How imagination begins

 Rob Ackerman

Rob Ackerman

Carol Weston ’78 didn’t read much when she was little. She has now published 16 books; one came out in 12 languages. View full image

“There’s time”

How I finally finally finally became a novelist.


By Carol Weston ’78


As a little kid, I was not a big reader. I preferred biking and baking, hide-and-seek, and kick the can. At bedtime, I’d treat myself to one of Aesop’s fables, the shorter, the better. I liked how the stories about animals were secretly about people.

My family moved in January of third grade. I remember looking up at the language arts teacher as she wrote OUGH on the chalkboard. She asked us to pronounce it. “Oo?” “Oh?” Then, with perfect penmanship, chalked COUGH, ENOUGH, BOUGH, THOUGH, THROUGH, and OUGHT and read those words aloud. How was that possible? They didn’t even rhyme! I was enchanted.

In the middle of sixth grade, my family moved again. Middle school is tricky enough, but walking into a homeroom as the new girl in January required skills I did not possess. I wished someone would explain periods, pimples, popularity. I wished I had boobs. I wished I weren’t such a slow reader—always savoring words instead of skimming them.

Babysitting became my refuge. I loved observing families from within and helping kids sound out picture books. On my own, I’d thumb through Peanuts and Archie comics. Big books continued to intimidate me, but blank pages never did, and at night, I scribbled in my diary while others were discovering Ramona and Harriet the Spy.

When I was 11, I came across Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—and devoured it. Were there other novels like this out there? Later I tore through Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Were there other books that were this eye-opening?

Reader, I became a reader.

French felt like an elaborate word game, and I was lucky enough to spend 12th grade in France. At Yale, I studied Jean de La Fontaine, Racine, Molière, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and also learned Spanish and Italian, holing up in cozy college libraries. Each language felt like a master key.

On a lark, I sent an essay to Seventeen. They ran it and paid me $100. Whoa. That equaled 100 hours of babysitting!

Fall of sophomore year, Seventeen bought “Is There Life After 19?” for $250. I clutched the issue to my chest and crossed Silliman’s courtyard. “Aren’t you a little old to be reading Seventeen?” Master Eli Clark ’43, ’47LLB, asked. “I’m writing for them!” I replied, beaming.  
I declared my major—French/Spanish comp lit—and dared to wonder: could I write The Great American Novel? Or at least A Pretty Good American Novel?

After grad school in Madrid, I married, and wrote essays, articles, and quizzes for Seventeen, Brides, Glamour, Cosmopolitan. I spent a year working on a novel, then abandoned it. I sent out short stories; they boomeranged back.

Whenever I read a debut novel, I’d check the author’s age. “There’s time,” I told myself. It helped that my father believed I would be an author someday.

I was 25 when Dad died in his sleep. His death split my life into Before and After. My cheery writer’s voice fell silent. Write a book? I just wanted to sit under a tree and cry. Besides, I had nothing to write about. What had I ever done besides survive adolescence? 

Light bulb emoji here.

HarperCollins published Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You when I was 28. I wrote it from the heart, and it came out in twelve languages and four editions. Letters poured in—about friends, crushes, eating disorders, grief, rape, suicide. I answered each one.

Soon Rob and I had daughters of our own, and I wrote From Here to Maternity. Milton Glaser did the jacket art. A novelist friend told me my memoir was a novel—the characters just happened to be real. I tried to keep the faith.

A new magazine, Girls’ Life, asked me to be their advice columnist. I appeared on TV—Oprah, Today, The View. Underneath my name, it would say, “Dear Abby for girls.”

But was that . . . it? The desire to Write a Novel kept gnawing. By now, I’d started looking at books the way architects look at buildings.

At a New Year’s Eve party, I confided in a friend. “This year, I’m going to Write a Novel.”

“That was your resolution last year,” she said.

My heart sank. I was an advice giver in need of advice.

I found a therapist. “My mom wanted to be a novelist, but didn’t do it,” I sobbed. “I inherited her dream and her nightmare.” I spoke of Writing a Novel as if it were Scaling Mount Everest.

The shrink shrugged. “You’ll write lots of novels.”

“If I do,” I whimpered, “will she hate me?”

He shook his head.

I snuffled, stocked up on how-to books, and enrolled in a fiction course at the YMCA. I sent out a new novel. It came back.

Then it hit me. I had daughters. I understood preteen politics. I vividly remembered being 8 and 11. What if I tried a novel for kids? Maybe a girl’s diary?

I wrote The Diary of Melanie Martin, about a girl who travels with her linguist mom and brother Matt the Brat. More rejections. One day my agent phoned. Knopf (Knopf!) wanted to buy my manuscript. Wait. What? Seriously? She said these were her favorite phone calls. I leaned against my kitchen counter. I was 43. I was a novelist.

Three Melanies followed, and a second series about Ava Wren, a plucky word nerd with a shy sister and palindrome-obsessed parents. (Her M-O-M and D-A-D are A-N-N-A and B-O-B. Her S-I-S is P-I-P. Their pet is T-A-C-O-C-A-T.)
I’ve been Dear Carol for over a quarter century, and I still help girls solve problems. But now I get to create problems too—and dive deep into worlds of my own making. And I love visiting schools (public, private, immersion) and telling aspiring authors to keep journals and to write and rewrite until they get it right.

“How long does it take to write a novel?” they ask. “As long as it takes,” is the answer.

My most recent novel, Speed of Life, took ten years. Sofia, 14, is shattered by the death of her parent and reaches out to an advice columnist. When the New York Times Book Review called it “perceptive, funny, and moving,” I wept.

My current project is about the princess in Velázquez’s iconic painting Las Meninas. Can I make Margarita and the 1600s come alive for kids today? I hope so.

Sometimes women tell me they still own their dog-eared copies of Girltalk.

Sometimes girls send drawings and book reports. But my favorite fan letters are the ones from kids who say they didn’t like to read until they read my books.

Turning a child into a reader? For me, that’s as good as it gets.   

Carol Weston ’78 lives with her husband, Rob Ackerman, in Manhattan. Their daughters are Emme (note palindrome) and Lizzi ’10.