Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Circuitous Tale of a (Finally) Successful Book, Part 1

I've mentioned here and there on this blog that I've created a collection of stories--half historical in nature--all set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  I received the wonderful news not long ago that the book has been accepted for publication by Dialogos/Lavender Ink, a press run by the legendary poet and novelist Bill Lavender, who worked for so long for the University of New Orleans press.  (Yes, that's him in the picture.) As a general rule I hesitate to say that everything happens when it's supposed to--because that's kind of like saying everything happens according to God's will (which is a lie)--but in the case of Island Fog being accepted for publication, I have to say that I am glad it's happening now rather than, say, five years ago.  And thus begins my tale of how this collection came to be.  I'm going to break it into two parts, because the tale will take some time.

I started several of the stories in Island Fog perhaps twelve or thirteen years ago--during a trip I made with my family to Nantucket.  As is my wont, I was up before everyone else each day, trying to get a little writing done along with downing some come-alive coffee.  I hadn't planned on writing about Nantucket before I went, but ideas for stories just started coming to me.  In fact, I had so many story ideas--and was so afraid I might lose them--that I did something I've never done before: I started a brand new story each day of that vacation, writing as far into a story as I could before the family awoke and then leaving that story behind to begin a new story the next day.  In this fashion I laid down the tracks for the stories that now make up the second half of my present book.  But I hardly thought of them as a book back then.  They were just stories I wanted to nail in place in order to get back to later.  And I did, struggling mightily to read my atrocious handwriting, which turns from ordinary small/bad to illegible during the fury of engaged composing.

Eventually, I finished every one of those stories and in the years that followed I edited them mercilessly, revised a few significantly, and kept sending them out to various magazines.  A few were accepted and were long ago published (but not the title story, one of my favorites, which is one of the many reasons I'm so happy the book will appear).  A story about a plumber who hears some painful facts about his wife's death during a breakfast at a diner was published in 2005 in the now defunct Dana Literary Society Online Journal; a story about a couple struggling through the emotional fallout of several failed pregnancies was published in the journal Oasis, also in 2005; a story about a ghost tour leader haunted by his former male lover was accepted by Seattle Review and, after a wait of numerous years, finally appeared in 2009. 

It wasn't too long after the Nantucket stories began to be accepted by journals that it occurred to me I had a neat little set that could form a solid portion of a story collection.  Not enough pages to make a whole collection, but perhaps a half.  So I gathered together some non-Nanucket stories I thought worked all right together and combined them with the Nantucket stories to make a book I called--tah-dah!--Island Fog.  To the non-Nantucket stories I added the section header "Off-Island"--using stories that I thought had an enhanced sense of place--and the Nantucket stories were given the section header "On-Island."  Very clever, I thought.  The headers, and the organizational strategy they highlighted, would make this disparate group of fictions seem to belong together.  Well, in truth they didn't.   At least not enough to convince me or any of the many contests and small presses I submitted the book to.  Not knowing what to do, deciding the collection was a misft, I finally put it aside.  I didn't do anything with it for a long time except to occasionally submit one of the Nantucket pieces to a seemingly appropriate journal.

Well, what should happen except that I returned to Nantucket in 2011--for the first time in several years--having more or less finished my Van Gogh novel, having started this blog, and suddenly having historical fiction on the brain.  Lots of new ideas for Nantucket stories came to me, except this time all of them were historical in nature.  Like the first time, I started as many of the stories as I could while I was on the island, but I think I only managed to get three underway.  Later I drafted a fourth and, still later, a fifth. Certain characters I just could not get out of my head.  I had to write them: a retired whale ship captain who long ago was stranded at sea and forced into cannibalism (inspired, I know, by the real life story of George Pollard, commander of the Essex); a whaling widow who feels the first inklings of lesbianism; an African-American schoolteacher walking through some mid-island streets on a foggy afternoon, early in the twentieth century; a self-satisfied twelve year old, the son of a sheep farmer, who has befriended a half-Indian boy early in the nineteenth century.  I fleshed out these characters' stories, having a ball with them, and at some point--I can't remember when-- it occurred to me: I've got a new Island Fog book now.  The real Island Fog.

Next post: The process of getting done, getting it out, and getting it accepted.


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