Twenty-three years ago, my dreams came true.
Atheneum accepted my stories–stories that I’d been writing in almost complete secrecy for a couple of years, on the Fridays and Tuesday afternoons I’d freed up by begging my boss to let me work a 30-hour week–for publication as a book. Ann Beattie, my mentor and one of the most well-known short story writers in the country, offered a blurb that called them “among the best stories I’ve read in years”. Someone at Atheneum, not sure who, found a wonderful title, The Light of Home, in a line from one of the stories, and the design people came up with a fabulous cover, featuring an Alex Katz painting (I still love looking at that cover, all these years later). And when it came out, in 1992, it got some lovely reviews. Booklist said the collection “expresses the particular tenor of our time”. My stories! Can you imagine? A one-sentence review in the Anniston, Alabama Star called me “an amazing new writer”. The Boston Public Library bought four copies.
Well, the final sell-through was miniscule–almost 300 people beyond my immediate circle of family and friends (and the BPL) must have bought the book–and when the late Lee Goerner, who was already on the edge of losing patience with me, read the unpublishable first novel I sent him (there was some good stuff in there, but man was it overwritten) he decided I was more trouble than I was worth. And that was that.
But wait! There’s more! I wrote another, better novel, Tree of Heaven. I got an agent. Tree of Heaven won something called the Washington Prize for Fiction. We got a deal with Soho Press–in fact a two-book deal, I was already almost done with my second novel (OK, third, but who’s counting?). Soho’s publicist went to work. When the book was published in 1995 the reviews were tremendous. High praise in Publishers Weekly, the New York Times (weekday and Sunday), the LA Times, the Boston Globe. Maureen Corrigan called it “a triumph of imaginative empathy” on NPR. I was on the radio, I was on the cover of the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. And sales, while not tremendous, were adequate. It looked like I had made it for sure this time.
It took a bit longer to unravel than it had before, at least. I argued with the folks at Soho about the second book–the title (The Soldier was, to them, extremely infelicitous), the chapter they wanted me to drop, the hints they wanted broadened or removed, and so on. A couple of the reviews were mixed and sales were poor. And when I sent them the new novel I was working on, Swift River, it was Lee and the first novel all over again. For reasons that still escape me I responded to having been fired by Soho by firing my agent, Nikki Smith, who was always totally on my side. The Career as a Writer was all gone.
I kept trying, really. I revised and re-revised Swift River, I wrote more novels and more stories, I kept sending manuscripts to agents and editors, but to make a long and painful story short, it didn’t work (not even when I tried to write a lowbrow, somewhat violent thriller). Nobody was interested in a guy who’d had his shot and failed. The constant rejection was killing me. My last stand was a nonfiction book about some amazing things that happened to a group of kids from Bialystok, Poland, during and after the second world war. Thanks to a kind friend the proposal went directly to the assistant to a very prominent and notoriously tough publisher. The assistant expressed great interest in the project and gave me to understand that she was waiting for the right time to take it to her boss–for months, until she suddenly stopped returning my calls. This at long last broke me. I was done. I did what all the songs tell you never to do: I said goodbye to my dreams and let them fly away.
And now, nine years later, I’m back. On my own. No publishers to argue with, no agents and editors to be rejected by. Swift River is finally the novel it was meant to be, the novel I might have made it around 1999 if things hadn’t come apart, and thanks to the brave new book world and 84 incredible Kickstarter backers who let me know in an unambiguous way that they wanted it to happen, I can publish it myself, which I will in November. A friend and I created the interior design, my daughter and I are making the cover, I hired a sharp young guy to help me get this web site going. No publicist, true, and we’ll have to see how many prepub reviews I can drum up, but that doesn’t touch the important thing: Swift River will be published and those who want to read it can read it. Maybe no one will, maybe it will be a big success, most likely somewhere in between but I am proud to tell you that I can truthfully say, it doesn’t matter. What matters is finishing the book and publishing the book. That’s it. An ebook version of Tree of Heaven is next, and then I might take up one of the other unpublished novels. Or even write another!
How did it happen? How did I turn this around? Honestly, beyond my certainty that I could never have even started without the gentle but persistent support and encouragement of my lovely wife, Maja, who caught those dreams as they tried to fly away and sheltered and nurtured them for me until I was ready to accept custody of them again, I have no idea. Step by step, I guess. Maybe I’m finally too old to be scared, too experienced to be proud. Maybe I learned resilience from my kids. You wouldn’t think it would take nine years–no, an entire lifetime–to figure out what doesn’t matter and what does. But I suppose I’m not the only one who’s taken the long way home.
I hope you will read Swift River, I hope you will love it, I hope you will tell everyone about it. But if not, that’s OK too. As of November it will be possible, and that’s good enough for me.