1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

Non Sequiturs: Finding Literary Inspiration in Stream of Consciousness

l-e-kimball-author-photo  Seasonal Roads

By L. E. Kimball


I’m not sure who came first, but it must have been either Chevy Chase or Steve Martin. It was too early for Tim Allen, though he comes often. Not Steve Martin, though. The last time he arrived in my dreams, he never went on at all. Just hid under my desk because he said if he came out, I’d force him to have sex with me.

I assured him I only wanted him to fix the oven.

I always have trouble with Steve, it seems. And that’s unfortunate because I always have such hopes for us. There was this one night he showed up (he was our next door neighbor and we all had sloping front lawns in the dream neighborhood) and he was exasperated because the trees and bushes—everything and anything he tried to plant–slid down out of his yard into a big pile in the road, accordion-like. We were used to this in our own yards. But Steve thought this was my fault; I thought so too.

                                                 “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

I dream about comedians. Lots of them. But I dream most often about Steve Martin or Tim Allen.

I write about comedians, too, sometimes, as in the excerpt above. Even when I don’t, they influence me and therefore, they influence my writing.  Once in a writer’s workshop, the members read my comedian story (above) and they said a character (and by inference the author who wrote it) must be a total narcissist to dream about famous people, comedians notwithstanding. But I can only say that when I watch them, the good ones, I realize I am looking at the smartest people on earth, that in order to understand the nuances and subtleties of comedy and language, they must be brilliant—and I suppose I identify with their neuroticism, their angst, their sadness. They influence me because even though they realize that tragedy and comedy are a heartbeat away, and they might even argue there is no difference between them, they do laugh and they make me laugh, and laughter is the only thing that gets me through this life.

 Tim Allen showed up one night and we spent the night looking for hood ornaments. Like in his book, I’m Not Really Here. Everywhere he turned there were hood ornaments. He looked at me seriously at one point. Comedians, he told me, are the only people who know that The Divine Comedy is a journey from Heaven through Purgatory ending in Hell, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what Heaven and Hell had to do with hood ornaments.

But I was thinking how my comedian phenomenon itself is synchronistic in nature. Well, maybe it isn’t, I guess they’d have to really show up in my bed to qualify, but it seems synchronistic just the same.

                                                 Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads

 

All comedians are philosophical but none more so, it seemed to me, than Steve Martin and Tim Allen. Steve Martin studied philosophy; Tim Allen has obviously done the same in at least some limited context. Woody Allen and Robin Williams come to mind . . . .

But regardless, my fascination with comedians is something that needs to be said about me.

So one night I was lying in bed contemplating a character I wanted to write about whose husband had been cheating on her. The relationship was toxic, yet neither could let go of it.  Failed? Maybe. Yet toxic or not, nothing is truly “failed” until it is over, or so I was thinking. As I was pondering the complexity of this, I looked over and saw my husband snoring away in bed with me, mouth wide open, inhaling with enough force to rattle the walls and pull the curtains from the windows. I thought about how people in bad relationships sort of “feed one another” and I started to laugh. A short story, I think to myself: comedian sections interspersed with a second person Kafka-esque magical realism that might depict the paradoxical, sad (yet humorous) nature of toxic relationships, of marriage—a story where the woman sees her husband as a metamorphosed giant amphibian bug, the two of them trapped in a maddening purgatory…

 

You sleep naked now. Before he had insisted on it. Now it’s your personal revenge.

Next to your bed stands an oak nightstand that once belonged to his mother, dark, heavy grained, upon which rests a delicate lace doily, a pair of dime store reading glasses, a few books written by women he refers to as your “harpies” (Atwood, Oates, Moore, Proulx), and a book called Trout Stream Insects, an Orvis Streamside Guide. Oh, and that collection by Kafka you stumbled along at the library reading selection of the month.

Next to the books there is a square jewelry box your own mother gave you—made of glass the color of purple oxidized blood. It has a matching lid that is attached on two sides with antique brass hinges, the bottom lined with plushy white satin—stark against the red glass—and on top of the colorless satin the daily ritual:  the results of today’s foraging.

Not too extensive; certainly not a collection as diverse as what is featured in the Orvis Guide:  a couple mosquitoes (one you slapped after it had sucked a bit of blood from your kneecap), a medium-sized house fly, a papery mud-colored moth, and two tiny gray spiders … not the real fuzzy kind because, after all, that could be a little too much.

All dead.

Oh, and tweezers. You always need tweezers.

