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What it’s like to spend 10 years writing a book that’s released during a pandemic

Jessica Pearce Rotondi spent a decade penning a deeply personal account of a family tragedy. On the day of its release, the book-buying public is mainly concerned with keeping their own families safe.

What it’s like to spend 10 years writing a book that’s released during a pandemic
[Photo: MirasWonderland/iStock]

In 1972, Edwin “Jack” Pearce vanished without a trace somewhere over the mountains in Laos.

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The Air Force soldier was in the middle of a nighttime mission against a country that, while officially neutral, had been a frequent target of secret U.S. bombings for nearly a decade. Airman Pearce wasn’t legally supposed to be where he was, wherever he was, and the mystery around his disappearance dropped a bomb on the rest of his family.

Pearce’s then-unborn niece, Jessica Pearce Rotondi, would eventually grow up to be an editor at HuffPost and a writer. After her mother passed away in 2008, Rotondi decided to chronicle her family’s difficult history in a book. She spent the following decade researching and writing, including a meticulously planned trip to Laos. In 2018, she finally found a publisher for the book that became What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers. It’s both a stirring portrait of a family desperate for closure and a gripping account of the human toll of the U.S.’s military adventures. It garnered blurbs from the likes of Salman Rushdie and biographer Ron Chernow and earned an enviable starred review from Kirkus Reviews, the literary trade publication. All the pieces were in place for a blockbuster book launch and a triumphant moment both for the author and for the whole Pearce family.

The book’s publication date is today, April 21.

Rotondi was supposed to be leaving today for the first stop on her book tour, the 2020 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, then head back to New York, where she’s based, for a splashy event at the legendary independent bookstore the Strand.

Instead, her book tour is canceled. Some of the press she was meant to do is canceled. Indeed, the very concept of general public enthusiasm toward a new book seems to have been canceled.

Like many other authors with books coming out since mid-March, Rotondi is too caught up in dealing with the fallout of a global pandemic to mourn the book launch that never was. However, Fast Company caught up with the author recently to talk about her experience putting a deeply personal, long-gestating project out into the world at the worst time imaginable.

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Fast Company: When did you first decide to tell your family’s story in a book? What clinched that decision?

Jessica Pearce Rotondi: I lost my mom when I was 23. The day she died, I went into her closet and found boxes of newspaper clippings, declassified CIA documents, and letters that pointed to a family secret: my uncle Jack, who disappeared in a plane crash during the CIA-led “Secret War” in Laos in 1972—a brother she’d never discussed with me. It forced me to reevaluate my childhood; as she was teaching me to walk, then drive, she was carrying all of this hidden grief. I knew then that I would do everything in my power to get to the bottom of Jack’s disappearance, but didn’t decide to write about it until I discovered something else Mom had hidden from me: a children’s book manuscript that she had sent to exactly one publisher in the early ’90s. She had saved the rejection letter and never submitted again. From that point on, seeing her real-life story published became a personal mission.

FC: You spent 10 years researching and writing this book. What did that entail?

JPR: Initially, I focused on the thousands of pages of correspondence and documents my family obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. There were 13 reports total about my uncle spanning from the early 1970s to the late 1980s—many of them contradictory. Several claimed he was killed, while others said he was alive and a prisoner of war like his father once was in World War II. Because so much of what happened in Laos was classified, I worked for years to gain the trust of sources, especially in the CIA. I spoke with former agents, veterans, and refugees about their direct, personal experience with the American bombing of Laos. But the trip I took to Laos in 2013 was what transformed the way I wanted to tell the story. Americans call the bombing the “Secret War,” but in Laos, the evidence is everywhere. Bomb craters pock people’s front yards, and unexploded ordnance still kills 50 people a year—many of them children who think they’re toys. My uncle was one of the men dropping those bombs. I knew that if I was going to tell this story, I’d need to take readers with me to Laos.

Jessica Pearce Rotondi [Photo: courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan]
FC: What was your experience of securing blurbs and reading reviews?

