It’s Never too Late

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Carroll County News

When I first started this column, I promised to tell my story. I share it as a person who, after fighting his way out of quicksand, holds out a branch to say, “Don’t give up.”

My greatest dream was coming true. My first novel, a three-generational saga based on the life of my great-grandfather, was acquired by Donald Hutter at Simon & Schuster.

Donald Hutter was a legend in New York publishing, having been editor in chief at Holt, Rinehart & Winston before becoming executive editor and vice president at Simon & Schuster. One could not have asked for a wiser mentor. My agent was George Weiser, who represented Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Weiser was the one who told Brown he should be writing thrillers.

I was 30 years old, an Ozark mountain native who had never been to New York City, when I went to meet my agent and editor. As Weiser hailed a cab (my first), words like “TV miniseries” and “British rights” darted by, iridescent as hummingbirds in the sun. Weiser told Hutter I was the best new writer he had seen in 10 years.

Six months later, like Icarus, my wings melted. As my book went into production, Hutter parted company with Simon & Schuster. My book was orphaned, and the new editor didn’t pick it up.

Back then, I didn’t understand how individual editors champion a book. If my book seemed good to Hutter, shouldn’t it seem good to the new editors? But in reality, it was like an unfinished knitting project. Who wants to pick up another’s handwork?

I was devastated. For a year, I couldn’t walk into Barnes & Noble without crying. My mother had put a big article in my hometown newspaper: “Local Book Sold to Simon & Schuster.” A decade later, people still stopped me on the street to ask about it.

I gave up. I should have gone to New York and lit a fire under my agent, who, distracted by the new market for international thrillers, had lost interest in my Ozark saga. I should have tracked down Hutter and made use of his contacts in the industry.

Instead, I crawled away.

And then, I moved on. I enjoyed my family, my Ozarks. I started a company, grew it, and sold it. I started a school to teach English to immigrants.

But I never stopped writing. I wrote a novel about the intersection of the native Ozark culture with the back-to-the-land hippies. At home with the flu, I wrote a third novel in two weeks, the words pouring out of my codeine haze.

But I never submitted anything. I bedded my manuscripts down in boxes in the closet. I wrote because I was only truly happy when I was writing. Someday, I thought, I’ll write for readers. Someday I’ll live a life in which writing is front and center. Someday. . .

Then, in 2007, I suffered an inner ear concussion from faulty airbags. My sudden hearing loss was disorienting. I felt old and fat and deaf and even more isolated from the publishing industry. How could I break into a world that had eluded me when I was young? I would never make it now, unless I called up my deepest strengths and faced down my fear, my inertia, my lack of faith.

I bought hearing aids and applied to three MFA programs. Though all accepted me, based on excerpts from those closet novels, I chose a small New England program where I learned about the craft of writing. I also learned about the publishing industry, platforms, and personal branding.

Now I have a manuscript under consideration by a major publisher and another in progress. I have a great job helping others to find their voice. I’m surrounded by writers. I love my life.

It’s a different writing world than the day when Weiser, Hutter, and I hailed that cab. But one thing remains: If you’ve got a story to tell, it’s never too late. Never too late to persevere, take a chance, be the person you imagine. You’re never too old, fat, or deaf. Trust me on that.

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