                                                    “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

There is some connection to luck—or lack of it—tied to writing for me. Some connection to the universe, a cosmic energy or whatever you want to call it, something one must “tap into.” Talent is involved– we writers always think there is at least some of that—and certainly fortitude. But synchronicity is part of it: that place where luck and fate meet faith.

You might, however, think luck and fate are antithetical to one another. I’m a mixed philosopher type, believing neither in determinism or indeterminism. (Mills maybe?) Causal relationships between one event and another somehow still related to volition/signs/luck/opportunity.  If three people are thrown into the sea, the determinist might say it’s all fated so he might as well not swim. The indeterminist might think it is all chaotic chance and not swim either, but a mixed philosopher, according to Mills, might swim until a boat or plane showed up. Now the determinist will stubbornly argue that the mixed philosopher only believed he had some control over the outcome because he was raised to believe it, while someone else believed they had no control because he (she?) was raised that way—or circumstances had conspired—so he or she couldn’t believe, but these are still, he’ll argue, all causal relationships. Well, OK, maybe, but I maintain that if a person believes a thing—for whatever reason (perhaps just reading Mill) – he might, nevertheless, actually change the course of events.

So these days, despite the nagging feeling that I really might be fated to believe in Mill and ultimately have no control over anything at all, I believe anyway.  And this belief has led to the next insane belief:  that someone out there at some point might indeed connect with my work—and therefore save me!

 

Your friends tell you straight out. About wine bottle and glasses on innocent shopping sprees, back rubs in chance moments they’d spent alone with him. Vague suggestions you had better keep him satisfied. 

Once you protected them from him. Now you no longer bother.

He doesn’t do confrontation.

You left the orange peels in the sink again, you say. No reaction. You’re tracking mud all over the house. Not a flicker. I don’t like it when you drink every night in front of the kids. Nope, not even an up-yours, kiss-my-ass kind of look. Nothing. What was it Margaret said? A riddle:  What is more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich lack it, and if you eat it, you die?

Nothing.

The answer was nothing.

                                                     “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

Synchronicity. Jung coined the term and defined it as “meaningful coincidences” (if those coincidences occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related). I’d have some pressing life question or writing conundrum on my mind and suddenly someone on TV or in the grocery line would be talking about something completely unrelated to my problem and yet would seem to have the answer to my life/writing dilemma. This seemed to necessitate a sort of mindful living, a sort of Buddhist-type tuning into yourself while simultaneously turning outward to the universe around you. And that necessitated, in turn, an underlying sort of optimistic outlook toward life and my work that belied outward appearances to the contrary.

 

Why is it always funnier to watch someone doing something asinine if they run by a window or a door, far away? Like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Watching him wrassling that snake down the lawn looked so much funnier through the window with his wife unaware of his predicament than it would have up close and if she’d seen it—

That private joke with the audience.

Maybe it’s easier to laugh at people from a distance.

                                                        “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

So on this particular evening, I had seen Chevy Chase in Fletch, dancing with the animated characters in one scene and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I giggled. Full of a synchronistic black humor myself, I sat up and finished the entire story in three hours. Here is the ending:

 

You remember the insects—how they hatch over rivers in the early evening.

Mate and die.

These days comfort comes only in your ritual. You do it not just for you, but because you know he needs it, has come to depend upon it as much as you do. He snores and heaves, mouth hanging open like usual. Pink sticky tongue oozing out of the gash that is his mouth, all of it vibrating with the shuddering gasps of his next breath. You’re tired and you think maybe tonight you’ll just skip the whole thing. But it’s the only thing left for either of you and it must be done.

You lift the tweezers from the bedside table, open the glass lid of the box and poke through the assortment. You look over to see if there is any further change in him. His teeth seem shorter, mouth bigger. Thumbs? Does he have thumbs? It’s something you’d like to know, but his hands are tucked underneath him.

What will it be? You decide on the mosquito, the one you slapped this morning while reading Margaret Atwood, and using the tweezers, you pick him up gently by one papery wing. Is he quite dead? Maybe a wiggle or two. You drop it then—carefully onto his tongue. As far back as you can manage.

Then it’s gone with hardly a falter in his breathing. What will it be next? Maybe the spider next. You lift one, a semi-fuzzy, grayish-brown one, by one of its back legs, hold it suspended over his waiting, eager mouth. You wait, you wait, keep waiting…

You drop one more insect—the moth—into his eager, greedy mouth.

