At a gathering last week to mark the release of my book, Murder in Mumbai, there was one question I was asked more often than others: How did you get published?
It’s an odd sort of question because it can mean many things: What is the process of publishing? How does the publishing industry work? What steps do you take? Is it easy? But the answer I ended up giving was: “With a great deal of luck.”
I’d love to believe that my writing is so brilliant, my prose so sparkling, my insight so sharp that agents and publishers fought among themselves in order to sign me. But the David Foster Wallaces of this world are few, and I belong to a tribe whose adherents fall into one of three categories: those who want to write books, those who are writing books and those who have written books.
Of course, not all of them have been published. A former colleague of mine is one of the most incisive people I know, and I love his writing, but he’s had little luck in publishing his novels. That story extends to many others. So why me and why not them? I thought long and hard about this until I came across writer Michael Lewis’ commencement speech at Princeton this year.
Lewis, as he recounts in his book Liar’s Poker, was a student in London when he was serendipitously seated at dinner at Buckingham Palace next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers executive. That seating arrangement led to a job. That job led to more than one best-selling book, and hit movies, too. In his commencement speech, Lewis is clear about why he was successful:
“My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”
The luck to which Lewis attributes his success is hard to define. But it’s one of those things you recognize when you see: It’s the child who can run across the street despite oncoming traffic with the absolute certainty of making it to the other side. It’s the climber who stretches for an impossible-to-reach hold in the knowledge she’ll make it. It’s the confidence I possessed as a student in Bombay that I’d catch any train I chased.
Of course, there are times luck deserts us, too. The former English cricketer Ed Smith, who’s now an accomplished author and columnist (his new book is called Luck), spoke of the vicissitudes of his own career. A crucial umpiring decision ended his England career; an ankle twisted during a county game ended his cricketing career.
“It sounds like I just had an awful lot of bad luck. In actual fact, they were just the prompts that made me think about luck in a much broader sense. I realised that if you define luck as that which is beyond your control, which is implicit in the definition you used, I have been massively lucky in a much bigger sense too. For example, the luck of where I was educated, where I first learned how to play cricket. You’re 20 times more likely to go on and play for England if you go to private school rather than state school. So I suppose I started thinking about luck in a much broader sense, in terms of the social luck of where you grow up and your genetic good fortune. We tend to gloss over genetic good fortune in sport because it’s all supposed to be about effort but I know from having been in a dressing room with all range of sportsmen that the luck of genes is a massive influence on sport.”
I honestly can’t argue with any of the things either Lewis or Smith say. I’m a product of my background. I grew up reading books. I make my living through journalism. I was fortunate to write a book set in an “exotic” foreign location at the same time my publisher was looking for something different. Of course, that I went from wanting to write a book to writing one helped, but many others have done that. As Lewis said in his commencement speech:
“Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”