“Oh my God, my life was a total mess,” said 42-year-old Cathy Alter. “Seriously, I was married for almost five years, unhappily. … We hadn’t had sex in a really long time. I felt like his mommy—it just wasn’t good for me. I just felt kind of mean all the time. Mean and angry. And when I finally left and went through my divorce, I went crazy. I felt like I was back in college. I was sick all the time. I was hanging around with some really fast people—partying, drinking. These two guys I knew had ‘Sunday Fundays,’ where you’d start with mimosas and drink all day long and have a nightcap at midnight.”
Not so long before these dark days, Ms. Alter had been calling herself a writer: Her byline appeared with some regularity in prominent magazines and newspapers, and in 2004 she put together a book, Virgin Territory: The Road to Womanhood, for a major publishing house. Now, she was working a dead-end day job and spending all her free time getting loaded. For lunch she ate animal crackers and Doritos from a vending machine, and for a midday snack she was having sex on her desk with a guy named Bruno who worked in the cubicle next to hers.
“With everything coming together in this unhappy life I’d created for myself,” Ms. Alter said last week, “I thought, ‘Jeez! What can I do?’ I had to do something.”
And so she did. Following an increasing number of writerly dames in distress, who hit middle age, or near-middle age, and wake up one day to realize their lives are a mess (or worse, miserable!), Ms. Alter came up with a clever one-year plan to put her life back on track, and went about getting a book deal so she could write a memoir of her travails (and get paid to go through them, of course).
She conjured a plan to spend a year reading women’s magazines like Cosmo, Glamour, Elle and O, and to follow all the advice they offered her—an idea with all the cartoonish, “O.K., get this” appeal of a great reality show and the eminently marketable gravity of an earnest self-help book. It was a hell of a concept—much better than the one she had been pitching right before, which was to spend a year learning how to blow glass—and the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster signed her immediately.
“I thought giving myself a project where I wouldn’t, like, freak out once I signed the contract would be a good idea,” Ms. Alter said. “I wanted to succeed, and I thought that this way, the structure was sort of imposed and the story arc was defined. I could focus on a different area of myself each month, whether physically or emotionally, and that would provide the chapters. And there’d be an introduction and an epilogue, which I thought I could do.”
Greer Hendricks, the editor at Atria who acquired Ms. Alter’s book, didn’t know exactly what she was signing up for. The experiment hadn’t yet been conducted, and there was no guarantee that Ms. Alter’s data would prove worthy of a book.
“I think she had just bought the magazines and knew that she was about to start on this quest. She hadn’t gone through her year yet,” Ms. Hendricks said. “So we really took a chance that her year was gonna be interesting.”
And why not take a gamble? Clearly the formula sells. Witness the blockbuster success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about her devastating divorce and the year she spent traveling in an attempt to get over it. Ms. Gilbert’s publisher, Viking Books, has shipped almost 4,700,000 copies of the paperback to date.
If Eat, Pray, Love—in which Ms. Gilbert travels to Italy, India and Indonesia and explores “one aspect” of herself in each place—resonated with readers so profoundly, surely there was something to this formula.
Thoreau, What Hast Thou Wrought?
Although Eat, Pray, Love may have shocked publishers into paying attention to the moneymaking potential of this “how I turned my life around in a year” mini-genre, it was hardly the first book of its kind. In 2004, Julie Powell published her efforts to overcome her depression and save her marriage by cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Ms. Powell’s project began as a blog at Salon.com, but before long, that blog turned into a book deal. “There’s no easy way to say this, certainly not without arousing the ire of those who may think I’ve already gotten Too Big For My Britches. But it’s true. I have landed a book deal,” Ms. Powell wrote to her loyal readers in September 2003. “A really obscene book deal. I am, in fact, officially What’s Wrong With Publishing Today.” The book was a national best seller and a film adaptation of Julie and Julia recently began preproduction, with Nora Ephron directing and Amy Adams and Meryl Streep starring.