It seems right—for both of you.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

“Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads


L. E. Kimball has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Washington Square (New York University), Orchid, A Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Lynx Eye. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published by Switchgrass Press. Her second novel, Seasonal Roads, was published by Wayne State University in 2016. She has also had creative nonfiction published in dozens of national publications such as ByLine, Exceptional Parent, and Country Almanac, and she’s been published in the op-ed section of The Detroit News. Author Lisa Lenzo reviewed Seasonal Roads for Read Her Like an Open Book on August 15, 2016.

Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA, both from Northern Michigan University. She is currently an Assistant Contingent Professor at NMU.

Roxana Robinson: The Two Worlds of the Writer’s Life

Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta and Cost; three collections of short stories; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Most Notable Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s MagazineThe New York Times, The Washington PostBookForum, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and divides her time among New York, Connecticut, and Maine. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and is the President of the Authors Guild.

This essay is reprinted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.


 

While you’re working on a book, you’re living in two worlds.

There is the world that you inhabit with everyone you know—your husband, your children, your friends, your colleagues. This is the tangible world, and you inhabit it easily. You don’t have to try. You can e-mail people, or call them or talk to them at dinner. The things you share with them are immediate. But your presence there becomes increasingly insubstantial: you realize that it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not. This world will go on without you.

The other world you’re living in, the world of the book, is just as vivid. You’re living with people you’ve never seen, though you know them as well as you know everyone else in your life. But it’s not always easy to connect with them. Sometimes it seems as though a translucent scrim separates you, and whenever you’re not writing, you’re worried that you won’t be able to get past the scrim.

In the novel Time and Again, the protagonist is asked to live in circumstances that exactly mimic those of a century earlier, in hopes that he’ll be able to slip through a portal into another era. He does, of course. I think about this when I’m trying to move into the world of my novel. I’m never quite sure if I’ll be able to get there. “This novel” is the place that I inhabit while I’m working. In this world, I’m necessary. It won’t go on without me.

When I began writing fiction, the rule for young writers was, “Write what you know.” It’s a good rule, meant to avoid the inauthentic use of places, people, and feelings. The idea was that the writer should know herself first, examine her own world before she begins to examine others. It’s still a good rule for young writers. But it needn’t hold true throughout a whole career. It is beginning to seem that contemporary novelists have used up what they know. The present seems over-explored, so why not write about the past and the future?

Futuristic and historical novels are becoming all the rage. There are lots of distinguished ones: Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s TaleNever Let Me Go and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. And of course Wolf HallMary Reilly and The Blue Flower. (I know, I know, I’m naming mostly works by women, and I’m sorry. It’s just that there are so many more good books by women than there are by men! If I could think of more by men, I’d name them, of course.)

When you are writing a contemporary novel, you’re already living a covert life. You talk to your family as though you’re all occupying the same place—the kitchen. And you are in the kitchen, but you’re also in that other place, the place where the novel lives, with its great rolling landscape of emotions and conversations and characters on their way to the unknown destination at the end of the narrative. Those people in that other place are all around, constantly swimming through your consciousness.

But when you’re writing about another time, you are in even more trouble: you’re doubly removed from the tangible world. The words and sentiments from the people of that other time become more and more real. You’re fascinated by them. You’re bemused by people who talk in today’s language, the one you’ve stopped speaking. You’re deep in another era. You can hardly believe that your husband wants to discuss this year’s politics, when he could be talking about those of that other year, which are so much more vivid, those candidates so much more astonishing in their declarations, their dastardliness, their ambitions, their facial hair.

And all the time you feel as though that other world, the one where you’re writing, is elusive. It is slipping through your hands like water. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet that’s the place you’re living. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet you’re swimming through it. It’s become your medium. It’s all around you, but you can’t quite breathe.

One afternoon, when I was writing my biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was driving down the street in the small town where I then lived. A man was driving toward me, and I recognized him. He was handsome, with a square face, a dark, serious gaze, metal-rimmed glasses and a mustache. I knew I knew him, but couldn’t think of who he was in time to wave. After he’d driven past, I realized it was Alfred Stieglitz. The funny thing was that Stieglitz never learned to drive.

Once you’ve finished the book, you stop living in that world. It’s lost to you. People ask me afterwards if I’m thinking of writing a sequel. Don’t I want to know what happens next, they ask? But I can no longer find the portal. Sometimes I’ll hear from a reader, years later, reminding me of that place, telling me how it felt while she was reading it.

Then I remember what it was like when I lived there.