Without Agency 

On the Writing and (eventual) Publication of My First Novel

The L Magazine has asked if I would like to contribute a piece about what it’s like having a first novel published. Indeed I would. Here is what having a first novel published is like: it’s like having a child via particularly complicated headbirth and feeling proud but then forgetting the child exists until, several years later, you notice a small cluster of people standing around it cooing and saying aw, while all around them other crowds have gathered to admire other children. At least that’s been my experience.

The novel in question, Fires, was written in the late winter and early spring of 2003. I was 19 when I started it, 20 when I finished. It was published by Iowa City’s Impetus Press in December of 2006. Wait, no, make that January 2007. Except that copies of the book being shipped from the printer (in Canada) were held at the border for a while by U.S. customs, so it wasn’t actually available to customers until February 2007. But according to Powells.com, the publication date was March 2007. Barnesandnoble.com says April 2007. And at parties, acquaintances ask me, “Is your book coming out soon?” This is independent publishing.

Fires took a somewhat rambling path from conception to schizophrenic release date. The first draft only took about six weeks of virtually nonstop writing, and then I spent another four or five months reworking and polishing it. I already had an agent, a guy I’ll call Bruce, to whom I’d sent some earlier fiction after reading his name in the New York Times Magazine (At the time, I had no idea how rare it was for an agent to pick something out of a slush pile like that.) As soon as he finished reading Fires, he called me to say how much he liked it. I said I was still working on a few things, making some more adjustments. “Well, don’t change much,” he said. Except the ending.  The ending needed to be changed.

The novel is about a college student, Jon Danfield, who finds out that while he was growing up, his next-door neighbor and teacher was holding a kidnapped boy prisoner in his basement for eight years. With his disturbed high school friend James, he goes home to essentially reevaluate his childhood. It isn’t giving away too much to say that something very damaging happens to Jon Danfield at the end of Fires. He suffers what can best be described as a catastrophic physical trauma. It’s my favorite part of the book. A lot of what happens earlier, particularly in the first half, is familiar stuff: there’s romance, complications, a little violence, and a little mystery. It’s what it’s supposed to be. But the book’s end is, at least for me, by far the most worthwhile part, as well as the part I was most pleased to have pulled off at the age of twenty. I didn’t want to change it.

My agent, Bruce, seemed disappointed. “I think changing the ending is the difference between having a cult novel that a small group of people like and a novel that is digestible for a much bigger group of readers,” he said.

“That’s not my book,” I thought. “That’s some other book he’s talking about.”

What I said was, “I’m ok with however many readers.”
To which he replied that he hoped I would send him my next novel if it was less violent. We haven’t talked since, although not long ago I noticed he has a heartwarming nonfiction book on the bestseller charts. 

My next agent — call him Judd — was recommended by a friend. This is how it usually works.  Someone you know asks his or her agent to read your stuff, and if you’re lucky, maybe the agent becomes your agent, too. Anyway, Judd was a memorable character: when I first met him, he was wearing a dirty jacket, boots, and a begrimed Santa Claus hat, and I mistook him for a homeless person. Ursine and sixtyish, his voice scarred by a lifetime of cigarettes, Judd liked gritty, masculine nonfiction about violence and drugs. And Judd also liked Fires. Except the end.

Roughly ten months passed between the day
    Impetus offered to publish Fires and the day
  they sent it off to the printer. In the publishing world
        that’s like the time it takes to get coffee.

“Maybe it could be nastier,” he said. “Like get really ugly. Make it really bad for him.”

I averred that I had it about as ugly as I wanted it. There was another problem, though: the child-torturing neighbor, George Mursey, never faces justice. At the narrative’s end he remains, presumably, out in the world, searching for more victims. Clearly, this was intentional on my part — I didn’t just forget about the character — but I got the impression Judd suspected otherwise.

“What about Mursey?” he asked me. “He never gets his. Maybe he could come back at the end and they could have a fight.”