JPR: Unnamed Press is an independent publisher. We don’t have the marketing budget or access to big names that a bigger house might, so I went a bit rogue when it came to getting blurbs for What We Inherit. When you work on something for 10 years, you really have to believe in it, so I figured that the worst thing anyone could say to me was “no.” I literally slid into the DMs of some authors I’d admired for years. For others, I tracked down their agents and wrote personal notes about what their work meant to me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that Ron Chernow, Sebastian Junger, Kate Bolick, Salman Rushdie, and so many others would say yes to blurbing a debut author. I think all those years attending events and supporting the work of the community was a huge help.

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As a former book publicist, I lived in fear and awe of Kirkus Reviews. They were always very selective about what they chose to cover. I remember exactly where I was when I found out that we’d landed a starred review: I was on my honeymoon, on one of those beds with petals, when my editor texted me. I jumped up and down on that high-thread-count comforter and screamed at the top of my lungs. We heard from Booklist soon after. Those early votes of confidence filled me with so much hope and excitement.

FC: What was your first inkling that the coronavirus was going to have a profound impact on American life? How long from that point until your book tour was canceled?

JPR: In January, as my husband and I watched the news from Wuhan, tiny bottles of hand sanitizer began appearing around our apartment. In late February, as Italy became like a war zone, my sister, who lives in France, said her friends had COVID-19. There had been a spate of cases in her region, but she was okay, still going to work, being careful. We began making more frequent grocery runs. The first week in March, my editor called to say the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was being postponed until October. I was supposed to fly out to California in a few short weeks to be on a memoir panel. I was recording the audiobook at the time and called the studio to move up the final recording date, just in case things got worse. I woke up a week later to texts from friends about the launch being canceled. I found out via Facebook. Everything fell like dominos after that.

What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search For Answers, by Jessica Pearce Rotondi  

FC: What kinds of conversations were you having with your publisher at this point?

JPR: In that first, long week, we had a phone call where we were not even sure the physical books (which had just been printed) would be able to ship. It wasn’t clear how or if the postal service would be operating, and Amazon had just announced they were delaying books in favor of essentials, as they should. Many of the independent bookstores we’d built relationships with were closing their doors, though some were going online, and our next thought was, “What can we do to support them?” Our distributor, Publisher’s Group West, has been amazing. Once we knew we could get physical books out, we began to have hope. Then we began building a virtual tour for What We Inherit together.

FC: What is it like to do outreach for promotional opportunities at a time like this?

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JPR: At first, I felt deeply uncomfortable even talking about the book. I have friends who are ER doctors in New York City, and the work they are doing every single day is so hard. But I also, in my core, know my family’s story is about life and hope. My grandfather survived the Great Depression and World War II, and when his son was lost in Vietnam, he never, ever gave up or stopped believing that the world was good. I’m his granddaughter, and I can’t give up on his story, either. Members of the press have been so generous with their time even as they adapt to working from home with kids and a crazy news cycle. It’s a strange time for everyone, but I know that at least for me, reaching out to people about something I love made me feel a little more normal and a little more okay.

FC: Have you been connecting with other authors, especially any fellow first-timers, who have books coming out now?

JPR: The most unexpected thing about being on lockdown with a book coming out is the incredible community being forged between writers who have never met in person but are now banding together to support one another. Mary South, the author of You Will Never Be Forgotten, created a Google group of about 70 of us. We’re organizing group giveaways and events, and we talk about everything from where to pitch stories now to the nuts and bolts of book trailers to how it’s okay to be sad when something you’ve poured yourself into for years is taken away, even if there are other losses that feel more immense. And I can’t mention hope without shouting out the work that Zibby Owens of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum from A Mighty Blaze, and Adam Vitcavage at the Debutiful podcast are doing to introduce readers to debut authors.

FC: How did you feel holding a finished copy of your book, despite all the plans that never came to fruition?

JPR: I received my author’s copy of What We Inherit in quarantine, on my second day without a shower, missing family and friends. But opening that box and seeing the book I’d dreamed of for so long made me feel like a small child on her birthday, mixed with what I imagine it must feel like to be prom queen, combined with the pride of getting to hold your baby for the first time. It felt like gratitude. Plus, I’m going to be in digital literary festivals as far away as Amsterdam and Australia and doing an online reading with the Strand, a place that has always been so special to me. In our sleepless present, participating in these remote gatherings is like being granted unlimited access to a thousand and one bedtime stories. There is hope in that.

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