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The Writing Life

In a Literary World that Favors Sure Things, an Unknown Martinez Author Writes a Hit Novel


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In October of last year, I had the inexpressible pleasure of meeting folks two thousand miles from my home who, because of words I’d written, had come to regard Mount Diablo as a mythic character of sorts. My first novel had just been published, and I had traveled from Martinez to Minneapolis to give the first public reading of my career.

I write this in the hope that some as-yet-unpublished writer or as-yet-unappreciated artist out there might be encouraged by
my experience.

First let me tell you about myself: Eight years ago, at age 19, I decided to become a writer. I never finished college, and I never formally studied writing. I’ve been married for six years to a woman who amazes me daily by her unflagging belief in my by-no-means-lucrative work. I live in the charming suburban outpost of Martinez.

In March of 2000, I began writing a novel set in my own backyard (the Black Diamond Mines of Antioch) in the 19th century. For most of the past five years my days have consisted of long, solitary hours at my desk.
Or reading in a chair.
Or walking in the pastoral hills that surround my apartment-home.
Or watching movies with my wife.
Or receiving rejection slips in response to my endless outflow of short story submissions (to date I’ve collected more than 200, enough to stuff two shoe boxes—size 10).
Or dreamily forecasting the future date when I’d have a full-length book published under my name.

I still receive a few rejections a week, and I try daily to revisit the reading chair with a good book in hand. But now I can check off “dreamily forecasting” from that list of pastimes—a fact that causes me wonder every day.

My novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, is now for sale throughout North America. And recently, in what has become the most social year of my life, I’ve been consumed by the fun and frenzy of first-novel promotion.

As it turned out, my profound experience at that first public reading in Minneapolis was just the beginning. My book has since received more than 30 reviews, all of them (save one) complimentary and several of them glowing. Booksellers across the nation selected the novel as a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, and it was nominated for the Book Sense Book of the Year Award.

Thanks largely to this avid bookseller support, the novel began to accrue a readership. It went into a second printing within a month of publication, was called a Best Book of the West by the Salt Lake Tribune, and enabled me to travel through 13 cities in seven different states. It was all much, much more than I could have hoped for.

How can so much good stuff happen to one unassuming guy in what cynics would call this “era of market-driven publishing”? Here I am: an upstart, distinguished by neither formal education, hard life experience, nor past achievement. On the strength of qualifications no stronger than a high school diploma, a number of hard-won literary magazine publications, and a manuscript that people have liked, I find myself embarking upon an author’s life.

Before a New York agent said she wanted to represent me and my novel, I had exactly zero affiliations in the publishing world. I’m living proof that doors have been known to open despite lack of an MFA degree, a roster of famous acquaintances, or a friend whose friend has a friend who works with Editor A at one of the big Manhattan publishers.

A charmed life? In some ways, certainly. But I think there’s more to it than that. And I would be irresponsible if I didn’t mention that it’s all taken a great deal of work and determination, as much on my wife’s part as on my own—including the writing and scrapping of one full-length novel (a two-year process) before I could confidently write a book like The Green Age of Asher Witherow.

I don’t mean to sound self-adulatory here. Although it would be disingenuous to deny that I’m proud, it’s really the startled pride of seeing my impractical hopes become reality.To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau: Endeavor to live the life you’ve imagined and you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

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