“I want this woman out of my life so much it’s ridiculous,” said Michael Anderson, 55, who has been researching and writing a book about the playwright Lorraine Hansberry for HarperCollins since 1998. “It has been, in essence, 10 years, and sometimes it seems like, ‘My God, why isn’t this thing done yet?’ But at times I think, ‘My God, it’s only been 10 years.’ I never understood why biographies took so much time; now I’m in awe that any of them get finished.”
When he received his contract, Mr. Anderson was working full-time as an editor at The New York Times Book Review, a job he had for 17 years. He figured he would try to take four years to finish the book and publish it by his 50th birthday. “But that was just naïve,” Mr. Anderson said.
He left The New York Times in 2005, sequestering himself in his Washington Heights apartment to devote himself to the book.
For months, each night, he would be startled from his slumber at 3:30 in the morning in the midst of a thought about Hansberry. “She’s a nice woman, but I don’t want to be with her all the time,” Mr Anderson said.
Nathan Englander spent close to a decade on his second novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, released this April. “I was getting upset about all the articles—you know, ‘After a decade of silence … ,’” Mr. Englander, 37, said in an ominous tone during a phone interview.
“Now I look around and wonder—it’s hard to remember who I was all those years,” Mr. Englander added. “I don’t care about anything when I’m in the work; nothing else matters at all …. People I lost touch with, I’m trying to get back to. I’ll write them, ‘Thank you for your letter in 1999. Here’s what’s been going on.’ You work your way through to get familiar with normal life.”
Aside from losing touch with friends, Mr. Englander also struggled with everyday life.
“I look down and see that I’m only wearing one shoe,” Mr. Englander said in a recent interview with the blog Bookslut. “Recognizing it, I think, How can I walk around like this? Why would I walk around with only one shoe? … Why isn’t that shelf organized, or why didn’t I write that person back or … I can’t understand why the person that is me didn’t do these things. And to that question my mother responds, ‘Because you were like a tortured madman working on this book,’ and I remember and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why.’”
“Spouses get very jealous of the biographer’s subject, because it really is what you’re thinking about all the time,” Mr. Anderson explained. “I’ve often thought that if I were married, my wife would’ve sued for divorce.”
The freedom of setting one’s own schedule, of course, is another gift of the book contract—for some, it’s the very motivation to pitch a book in the first place. Work for a few hours, go to yoga, work a little more, eat a sandwich …. It’s a fantasy of independence, without daily or weekly deadlines imposed from above, without being picked at by your nosy co-worker. But then…You miss the co-worker: the ruminations on last night’s Sopranos at the coffee machine, the bitching about deadlines over lunch. You even long for their Z100 sing-alongs and screeching renditions of “Since U Been Gone.”