by Annie Scholl

In 2015, Suzette Mullen was working on a memoir about her professional journey of being a Harvard Law-trained attorney who became a stay-at-home mom when an unexpected story emerged. She wrote a scene from years before when she grazed the arm of her best friend and felt a flood of warmth and electricity course through her body.

At the time, Mullen didn’t understand what that intense feeling meant. But when her book coach commented that the passage sounded like someone falling in love, the “scales fell” from Mullen’s eyes. She realized she had been in love with her friend, who was also her older son’s kindergarten teacher.

That revelatory moment set in motion the story Mullen went on to tell in her debut memoir The Only Way Through is Out (University of Wisconsin Press, February 2024).

What began as a different book altogether transformed into Mullen’s raw, vulnerable account of discovering her sexuality later in life, falling in love with her best friend (who she calls “Reenie” in her book), and upending her 30-year marriage to a “lovely man” at age 55 to finally live authentically.

Her courage to pursue that “unspeakable” truth and write about it has resonated profoundly with her readers.

Mullen, who is also a memoir and nonfiction book coach and speaker, talks with the The Sunlight Press from her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

How did writing that pivotal line about the “unspeakable” launch you on this journey?

Even as I wrote it, I knew it felt dangerous and “unspeakable,” but I had a sense that if I wasn’t willing to go to that vulnerable place, I shouldn’t be writing memoir. When I sent that scene to my book coach, I was thinking no one else needed to see it. But she came back with feedback saying it was the most authentic, vulnerable writing I’d done.

Suzette Mullen

Tell us about the process—when you first started, etc.?

I began writing the book in January of 2018, so I was still pretty close to the events of the story, which take place between 2015 to 2017. The first draft was about just getting down the events. With each subsequent draft, I got more and more clear on the deeper story I was trying to tell. At a high level, it’s about a woman who discovers she’s gay later in life, is in love with her best friend, and leaves her marriage to go off on her own. But the deeper story I wanted to share was about learning to listen to your inner voice, learning to trust what is inside yourself, then finding the courage to act on it. That’s the universal story, but I couldn’t have told you that when I started writing the book.

Not everyone understands or relates to the idea of an “inner voice” that you personified as a character. Were you hesitant to include that?

I didn’t fully see that inner voice theme until later drafts. As I started noticing times when I’d heard that voice, I decided to make it an actual character called “the Voice.” That really freed me up structurally to include vignettes from earlier in my life when I’d heard that voice. It also helped me authentically represent my faith and spirituality in a way that I hoped would be accessible to any reader, not just those from a Christian context. By defining the Voice broadly, I hoped readers could relate to it.

We all have that inner voice—you can call it intuition, you can call it Spirit, whatever language you want to use—that is where our truth and our true self reside. And at least in my experience the inner voice doesn’t lead you to safe, comfortable places. It leads you to taking risks, and, ultimately, it leads you to yourself.

I knew that there were many people, particularly women at midlife, who felt like they hadn’t lived fully or there was something more for them. It feels scary to leave the safe and the known. I wanted to write a book for those readers. Obviously the bullseye-target readers are women questioning or coming to terms with their sexuality later in life, but I always envisioned a broader audience. The good news is that my memoir seems to be reaching that broader audience.

You were very open and honest, not letting yourself or others off the hook as the book’s narrator. How difficult was that, especially writing about loved ones?

The relationships with my mother, sister, and “Reenie” were probably the hardest to navigate. I wanted to portray honestly how the “character me” felt in those moments, and as the narrator who had more perspective, I could be more generous and compassionate toward the other characters. With my mother especially, there were harsh moments when I was coming out and separating from my husband, times when she couldn’t offer empathy. Earlier drafts had more negativity. But in revision, I injected more of the reflective voice to show my more present-day understanding of how difficult this big change must have been for her at 82 years old.

Is there a story behind your book title and cover? I love both so much.

There’s definitely an interesting story behind the title The Only Way Through Is Out and the cover design. I originally queried the book under the title Graveyard of Safe Choices, which came from a line in the book. But after my publisher offered me a contract, they felt that title could sound too gloomy for the uplifting story I was telling.

After some brainstorming, one of my colleagues suggested The Only Way Through Is Out—a play on the saying “The only way out is through.” My editors loved it. As for the cover, when I saw the initial design concept, my body had a visceral negative reaction. Instead of just going along, I mustered the courage to provide honest feedback about my concerns.

My publisher was wonderfully open-minded, and we went back to the drawing board. The final design captured the tone and essence of my story in a way that felt profoundly right. It was a lesson in not settling just to be agreeable but ensuring every aspect of the book genuinely resonated with the heart of what I wanted to express. We say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but people judge books by their covers every day. The cover is what sells a book.

What is your hope for your book?

My hope for the book is that it will reach the readers who need to hear this story. So far that seems to be happening. I think that many of us who are coming out later in life feel very alone in our experience. It helps to know there are other people out there who have not only experienced something similar but have gotten to the other side and are thriving and happy. I also hope my book will continue to open doors for me professionally. I was searching for my professional purpose for so many years and I finally found the thing I was meant to do. I want readers to know it’s never too late to live out loud, and it’s never too late for a new beginning.

Your querying process was long and difficult before you found the right publisher for this book. Can you share that story and any advice for aspiring authors?

In 2021, I queried my memoir for the first time, and it was brutal and discouraging. Sending queries out week after week and not getting responses or only form rejections. After several weeks of getting nowhere, I enlisted the help of a book coach to revise my draft. I ended up tearing that draft apart, and a year later, I queried what was a much stronger manuscript. This time, in 2022, I had a plan. I’d query a select group of agents and small presses simultaneously and if there was no traction after a certain amount of time, I was prepared to use a hybrid publisher to get my story out.

The University of Wisconsin Press, which has an LGBTQ memoir series, was thankfully at the right place at the right time. Within an hour of querying them, they asked for my proposal. A few weeks later, they wanted the full manuscript and eventually offered me a contract. It took persistence and a willingness to overhaul my manuscript to get there.

My advice to writers is to be patient and trust the process. You want to publish a book you feel proud of, which in most cases will mean going through multiple revisions. The process will likely take longer than you think, but going the extra mile to create the strongest book you are capable of writing is absolutely worth it.

 

Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr