Shortly after I moved to Portland, a friend from grad school introduced me to his agent, Gail, who subsequently helped me sell a short story to a national magazine. She had done so as a favor but told me to let her know if she could help with anything else. Years passed, and as I was finishing the first draft of The Descent of Man
(at that time titled Living in the World
), I sent her an email to see if she knew of any agents in Portland or Seattle who might be willing to represent the novel of an unknown writer. She lives in New York, and I am (to put it mildly) a reluctant traveler — something I got from my grampa, who once had a friend say to him, "Henry, I've reached under the henhouse for eggs further than you've been away from home." Gail couldn't help me with a local agent but said she would be happy to look at the first hundred pages of my manuscript. I sent her six chapters, and a short while later she asked for the rest. After a series of rewrites and phone conversations she said she would start shopping it around to publishers. The book hadn't sold, but it was complete and had an agent. I felt that the hard part was over and said so to a friend. He replied, "Knowing you, the hard part will be the book tour."
Damn. He was right.
I am a solitary. I thrive when I'm alone. My favorite months are January and February, before we emerge out of winter into March, my birthday, and the new life of spring following the dark cold. I like the dark cold. I prefer to wake and begin work before the sun rises, which is easier in winter given that first light in late June comes before 5 a.m. (and midwinter days begin two and a half hours later). After first light the world begins to intrude on me, and it takes a greater effort to keep my mind turned to the developing paragraph, words still lurking beyond reach. Cold is good for the brain.
I'm not a world-class solitary in the tradition of Salinger, Delillo, or Cormac McCarthy (or at least the way they seem), but if I don't get more hours of solitude than sleep in a day, I become less sociable. A few days of this in a week, I begin to spall. Then all I can do is collect what pieces of my fractured self I can find and crawl off alone to heal.
It was months after Gail started shopping the manuscript around that a publisher made us an offer. She phoned with the good news. I had just come in from fishing, was putting a salmon on ice when she called, and later that day I was more inclined to tell friends about the fish than about the offer on my book. The dread was still there, still working.
Fishing for me is a kind of therapy. Every spring and fall, after spending a good amount of time on the river chasing salmon — and regardless of my success in any particular season — I reach a point where I wonder what I'm avoiding. It's a reality check to keep me on track with my writing, my house duties (new constructions, usually, but also maintenance), and to Marianne, to whom I owe, at the very least, a sense of when I've spent enough time on the river. When fishing season begins, I'm going toward the river and alone time on the water with a chance of bringing home a 20-pound beauty. Mid-season, the fish are coming through in good numbers, and my expectation of bringing one home is greater than my need for solitude. The focus is on the fish. Toward the end of the season, it may look as if I'm doing the same thing, going fishing again, but I'm actually going away from my responsibilities that have been accumulating since the season began. When I see myself running away from the house rather than toward a river, I start making my peace with the end of the season.
My very local book tour begins a week from today with a reading at Powell's. It's a comfortable venue, and a lot of family and friends will attend and silently cheer me on, but my heart still pounds at the thought of it, even now as I sit here writing these words. I've worked too hard on this essay given what I've produced, which comes of wrestling with a looming deadline, something I thought I was long past. We are also toward the end of the spring salmon run. I landed a nice fish yesterday and had two other nuzzles that missed the hook, and this morning I'm sitting here at my desk before first light, confused about what I'll do today after Marianne goes in to work. To the ordinary citizen I'll go fishing. But will I be running from my desk and my few remaining duties before the release of my book, or to the river for a few peaceful hours?
I think I'm simply trying to make sense of where I am, which began with my excitement when Gail said she liked those first six chapters. This is where I was hoping to be headed all along.