Stuck Writers, Second Novels, and Empty Boats

Between my debut and this book, an entirely different novel and a few other partial manuscripts had languished: unfinished, unloved. No wonder I've always been drawn to stories of other novelists with unpublished or simply abandoned novels.
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"You'll need to sit down before I tell you this," my agent said over the phone one day in 2005 -- perhaps the only time I'll ever hear that cautionary cliché offered in a joyful context. She told me what the top bidder was offering for my debut novel. These were happier, pre-recessionary publishing days, and the amount was more than generous.

I absorbed this astonishing news, and in appropriate "glass-half-empty" fashion, immediately asked her if I should expect selling my second novel to be as tough as I'd heard. She burst into laughter, as if to say: You silly neurotic writers, you're all the same. After all, I'd broken the first-novel barrier! My debut was made a lead title by a major publisher and translated into eleven foreign languages. Of course I wouldn't have trouble getting a second novel published.

Nearly seven years and a recession later, I did finally get a new novel out: quietly, gratefully.

When a recent interviewer asked me if it was really true that as a principle, the second novel was tough, I hesitated. Yes, it's undeniably tough. But no, this new novel, The Detour, wasn't exactly my "second" novel. Between my debut and this book, an entirely different novel and a few other partial manuscripts had languished: unfinished, unloved, and finally, unread by all but a few trusted souls. They weren't rejected by a publisher. They didn't even get that far. My first agent -- with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice -- pulled the plug.

No wonder, then, that I've always been drawn to the stories of other novelists with unpublished, unfinished, rejected, or simply abandoned novels in their past.

In February, one of my favorite stuck writers, Mark Salzman, published a short memoir, The Man in the Empty Boat, about his own experience laboring anxiously over a novel that wasn't working, during a long period of writerly and new-father angst leading up to the very worst year in his life.

Salzman's memoir is named for a bit of Asian wisdom suggesting that if a man is crossing a river and is hit by another boat, he won't be angry as long as he knows the other boat is empty. To pass through the world unharmed, Salzman suggests, one must be like that empty boat. But the paradox is that one can't become empty -- selfless, calm -- by working hard at it, as Salzman was doing while trying to write his new novel.

In 2009, Salzman's creative troubles soon paled in comparison with health and family problems: first, a series of crippling panic attacks. Next: the hospitalization of Salzman's little sister, Rachel, for pneumonia, leading to a fatal staph infection. The Man in the Empty Boat, which was published directly as an "e-riginal" by Open Road Integrated Media, was first conceived as a monologue delivered at a writing conference, and the story is told in a conversational style, casual and humorous at first, leading up to some devastating hospital scenes, all the more heart-wrenching for Salzman's self-deprecating, plainspoken style.

Salzman has monologued to humorous and poignant effect about writer's block before. While writing Lying Awake, a spare, questioning novel about a nun suffering epileptic fits that may be the cause of her mystical experiences, Salzman was so distracted by his own cats that he fashioned an aluminum skirt around his waist to keep the cats from crawling into his lap (an anecdote he shares in Empty Boat). Nonetheless, after several rejected drafts of Lying Awake, he broke through.

Not so -- or not yet -- with the novel he was trying to write in 2009: a historical epic about 13th-century Mongols, significantly redrafted several times. Despite knowing his life was easier than, say, the young J.K. Rowling's (single and poor -- yet she still managed to write Harry Potter), Salzman tried and failed repeatedly to make the Mongol novel work. Deadlines came and went. Baby Ava got a sibling, Esme. Salzman's main character, a Mongol captive named Catalano del Saggio, morphed into a young Franciscan monk adept at translating. Still, not working.

"At that point," Salzman writes, "I'd spent four years trying to develop Catalano del Saggio's character, and I couldn't think of anything else to do with him. Make him a French crusader? An English traitor? A medieval bodybuilder?" Instead, Catalano evidently got the pink slip. Narration was turned over to Yin Lu, a young Confucian scholar. This draft also received a "discouraging letter" from New York.

By this point in my reading of Salzman's memoir, I'd interrupted my husband's own evening reading to make him listen to funny passages -- about Salzman's futile resistance to dog ownership, about filmmaker wife Jessica Yu's acceptance of an Oscar. But about this other plotline -- Salzman's intractable stuckness with the Mongol novel -- I really needed my husband to pay attention.

"See," I interrupted his reading of the New Yorker for the third time. "It happens even to successful writers. It happens even to great writers. It happened during his Lying Awake novel and it happened again with this latest one." And here, the scariest thing: "It sounds like this Mongol novel might never be published." (The author bio at the end of the memoir does suggest that Salzman is still working on it.)

The sprawling and desultory nature of Salzman's Mongol project would strike fear in the heart of any early- or mid-career novelist. For me, it was a reminder of my own sprawling stillborn/stuck book: a historical novel that took place in the 1870s, involving biblical archaeology and the discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh. To research the novel, I traveled to London, where I actually got to touch the terracotta cuneiform tablets that are the basis for the world's most ancient literature. With my family, I traveled across the Middle East (camels, sand dunes, falafel), through Syria, all the way to the Euphrates, stopping only at the Iraq border. (That big advance I got for my first novel? This trip ate up a nice piece of it.)

