Sounds Like a Lot to Me

Illustration: Corbis

In 1989, I finished graduate school and took a research position at a think tank in San Francisco. During the job interview, the institute’s founders mentioned that the salary was $24,000. I said, “That sounds like a lot.” I’m pretty sure that sentence does not appear in how-to-negotiate-to-win books. But I was twenty-nine and living on $7,000 in teaching stipends, so it was a candid, if unstrategic, thing to say. The founders looked at each other. Then one of them said, slowly, “Sandra . . . it’s not.”

Later that year, the Loma Prieta earthquake condemned my apartment, and my employer, for reasons other than the earthquake, began having trouble making payroll. With my $2,000 FEMA check, I moved to Chicago, where I became a professor. My starting salary was $30,000. Three years later, I quit teaching to start life as an author, with the help of a fellowship at Harvard. I cashed out my $3,000 retirement account to pay for the moving van.

The next year, I had an agent and a book contract. My advance, in the parlance of publishing, was “in the mid five figures.” The book took me three years to write, during which time I lived on the advance, along with some grants, adding water to the soup as needed to make the money last until the footnotes were done. I married a sculptor whose salary was “in the low five figures.” Which is one reason we eloped.

The paperback rights netted an amount “in the high five figures.” And the advance for my next book sold for a similar sum. I used it to buy writing time, pay off student loans, and move us to upstate New York where, five years ago, we paid $106,000 for a 1,100-square-foot house. (Monthly mortgage with property taxes: $998.) By that time, Jeff and I had two children.

When I file taxes, I feel pleased if our income as author and artist meets the median income for a family of four living in New York ($79,900). We have no credit card debt or car loans. My retirement plan is to be found stiff and cold at my writing desk.

That is my financial autobiography.

This is an excerpt from the article published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion. Purchase this issue, take advantage of our free trial offer ($19 for six gorgeous issues) for the print magazine, or subscribe to the equally beautiful digital edition ($10 for six issues) for the full text.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.