Again, I said I preferred things the way they were. Reluctantly he went along with this. Then he sent it around to a few editors at the major houses and imprints; I don’t know how many, because the process wasn’t very transparent. Recently, however, I ran into one of them at a party. “Nick Antosca,” the editor said. “I think I know your name. I read a manuscript called Fires a couple years ago.”

“That was me,” I said.

“I liked it,” the editor said, “but I couldn’t get permission to buy it. And I couldn’t figure out what you were doing with Judd or what he was doing with you. Does he even represent fiction?  Whatever happened to that book?”

“It’s been published,” I said. “It’ll be published soon.”

Anyway, after a few months of zero progress, absurdly telegraphic emails, and the occasional brusque, exasperating phone conversation, Judd and I simply stopped communicating. For all practical purposes, I was agentless again. Having begun to work on the manuscript of a new novel, I shelved Fires, and for a year and a half, I basically forgot about it.

Following my graduation, I got an apartment and a day job in New York and continued to trek arduously through the post-Fires novel, about which I complained daily. One day, listening to a particularly career-oriented rant (“Even if I ever get this book written, nobody will publish it. And even if somebody publishes it, that’ll be like four years away...”), my roommate, another writer, mumbled, “Don’t you have another novel that’s already finished?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I do.”

Thinking about Fires brought back the restless feeling of writing it, and I realized I was unhappy with the idea of the novel languishing. The thought of trying to find a third agent for the book made me feel tired, though. And since I wasn’t sure who at the New York houses had already read it and what financial obligations I would have to Judd in the unlikely event of a material advance, I did some research on independent presses and decided to submit to two of them on my own. Impetus Press wrote back first with a long, comprehensively detailed critique of the book and an offer to publish it.  They were a virtually brand new press and there wasn’t going to be much money involved, but the email that publishers Willy Blackmore and Jennifer Banash wrote convinced me that they appreciated the book on a more fundamental level than any agent or editor to whom I’d previously spoken. I signed on with Impetus.

Roughly ten months passed between the day Impetus offered to publish Fires and the day they sent it off to the printer. In the publishing world that’s like the time it takes to get coffee. During those months, I did a final revision of the manuscript, approved or rejected copy edits the Impetus editor made, worked with Jennifer and Willy on the design, and at their request brainstormed creative ways to get publicity without a publicity budget.  (“Do something with models,” I wrote to Jennifer and Willy. That didn’t happen.) With Impetus, there were no working hours. I would send an email at 2am and get a reply 20 minutes later. Some days we exchanged 30 emails or more.   

Then, as described earlier, Fires was published sometime in the first four months of 2007. When you get a book published, there are two feelings you experience right away and in quick succession: desire to draw attention to your book and fear of the attention that will be paid to your book. I promoted Fires in basic ways — via email, facebook.com, and a blog I’d created for that very purpose — and I did readings at venues like Housing Works bookstore and KGB Bar. Impetus did the rest. The reviews, which I inevitably read with both hope and disdain, were perceptive, fair, and mostly good (with daunting uniformity they praised the writing while rightly pointing out that it was a young man’s book, fast and rough) except for one in Time Out Chicago, which was sneeringly dismissive.

But reviews seem like arrows fired at my shadow. They pass through the air where I used to stand. This is the most surreal thing about publishing a book — the sense of temporal dislocation. To everyone who reads it, Fires is a brand new book, but in my mind it came out almost half a decade ago, when I finished writing the first draft. While my protective and proprietary feelings toward Fires have deep roots, almost anything said or written about the novel seems muffled to me, as if heard from a distance, and it’s certainly not because I’m indifferent to the opinions of my (very limited) readership. It’s because I barely remember the person who wrote the novel.

I regard all my own published work with a mixture of pride and mortification, except for the pieces I regard only with mortification. And I think that’s both logical and healthy. To put on display work in which you’ve invested yourself is an act of self-exposure, and the greater the investment, the greater the exposure. Human beings in the Western world are programmed from childhood both to beware the scrutiny of strangers and to court praise, and both impulses kick in when you put your first novel out there. You see it from a distance, being prodded, and a dormant part of you suddenly gasps: “Fuck, that’s me.” 


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