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For Tanya Selvaratnam, Idea Came Quickly-Book Proposal, Not So Much

Tanya Selvaratnam, author of The Big Lie

Tanya Selvaratnam, author of The Big Lie

In the last year, in particular, public discussion and debate about motherhood and fertility’s impact on career has reached fever pitch. Former Hillary Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” went viral almost instantly, spawning a soon-to-be released book on the topic. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (the bestselling new non-fiction title of the year so far) also touched a nerve as the Facebook COO suggested many women “lean back” on the job when they begin planning to start a family.  Most recently, author Lauren Sandler raised the ire of the literati (including Zadie Smith and Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley) for her piece “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid”.

Tanya Selvaratnam’s forthcoming book The Big Lie, set to be released by Prometheus Books, distributed by Random House, January 7, 2014, dives into the discourse. Inspired by the disappointments she encountered attempting motherhood in her late thirties, Selvaratnam says she needed to write the book “because people—women and men—are suffering as a result of incomplete/conflicting information and a lack of societal and governmental support. Pre-order her book here or here.
Why was it important to you to share your personal experience in The Big Lie?
I was inspired to write the book because of my experience considering and attempting motherhood in my late thirties, and also because of the many stories I heard from friends and friends of friends about their own experiences. I was frustrated by the discourse around the choices made by women of my and later generations and how those choices have impacted society and the future. I wanted to write a book that would have helped me when I was going through my journey with the hope that I could help others.

As I researched (I interviewed dozens of experts and individuals around the country), the book became bigger than I originally envisioned it, and I ended up exploring how delaying motherhood intersects with feminism, fertility science, evolution, popular culture, global economics, female friendships, etc. My personal story grounds the book and, I hope, makes it relatable.


This book being non-fiction, I’m assuming you had to create a book proposal. What was your process for gathering the information you needed? How long did it take you to feel you had gotten it right?
The idea for the book came quickly and instinctively, but getting the proposal done became complicated. The idea came after my third miscarriage in October 2011, but then my life took many twists and turns and I had to recalibrate my approach along the roller coaster. Last spring I had a big surgery and took a hiatus from writing until the end of the summer.

It was especially daunting to keep up with how many changes were happening in real-time with regard to fertility science. For example, when I started the book in fall 2011, egg freezing was still considered experimental. By the time I finished the proposal in fall 2012, it wasn’t, and many were promoting it as a kind of miracle mechanism for women who want to delay motherhood.

To help me with my initial research, I sent out a questionnaire to thirty women I know of different reproductive ages. I also brought on a research assistant, Susan Wilson, and contacted fertility experts, sociologists and adoption counselors around the country. In addition, I worked hard on a marketing plan to include, in which I talked about the different segments of my potential audience and how to reach those segments. After a few rounds of edits with my agent, I had two chapters and the proposal ready for submission.


What was your process of securing a publisher for the book?
I have an amazing agent in Meg Thompson of Einstein Thompson Literary Agency. I met her through a mutual friend, Jennifer Rubell, who first encouraged me to write this book. Meg approached a select group of publishers, including Prometheus Books, which is distributed by Random House, and I’m lucky Prometheus took me on. I was attracted to Prometheus’s mission of “testing the boundaries of established thought.” I felt like it really got my ideas and would support the book. My hunch has turned out to be right; I’ve had a very positive experience.


What was the editing process like working with your publisher?
I worked with Steven Mitchell of Prometheus. I thought it was interesting, considering the subject matter, that my editor was a man. In a way, this helped me write for a broader audience. I sent Steven chapters as I completed them, and he told me early on that he was enjoying reading my manuscript, which of course felt great. But he challenged me on a few points, which was also great, because he compelled me to write more incisively.

In addition to Steven, I had different rounds of readers who were friends, mostly female but also male, of different generations (ranging in age from twenty-two to sixty-two). Some of the chapters that are science-heavy I gave to two of the experts I interviewed. I couldn’t have written the book without all these people’s input.


“Delayed motherhood” has become a hot topic again as Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In point out how motherhood (or preparing for it) can impact a woman’s career growth. What are your thoughts on this renewed attention?
In my book, I actually discuss the attention to Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, and many others on the subject of delayed motherhood as well as the attention to writers like Amy Chua and Pamela Druckerman on the subject of parenting in general. I think the more people talk about these issues, the more these debates will enter the mainstream consciousness, and the more likely we are to achieve long-lasting changes in attitudes and policies. These changes are necessary because people—women and men—are suffering as a result of incomplete/conflicting information and a lack of societal and governmental support.

The one criticism I have is that the dominant voices are people who seem to be at the top and who have, to the rest of us, succeeded (in pursuing motherhood and careers) despite whatever obstacles they might have faced along the way. As someone who struggled with fertility and has not yet had a child and also as someone of immigrant origins who grew up with different familial and cultural expectations, I hope my book is a good complement to the existing writing on the subject.

One response to “For Tanya Selvaratnam, Idea Came Quickly-Book Proposal, Not So Much

  1. Pingback: Running away to join the circus | Symposium Magazine

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