A Tale of Woe

by Jennifer Hillier

I lost a good writing friend after I got my first book deal. Let’s call her Gloria. And I don’t mean I “lost her” in that she died; she basically dumped me, and I didn’t see it coming. Gloria and I were in the trenches together. We met on a popular writers’ forum and instantly clicked, as much as two people – two straight women, anyway – can click online. We had similar backgrounds, wrote in similar genres, and were huge fans of each other’s work.

We started querying around the same time, commiserating in daily emails about the horror that was Query Hell, and joyfully signed with different agents within a week of each other. We went on submission to editors at almost exactly the same time. Two months later, I received an offer.

Gloria was happy for me; absolutely, she was. We celebrated as much as two online friends can, through long emails, a sweet Hallmark e-card, a congratulatory shout-out on Facebook. While I dug into revisions with my new editor, she continued to wait for her book deal to come. I don’t think either of us ever doubted it would. She was – and still is – a fantastically talented writer, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the right editor at the right publishing house came along waving a contract.

But it never happened.

Two months passed, then six, and then it was a year. My debut novel was a month away from being released when I realized she hadn’t responded to the last three emails I sent. I hadn’t noticed earlier because it wasn’t like she stopped communicating cold turkey. It happened gradually, with emails coming in slower and shorter, and then less and less. We’d never been the kind of friends who waited for a response before we could write back – we blasted out emails whenever we felt like it, and sometimes had multiple email conversations going at the same time. I checked my blog; even though I’d commented on all her posts (and I mean all her posts – every single one she’d written since she started blogging the year before), she hadn’t left a comment on mine in two months. And when I checked her blog roll – the little widget at the side of her blog that listed her favorite sites – mine was no longer one of them.

Another email went unanswered, and then another. She wasn’t dead, because she was still on Facebook posting and commenting (although much less than before). I knew she wasn’t sick, because a mutual friend of ours – let’s call her Karen – still heard from her regularly. So I figured she must be really busy.

My last email to Gloria, in which I told her I missed her, and ended with, “Are you okay? Are we okay?” went unanswered. Frustrated and not knowing what else to do, I finally reached out to Karen about it. Karen was surprised that we hadn’t been talking, because she and Gloria had been in been contact almost every single day for the past month.  

And then it happened. The really big thing you can do to tell an online friend you’re breaking up with up with them without actually saying the words: Gloria unfriended me on Facebook.

I was heartbroken. It couldn’t have been more painful than if we had been “real life” friends. This was a person I cared about, who I’d poured my heart out to for more than a year, and who’d done the same with me. I had hundreds of emails documenting our friendship, tens of thousands of words written, cute cat pictures exchanged.

Allow me to repeat: CUTE CAT PICTURES EXCHANGED. She had cats, I had cats, and we’d SHARED OUR CAT PHOTOS WITH EACH OTHER.

I immediately took inventory of my behavior. Had I forgotten to respond to any of her emails? No, I’d replied to everything. Had I inadvertently used a bitchy or dismissive tone? No, if anything, too many emoji happy faces as usual (and anyone who knows me knows I don’t do sarcasm). Had I done anything else that could have possibly offended her? If I had, I couldn’t imagine what. Also, I would have apologized immediately, had she told me what I did. (I’m Canadian – we are very, very good at saying we’re sorry.)

My debut novel finally came out. I spent the weekend in New York City at ThrillerFest, where I had a wonderful time finally meeting my agent and editor in person. The publisher threw me a fancy lunch at a fancy restaurant. I was part of the ITW debut authors breakfast, and the keynote address was given by Karin Slaughter. I got to thank Jeffery Deaver in person for blurbing my book, who said to me, “Hey, no problem. Great book, man.” It was, in a word, magical.

On my last night in New York, I happened to check my phone and saw that I had an email. It was from Gloria, and there was nothing in the subject line. I clicked on it, only to find one word:

Congrats

It was about two hundred words shorter than any email she’d ever sent me before, but I was so happy to hear from her, I didn’t care. I responded immediately, and I didn’t mention my book at all, or the fact that I was in a hotel in NYC, giddy after a whirlwind weekend. Instead, I asked her how she was, told her again that I missed her, and attached a cute cat photo.

No response.

But like any good internet stalker, I kept up with Gloria from afar. Her book never sold. She parted ways with her agent after her second book didn’t sell, either. She deactivated her Facebook account for a few months, during which time she also deactivated her blog. She had stopped communicating with our mutual friend Karen, who had finally gotten her first book deal.

But then one day, Gloria’s blog popped back up in my blog roll. I clicked to read the post, titled “Where Have I Been?” The first line was (and I’m paraphrasing):

I needed a break from all things publishing because it was too hard to watch everyone succeed where I was failing.

Karen read the post, too, and sent me this: Wow, she’s jealous! So uncool. We would have been excited for her if it was the other way around.

But would we have been? Honestly, would we? Because how can we say for certain how we would have felt? While I don’t ever doubt that Gloria was happy for me – and for Karen – it must be incredibly hard to watch your friends get the exact thing you want, that you’ve worked just as hard for. There’s no way to know how great the disappointment would have been, the dent it would have made in our self-esteem as writers had we never been published. We won’t ever truly understand how she feels, because we never had to find out.

Three years later, Karen found out that Gloria got a book deal. Her third novel had found a home with a small but well-respected publisher. When her book was released, I bought a copy, then sent her an email to congratulate her. Her response:

Thanks

As hard as it is, I can’t force someone to be friends with me. I have to respect her choice. But it sucks to lose a writing friend, because nobody other than a fellow writer truly gets how crazy this rollercoaster really is, and we need to stick together if we’re going to survive it.

We don’t have to do this alone.

I saw a photo of Gloria recently, signing copies of her new novel at a local book fair. She looked happy. And it occurred to me then that as much as I wish she could have stayed with me on my journey, I wish I could have stayed with her on hers.

JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

To learn more about Hillier’s most recent thriller, click on the cover below:

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