Sunday, November 27, 2011
Used Books of the Future
Sunday was a huge day for me.
At 7:55 a.m. I emailed my editor the corrected text of my novel, The Old Turk’s Load. This would be a happy event under any circumstances, marking, as it did, the completion of a long piece of writing, but in this case the occasion was given extra meaning by the fact that I had been working on the novel for forty-two years.
I began it as a short story when I was in the Navy in 1969. The story circulated among my swabbie buddies who liked it, and encouraged me to continue. I developed a basic theme, and pecked away at it for the rest of my Navy years, then in earnest when I was discharged, living on unemployment and welfare rations. When it was done I sent it in “over the transom” as they say -- no agent, no advance notice, no one to represent it -- to several publishers. In 1971 it was rejected by Pyramid Press in New York. Unlike the other publishers to whom I'd submitted the manuscript, they’d taken the trouble to accompany their rejection with a detailed letter explaining how the book, in their view, could be improved. They said they thought I had potential and invited me to come to New York and discuss the writing business with them.
Instead of being crushed by the rejection or thrilled by the invitation, I was angry. Who were they to think they could mess with my Deathless Prose? Come to New York? Fat chance! Let them hire themselves some other lackey.
Family life and a bookselling career ensued, both severe distractions, but that novel kept nagging me. I made another start on it in 1975, but wandered off course. Then again in 1985. The thing just wouldn’t take shape.
My son got killed in 1992 and to keep from going crazy I investigated his murder. This resulted in a book, a very good book, called Gone Boy that has been in print since 1999. In April 2011, the third edition was published, with a new introduction. This was followed by Demon of the Waters in 2002, for which I received a good whack of dough (those were the days!), and then by Hubert’s Freaks -- which was probably the most fun I ever had writing anything -- in 2008.
Each of these books was generously reviewed by critics and largely ignored by the American public -- I prefer now to think of them as “cult classics.” But the point was made. I could consider myself, with some justification, as a writer. In a way that would make Robert Frost proud, I had integrated my avocation as a writer with my vocation as a bookseller.
I was making used books of the future.
Other projects came and went, but that novel was still back there, bugging me in its incompleteness. In 2007 I had a huge breakthrough with the plot, and got the book to where the first half of it was alive, anyway.
Then, after Hubert’s Freaks came out I said, “All right, dammit. I don’t want to die wishing I’d have finished my novel. This time I’m going to get it DONE.”
So I stuck with it, working on it up in Nova Scotia on my summer trips, in my writing shed in Ireland when we went there each spring, and in a thousand identically anonymous motel and hotel rooms as my book travels took me around America. Early in 2010, I thought I had it, only to realize it was still fatally flawed. I worked on it, hard, all that summer, and by the fall it was finally, indubitably, finished.
By that time, of course, the traditional fiction market had collapsed, along with most of the publishing industry as we knew it. I sent the manuscript to my agent and she sent it back. Sorry, she said, I can’t sell this.
But other changes had affected the industry, and these worked in my favor. I came up with a book design, got my son to execute it on his fancy computer, stole some cover art from a wonderful old pulp fiction thriller, and sent it up to a printer in Maine. A few weeks later I had two hundred copies of a classic looking pulp novel – my novel – to be sent out to friends as that year’s Christmas present.
On a whim, I sent a few copies to publishers who specialized in the kind of stuff I was writing, and much to my surprise and delight, one of them bought it.
The book will be coming out in 2012, published by Mysterious Press at Grove Atlantic.
At last the weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I think I’ll take the rest of the day off.