Jessica George is no stranger to rejection. Over an eight-year period, the 28-year-old wrote and submitted five books to publishers, all of which were turned down. George had gotten so used to hearing no that by the time she sent out her sixth novel, Maame, her expectations were basically nonexistent. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested,” she tells me.
Yet interested they were to put it mildly. Maame, a coming-of-age story that follows Maddie, a 25-year-old self-described late bloomer, wasn’t just readily accepted by an editor but was bought by a publisher after a practically unheard of eight-way auction. And in the months leading up to its release, the novel landed on numerous most-anticipated-books lists and received glowing endorsements from authors like Celeste Ng and Bonnie Garmus.
To readers of Maame, the reasons for the enthusiasm are clear: It’s a compelling, deeply moving novel anchored by George’s charming, honest, and strikingly original voice. Yet to the author, that voice was exactly why she thought the book would never work.
“I’d spent the eight years before Maame trying to hide that voice because I thought it was too conversational, too colloquial — it sounded too much like the voice in my head,” George explains. “And because I hadn’t read books that sounded like the voice in my head, I was like, ‘Well, that’s clearly not what people want.’”
Thankfully, the author was proved wrong. In the lead-up to Maame’s recent release, George spoke to many readers who’ve connected with Maddie’s distinctively intimate voice, especially in the character’s musings on heavy topics like first-time sex, career troubles, and complicated familial expectations. George, the British daughter of Ghanaian immigrants herself, based some of Maddie’s life on her own experiences as a 25-year-old, especially the overwhelming responsibility of caring for her ailing father. “At that age, we were very, very similar,” she explains, “naive, kind of people-pleasing at a detriment to yourself.”
But the writer was focused on creating a protagonist whose journey would connect with any 20-something trying to find their way in life.
“Maddie’s trying to toe that line of being the daughter that her parents want her or need her to be, and being the person she would rather be,” George says. “And the thing about trying to be respectful and do as you’re told is that you don’t really know who you are because you’re trying to do what others want you to [do].”
I couldn’t find anything else that gave me the joy of writing…and that kept me going.
When it came to Maddie’s relationships with her parents, George was determined to paint a full, realistic portrait of the complex dynamics between many immigrants and their children. “When I talk to a lot of readers who have immigrant parents, we all have this thing of ‘Parents can’t be wrong’ because we have this idea that you must respect your elders,” she explains. With Maame, she says, “I don’t try to destroy that — I just try to paint parents as more human than I think we believe them to be.”
That desire for locating the kernels of truth and nuance was also reflected in the novel’s depiction of sex — a virgin when the book begins, Maddie craves love and connection but finds herself on a rocky road to achieving what she wants and desires. In writing Maame, George wanted to capture a realistically messy path to finding pleasure. “It just made sense that it would take a while to get her to her first time and a great place, as I think that’s just true of a lot of women,” she says.
Now that the novel is out in the world, hopefully many more readers will see themselves in Maddie’s struggles, as well as her efforts to pursue happiness and self-liberation. As the character learns to stand up for herself and become more independent, it’s impossible not to root for her success. The writer is currently working on a second novel, about the complexities of adult female friendship, and doesn’t take for granted the hard road it took to get to this point.
Hearing agent after agent tell her that she and her books weren’t good enough in their eyes was “very depressing,” George says, noting, “When people who are professionals in the industry are telling you, ‘Hmm, are you suited for this?’ … you’re like, ‘If I’m not very good at doing what I really want to do and what I think will make me really happy, what do I do?’”
After each set of rejections, she thought about giving up on writing completely in favor of a different, easier career path — only to find herself drawn back to storytelling every time.
“I couldn’t find anything else that gave me the joy of writing,” George says. “And that kept me going.”
And without all those rejections and obstacles, she notes, she wouldn’t have made it to Maame. Her first five books, George says, weren’t really her; they were “modeled on what was popular at the moment, not anything I particularly cared about — just what I thought would get the book published.” And though the road was long, tedious, and at times demoralizing, it wasn’t until Maame, and Maddie, that the author felt she truly came into her own as a writer. “It just took six books to get there.”
(-Rachel Simon is a writer with work in The New York Times, Glamour, NBC News, Marie Claire, and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @rachel_simon)