I have a confession to make: I never wanted to write a book.
Individual stories, yes. But books (novels), never.
Until fairly recently.
Over all the years I’ve spent in writing classes and at writing conferences, I’ve tried to keep secret my embarrassing lack of interest in writing books. My lack of ambition. Year after year I sat on panels with successful authors who said they knew they were going to write books since childhood. People who apparently wrote their first novel in kindergarten, or wrote a trilogy in middle-school, a whole murder-mystery series by tenth grade. People who—all their lives—thought of little else besides writing and publishing books of their own. You know who you are! I tried to remember if I ever noticed big group of other kids scribbling in notebooks under the monkey bars or in the bleachers at football games, but drew a blank.
Listening to those writers talk, I’d fidget through the panels and change the subject as quickly as I could, usually by saying something so intentionally outrageous, everyone would forget what we’d been talking about and attack me. A favorite was saying that I think writing in your journal every day is a terrible idea. That always works.
By the standards those writers set down, I’m a very late bloomer. I published my first short story in a national magazine at age 43. For the next twenty years or so, all I wanted to do was place stories and essays in periodicals. And I did: dozens of them. But write books? No way. My first three books were not even my own ideas. They are collections compiled by editors and publishers who had seen my stories in magazines, and then contacted me to say they wanted to put them between hard covers. I didn’t argue. I may lack ambition, but I’m not completely stupid.
I’m still grateful to the wonderful publishers who made those books happen. But those books were sold to those publishers without an agent: partly because agents don’t exactly love representing story collections. And without a lot of scrambling for attention on my part.
Then, about dozen years ago I decided to write a coming of age novel, and all that changed. Once I got the idea of publishing that, I became as obsessed and demented as every other aspiring novelist I’ve ever met. I begged agents to represent it, and suffered the ignominious rejections that followed. When one of them finally liked it enough to try to sell it, he only shopped it to the three or four biggest publishing houses and gave up. This was 2010, in the dark days of the Great Recession; publishers were shrinking or going out of business, and not taking a lot of chances on unheard-of first-time novelists.
Around 2012, I put that rejected novel in a drawer and started writing another one, a more commercial, plotted, page-turner. A different agent took an interest in the new novel and liked it so well he advised me on rewriting it for two years. At the end of which time he said he “just didn’t love it enough to represent it.” Fair enough. I appreciated the honesty, and the two years of editing. Then I set out to make it so freaking lovable nobody could say no to it. I worked on it for a few more years.
I got crazier and crazier. Nobody is sicker than an aspiring debut novelist. (No, that’s not true: I was once backstage at a film festival watching independent filmmakers trying to get their movies produced. It was frightening.) But I was pretty desperate.
More revising. I was sure that if I just kept rewriting the whole thing, sooner or later, I’d stumble onto something saleable.
Finally in January of 2018 I sent a draft of it to yet another large literary agency. The founding partner there liked it, but said “it didn’t seem finished.” He turned it over to one of his associates who worked on it with me for two more years of intense revision before sending it out to publishers in the spring of 2020.
Now, in a few weeks—November 9, 2021—Crooked Lane Books will release The Hunger of Crows, an Alaskan thriller. I’ll be a debut novelist almost exactly thirty years after publishing my first story.
Geez, I sure wish I’d started that novel back in kindergarten with those other kids.