Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field. This week, we talked to novelist, New York Times contributor, and brand strategist Seth Margolis about how the second half of his American life came to run parallel to the first.
Name: Seth Margolis
Original Hometown: Harrison, New York
Job: Seth Margolis is the author of several critically acclaimed novels including Losing Isaiah, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Halle Berry. He also works a wildly different yet equally time-consuming day job as a brand strategist.
How did you get your start?
I have two careers going and I always have. One career is I’m a brand strategist and marketing consultant and I’ve done that for most of my adult life, I actually went to business school. And for someone who helped companies help brand themselves, I’ve done a fairly poor job of branding myself as a writer. I’ve written novels — seven altogether now — none of which have anything in common.
The first two books I wrote were mystery. Then I wrote Losing Isaiah. This most recent one is a suspense novel that takes place half in Elizabethan times, half in the current day. What I would tell my branding clients is you need to be out there with a consistent point of view, and I have not done that at all in my writing life.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
From the time I was a child. Sometime in my 20s I wrote a short story and mailed it off to The New Yorker. Two weeks later, I got a printed rejection note that just said two words: “Sorry, no.” I was so devastated — in the way that 20-somethings can overreact — that I applied to business school and got an MBA. Several years went by and I was in my 30s and doing well in my career, and I thought, “I’m going to write a novel.” And I’m not going to make the publication of that novel the criterion for my success, but when I type the words ‘The End’ I will feel that I’ve accomplished something. And that’s what I did. Then came the whole process of self-editing, rewriting, finding an agent, finding a publisher, getting it published. And still, when I meet writers today and they say, ‘I’ve finished a book,’ and now they’re looking for an agent or a publisher and I always say, just stop and pat yourself on the back. It is really hard to complete a novel.
Even after you are a successful novelist now, you still maintain your day job. Is it partly because you enjoy it, or is it because in this day and age you need to be J.K. Rowling in order to be a full-time writer?
It’s both of those things. Other than when I had a sale of Losing Isaiah to Paramount Pictures, I never had tremendous windfall from writing. And I raise two kids. So I always needed a second career, but I’ve written as much as I have by getting up early in the morning and writing from about roughly 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning every day. You can be quite productive doing that. It suits my personality to have the two parallel careers going. I’m not really good with free time, quite frankly. And when you think about so many stories about writers who have difficult lives and have problems with alcohol or drugs or depression — by nature, fiction writing means spending a lot of time alone in a room with just yourself. Maybe that lends itself to all those symptoms.
So because being a writer is locking yourself in a room, what was the experience like for you to watch your work adapted on the screen?
I compare it to seeing your child grow up and become independent and say and do things that you didn’t think it was capable of doing. You created this story and characters and then you watch them on the screen and think, ‘Why are they doing that? And why are they saying that?’ It was largely positive in that it was a good movie and I felt that, “wow I created something that actually has a life beyond what I created.”
Has there ever been a time when you’ve found it challenging to juggle both careers?
There’s certainly been days where I wish I could stay home and write just another chapter. I always thought that it wouldn’t help my literary career if people knew I was working with large, very well-known companies on their brands. And if my branding clients knew that I wrote fiction, would they distrust my judgment or my commitment to their work? So I always kept them separate and lived this sort of schizophrenic life, which I actually kind of enjoyed.
In all the years that I’ve been doing this, there’s only been three times that one of my clients ever made the connection. One was just yesterday at a very large consulting firm in Washington, D.C. I was down there at a meeting, and after, a woman came over to me and said, ‘Oh I can’t wait to read The Semper Sonnet. And I had this dislocation — I almost didn’t remember what she was talking about!
So I’ve never found it a conflict or a problem juggling the two, but in terms of time or resources, sometimes I do find that leading two parallel lives can be challenging.
The two worlds of writing fiction and branding businesses are not that different. They’re both about telling stories. That’s what a brand is; a story about a product or a company, and you tell that story through words or through images. And when you write a novel, you’re telling a story through words. It draws on the same talent and ability. I spend my days trying to help big companies tell their story to their customers and shareholders and employees. And early in the morning I tell my own story, through my own words and through characters.
What are you most excited about for the immediate future?
Other than writing and publishing another book, I guess it would be kind of engaging with readers and trying to sort of get the book out there using the powers and the resources that individuals like me now have – that we never did. It used to be with all my other books you sit back and wait for your publisher to do something. Get you a signing at a bookstore — which is increasingly rare these days — or place an add in The New York Times which I’ve never had and very few authors do. But now you don’t need to wait for your publisher to do anything. You can take the initiative on your own. And I’m actually enjoying that. So other than writing another book, that’s what I’m looking forward to.