My Mesopotamian novel had everything: church politics, crises of faith, Darwinian conflicts, landscape, adventure, romance, mythology, gay Victorian-era sex, a cute Arabic kid, camels (had to make use of that camel research), asparagus jokes, allusions to E.M. Forster, floods and allusions to more floods, and two drowning scenes that gave me (and possibly no one else) the chills. Writing the first chapters, I could actually visualize my editor reading and thinking: This is even better than your first novel. You're the real deal now, baby!

But before my editor could see it, my agent had to see it.

It did not grab her from page one. Or even by page 349. Her feedback? Too cerebral. Bloodless characters. Confusing. Something else wrong that she couldn't put her finger on. And that Act III feverish, slightly surreal, Fertile Crescent, Victorian-era gay sex scene? Goodness no. I can't sell that. Or something to that effect.

My agent's utter lack of interest seemed irreversible by that point, but I redrafted. And redrafted. I opened up my characters. I withheld less. I changed chronology. I experimented with voice. I spent months and months. I refused to take the gay relationship out of the novel -- this was an homage to the Epic of Gilgamesh, after all, a story about two men in love. But I did realize -- if only too late -- that I'd chosen the wrong man as my main character. This wasn't the stoic, thoughtful archaeologist's story -- it was the sensual, sabotage-minded illustrator's story!

And I still think that's true. But I'd stirred and reheated the literary pot so many times, that by mid-2008, three years after starting, all I had was some burnt and unappetizing Middle Eastern stew. I had to set it aside.

Friends urged me to find a way to publish it, regardless of its possible faults. (And here, I point out the problem with self-publishing: a person could be all too easily deluded that even a faulty or unfinished book should be rushed quickly into print. After all, what's to stop a naïve writer with a spouse and friends pushing them to get the thing out there already?)

A new agent offered to take a look. But that wasn't the point: I knew in my own heart that it would take as much energy to fix this novel as to write a new one -- and the new one might be less frustrating and more educational for me, the ever-apprentice writer.

In my despair, I looked for stories of other authors who'd known when to toss out the soup, when to unhook the respirators, when to abandon ship (to use every metaphor available). Michael Chabon, beloved for his first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published when he was only 25, nearly drowned under the weight of his unsuccessful second attempt: an opus named Fountain City, about an architect building a perfect baseball park. The novel grew to 1500 pages. His agent and editor responded to one draft less than half that length, but they still didn't like it. Already paid for a novel that kept ballooning in size without lifting off, Chabon had a hard time letting go. Five years had passed. Then finally, he heard another muse calling. In seven months, typing frantically in his basement office, and without telling his agent or editor, he whipped off his successful followup, Wonder Boys, which was published in Fountain City's place.

In 2010, Chabon was finally persuaded to part with a four-chapter fragment of the failed book, published in McSweeneys, with annotations that sought to explain where things went wrong. Asked by an Atlantic reporter whether the annotations themselves -- which the reporter judged to be more interesting than the novel (Chabon agreed) -- were meant to be a postmodern experiment, Chabon was less high-falutin' and more self-effacing. "The notes are there to serve as the literary equivalent of the label on a packet of silica gel that says DO NOT EAT."

In 2008, prior to giving up my Mesopotamian epic and upon first reading about Chabon's lost Fountain City years, I searched myself for that feeling of inspired recognition and certainty: should I abandon my own wrecked minorpiece? I also buoyed myself with the idea that I'd zip off a substitute -- seven months! -- that everyone would love. My family bought me two small Chinese fu dog statuettes to place, for luck, on either side of my computer. (Much later, I would realize I'd set them up in reversed position. Isn't there always an excuse for bad luck?)

Part one: I did manage to write half a novel in just a few months, and the writing was deliriously easy, which I took as a good sign. Part two: My agent said it was worse than the previous novel and that its subject was even less marketable. If I published it, I would "ruin my career." The writing, by the way, was "sophomoric." (I was glad to get that out of the way. A debut novelist dreads the first time her post-debut efforts will be called sophomoric.)

Still. What if that agent was wrong?

There is another option for crippled writers, besides continuing to toil through stuckness, like Salzman, or torpedoing the sinking ship, like Chabon.

Lionel Shriver, a taboo-flouting writer I adore, doesn't take rejection lightly. And why should she? The last time someone told her a manuscript had bombed, she went over her agent's head and sent it directly to an editor, who disagreed with the thirty editors who had previously rejected the novel as too dark. (She also parted ways with the agent.) That was We Need to Talk About Kevin, her most successful novel to date.

Later this month, Shriver will be releasing a new/old book: The New Republic, a book finished in 1998, about terrorism in Portugal, that Shriver couldn't get published. Prior to 9/11, no one was interested in terrorism, Shriver told a reviewer. After 9/11, there was too much terrorism in the news.

Perhaps The New Republic is not comparable to Chabon's Fountain City and Salzman's Mongol novel, in that its author didn't think her novel was a failure, or a potential failure-in-the-making. She blamed only the fickle marketplace for holding things up.

But that's the problem: when it's your baby -- I mean your novel -- and you're looking for the guiding star, the role model, the anecdote that matches your own situation, it's hard to know. Is this manuscript parked on my hard-drive or stored in a water-damaged cardboard box a Fountain City, or is it a New Republic? And maybe it's like Salzman's story: the end of which is not even yet written. What a coup it would be, if the doubted, nearly-failed novel became the most successful novel in an author's entire oeuvre !

We can imagine all sorts of delicious scenarios.

That's why we're writers, after all.

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