[Readers: This is a continuation of a post I started last week in which I tell the tale of how a short story collection was finally accepted by a publisher, something like twelve or thirteen years after it was begun.]
The hardest part of the writing life is not the writing itself. Not that the writing is easy. It certainly isn't, but it's also uniquely entertaining and deeply nourishing. Writing really is its own reward--which is why so many people are called to do it, even in our supposedly post-literate society--even if it's not done perfectly well, but especially when it is done perfectly well. No, the hardest part of the writing life is not the writing but all the infernal roadblocks between what you've written and the audience it might move. The hardest part is knowing that what you've produced is solid, very solid, as solid as you are capable of making writing be, and yet you still hear a seeming unending series of "no"s from publishers, editors, and agents. To be honest, often times, those "no"s end up being terrifically helpful. They force you back to a project and make you reexamine a project, and as a result you realize weaknesses you just didn't see the first time around. Now having seen them, you can properly address them. Reexamining your work and making it better is almost always a valuable expenditure of time. But then there are the occasions when you've already spent so much time on a project, months or years or even decades, when you've already reexamined it a hundred or a thousand times over, when you finally say to yourself: No, this is how the manuscript must be; this is how it should be published.
I reached that point with the manuscript of Island Fog a year ago. An earlier version of the book (see my last post) I had circulated among small presses and entered into contests, all to no avail. But now I knew why. That earlier book was never the real book. This one was. It had a lot going for it: Its stride spanned four different centuries of Nantucket history, realistically (I think) evoking those different periods; it had engaging dramas; and it contained some of the best writing I've ever produced, including my favorite piece of fiction I've ever written, the novella that is the title story of the collection. That story is set on 21st century Nantucket and is introduced as a realistic story with a realistic setting, but it quickly spins into something else, something I won't call magical--because it isn't--but is certainly mysterious and probably indebted to John Fowles's spectacularly disorienting novel The Magus. Its smoke and mirrors effects, its purposeful air of mystery, its thoroughly confused young protagonist, its borderline inexplicable and never exactly explained developments might remind one of Fowles's 1966 masterwork. An editor at a magazine I once submitted it to wondered if the story was science fiction, which at the time astounded me because at no point during the creative process did I have science fiction in mind. I guess she took literally a comment the narrator makes that the protagonist Doug had entered a kind of alternative Nantucket entirely cut off from the other, more familiar Nantucket he once knew, even more cut off from the familiar world of his college life and his family. No, it's not sci-fi; it's just weird.
While still trying (and succeeding) to publish individual pieces of the collection, and reading from the stories at two different international writing conferences, I also tried to find a home for the book as a whole. I got very serious at the last AWP, circulating among the tables rented by various small presses, describing the book and inquiring about their submission policies. I also consulted some extremely helpful databases, the most helpful being the Poets & Writers database of small and alternative presses. In that way, I educated myself on the small presses that publish fiction in this country, and I began to sort out which ones might be good fits for my book. I submitted to several included in the P and W database as well as to a few that I learned about at AWP. It's a great feeling to place your manuscript directly into the hands of someone who can make a decision about it, independent of an agent. One frustration for the literary fiction writer, however, when dealing with small presses is that they tend to emphasize poetry and academic nonfiction, because these genres are largely ignored by mainstream publishers. "You fiction writers always get those huge deals from the New York presses," I've had said to me by small press editors on several different occasions. Huge deals? Who are you talking about? Most fiction writers are lucky if a person at a NYC press actually reads a single page of his book much less offers him a "huge deal." No, the truth is that for many literary fiction writers the small press is just as much the inevitable fit as for poets and critics. Because as with poetry and criticism, that's where the best, most daring work gets done.
I received many positive comments about the collection from various presses. I got very very close with one, but finally they wanted the stories to be linked even more they are, linked in the manner of a novel-in-stories, which my book isn't and can't be. With palpable regret they declined taking on the manuscript, but they did encourage me to try again another time with another book. (I probably will.) The positive responses I was getting told me I was on to something, that this new version of Island Fog was holding its own, bearing weight, if you will. I just needed to keep trying. One of the presses I tried at was Dialogos/Lavender Ink, run by Bill Lavender, a man I'd met two or three times at readings and at AWP, but no one I could say I actually knew. I followed the same protocol everyone else must who submits to his press and I hoped for the best.
And then it happened. Bill sent me a tidy little email one morning in late September, about six months after I'd submitted, inquiring if the book was still available. Because his press was considering publishing it. I responded immediately: Yes, it is still available; thank you for your interest. Another month or two went by as I busied myself with all the usual activities of my writing and teaching and family life and tried not to wonder too much what Dialogos/Lavender Ink was thinking. Finally, in mid-November I shot an email to Bill asking him if the press was still interested in my book. I didn't expect an immediate reply. And I had several errands to run just then. As it turned out, I didn't check back on my email until the next day. When I did check I saw that Bill had replied within an hour of my emailing him. His reply: Yes, we want it. And in a followup message he had sent me a contractual agreement. Just like that, early on a Saturday morning, sitting on my living room couch, the wait was over. Island Fog the book was no longer an idea but an actuality--not a potential project anymore but a real one with an established publisher.
Afterword: At the moment I am seriously editing each of the stories in the collection. (Bill needs the final version by February.) This is crucial and very satisfying work. You have no idea how good it feels just to worry about the writing itself and not selling the writing. Of course, all that other kind of work awaits me when I put my next book on the market. : )