From Entrepreneur to Best-selling Novelist
Karen Quinn:"THE NANNY DIARIES had just come out and I figured, maybe I can write a best-seller too"
Who: Karen Quinn, 53, Miami Beach, Florida
What: Sold her business to write; her first novel was a best seller.
When: In 2001, when she was 45, Karen Quinn was unexpectedly laid off after working for 15 years in advertising at American Express. This didn't cause a financial crisis; her husband was a lawyer at a brokerage firm, and she received a substantial severance package. Still, she says, "I was devastated. I remember thinking, I've had this job for so long. How am I ever going to do anything else?" Then she realized she did have one qualification that could translate into paying work: She had gotten her kids accepted into private schools in Manhattan.
To most parents, that doesn't sound like a major accomplishment. But anyone going through the process in New York City knows that competition for spots is unbelievably tight. "You feel so judged," Quinn says. "I hated the experience. I thought, if I can help people through this and make it better for them, maybe there's a business in it."
She paired up with another mother at her children's school, and together they got the business up and running. But after a couple of years, Quinn could no longer stand the drama and the excess she witnessed. She remembers one woman, a single mother, who hired an actor to pretend to be her husband as she went through the process. "It worked," Quinn says, "but the next fall she had to pretend to go through a divorce." On another occasion, Quinn was helping a little girl cram for an entrance exam when the child held up her hands and said, "Stop! Can't you see I'm only 4?"
Quinn sold her share of the company to her partner and started casting about for another career. She had always fantasized about being a writer, and it occurred to her that she had a lot of juicy material from her school adventures. "The Nanny Diaries had just come out," she says, "And I figured, well, that was a best seller, maybe I can write one too."
She and her husband agreed that she would work on the manuscript for three months before looking for another job. So she sat in front of her computer for 10 hours a day, plugging away on a humorous story about a woman who -- you guessed it -- gets fired from the corporate world and starts a private-school consulting firm. As it happened, a friend of Quinn's had a connection to the Nanny editor, so when Quinn finished a draft, she called her. "The editor had me drop off the book at her company's mail room," Quinn recalls. "There were bins and bins of books --thousands of manuscripts people had sent in that were all being returned with rejection letters. For the first time I thought, maybe I won't get published after all."
The editor initially rejected the manuscript, but she did recommend that Quinn make the main character more likable. It took Quinn another month to do the rewrite. When she finished, she told the good news to her babysitter, who turned out to have hosted playdates for the son of a literary agent. The agent took Quinn to lunch, and before the check arrived, the woman had agreed to represent her. Around the same time, Quinn's husband mentioned the book to one of his acquaintances -- who turned out to have edited the book The Devil Wears Prada. "I sent her the manuscript," Quinn says. "When she e-mailed to say she'd read it, loved it, and wanted to publish it -- it was truly one of the most exciting moments of my life."
Her agent set up an auction for the book, and in September 2004, almost six months after Quinn started writing, the novel sold for a price in the mid six figures. The Ivy Chronicles was released in the spring of 2005 and became an immediate national best seller; Sarah Jessica Parker has signed on to play the lead in a movie version. Quinn, meantime, has published two other novels -- Wife in the Fast Lane and Holly Would Dream -- and signed contracts for two more. "A lot of people didn't believe I could do it at the beginning," she says. "You have to listen to that inner voice that says, yeah, I can. You may end up somewhere you never could have imagined."