I wrote my first novel, A Year of Tuesdays
, right after I finished my MFA in 2001. The last thing I heard before leaving the University of Arizona was, “Good luck! Write a novel! Nobody buys short stories!”
“What?” I yelled. “That’s all you taught me to write!”
“Oh, well! Bye-bye!”
Bye-bye, indeed. I reasoned with myself that if I wrote 20 short stories with a consistent narrator (i.e., “chapters”), I’d have a novel. And it worked! The resulting manuscript was good enough to get an agent’s attention, but not good enough for publication. Apparently, it lacked a “plot.”
But I could do that! Hell, I could draft the plot to end all plots, incorporating the gossip industry, a Roman Catholic splinter group, and Post-Olympic Depression Syndrome. All these pieces were cobbled together in a novel called These Conceits Aloud
, which the same agent unsuccessfully shopped around. This time, nobody complained of a dearth of plot; instead, they told me the protagonist was so reprehensible that he’d made the book unreadable.
Around this time I decided to write a novella. I mentioned this idea to my agent, who said, “Don’t.” Undeterred, I produced a book about tutoring in New York City, entitled The Escaped Goat
. I diplomatically asked my agent if the finished product had swayed his opinion. “No!” he shouted. “God, no!” Hey, what if I wrote two more and called it a trilogy? “NO! NO! NO!” Great! I wrote two more — Scrimmage
and City Inimitable
, about an Adirondack sleep-away camp and 9/11, respectively — and delivered my opus. And that, friends, is how I lost my first agent.
The breakup left me feeling despondent. No one cared what I was working on; no one was waiting to see what came next. In the resulting vacuum, I did something interesting: I wrote a book (my fifth) about quitting smoking — entitled Smoker
— that was an absolute mess. It utilized chapter-length metaphors, a monologue delivered by The Voice of Addiction, and all kinds of strange shit, but it captured my thoughts on a nuanced subject. And an agent wanted it! She called it “sophisticated” (even while confessing that we’d never find an audience for the manuscript). What a surprise: to be praised for risk-taking.
No, we didn’t find an audience — but my sixth book, The Burlapman
, came from a place of renewed confidence. I shared the first 100 pages with my new agent, who suggested that perhaps I write something else instead. Who cared about a monster that ate redundant children (me!)? Or a seven-year-old protagonist (me, again!)? Or nihilists, or bleak parables, or a Homeric scribe named Qwerty (ME!)? Apparently, I was alone. Neither my agent, nor the 59 other agents I subsequently contacted, shared my proclivities.
Nor was I able to generate interest in my next manuscript, which I derived from a leftover totem: that of an impossibly tall ladder. To me, it raised the question of who was at the top and who at the bottom? This relationship and the resulting manuscript became Froelich’s Ladder
. It also met with rejection from agents and publishers alike, until it reached Laura Stanfill at Forest Avenue Press. My eighth book in 12 years — undoubtedly the strangest one so far — was going to be published.
Holy fucking shit.
I’m sorry — I don’t mean to be crass. But how else can I capture the exuberance of success? Eight books is a lot of books! And 12 years is a very long time! Even more rewarding than seeing my name in print was the collaborative spirit I got to experience, shared by my publisher, my copy editor, the cover designer, the blurbers, and countless other people — everyone who came together to produce and promote this thing
, a book I can now hold in my hands and potentially wield as a weapon.
But here’s the funny part: at the time that I signed with Forest Avenue Press, I’d already completed my ninth book, Poor Henry
. Thinking the pending release might loan me some clout, I shopped this manuscript around — and again I was roundly rejected (poor Henry, indeed). No matter. My metric for success has henceforth been redefined. I’m currently at work on my 10th book, which has a working title of Mitu
— loosely translated to mean “dead man.” It’s a Mesopotamian ghost story. Also, there’s a talking crow. It’s great — sad, spooky, funny. I don’t know who else will want to read it, other than me.
÷ ÷ ÷
, a freelance editor and technical expert, received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review
, Underneath the Juniper Tree
, and Chicago Literati
, and he has contributed essays and interviews to Booktrib
. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two children. He is the author of Froelich's Ladder