– Author Unknown
In addition to the unfinished manuscript of my first novel, I found some other treasures while digging through those boxes, which included some published articles and a short story that I pulled an all-nighter to write in one sitting. Seeing these again brought me back to a time when it felt like anything was possible, and I could do whatever I set my mind to. There is nothing like getting published that can do that for a writer. There is also nothing like the unbridled confidence of youth.
And of course, I was young back then – just twenty-three years old. I had never tasted real discouragement, much less defeat, and I was too naïve to have a clue about all the things that can go wrong in life. It was October of 1985. My latest article in Skin Diver Magazine had just been published and was on newsstands everywhere (Volume 34, Issue Number 10). What a thrill it was to visit my local supermarket and flip through each copy on the rack to find my name printed in the Table of Contents of every one of them, without exception. Best of all, mine was listed among the familiar names of the staff writers I had been reading ever since I first subscribed with my paper route money, when I just ten years old.
That very same month, another article of mine was also published in Underwater USA – a lesser known rag that was sold primarily in dive shops. That one also included one of my photographs I had submitted, which was printed in color, right on the front page.
Emboldened by these minor successes, I attended a writers’ luncheon one Saturday afternoon at a Sheraton Hotel near downtown Tucson, purely on a whim. I’m not even sure how I found out about it, but there was little fanfare or promotion for the event, and it was completely free of charge. It simply consisted of a small panel of editors and literary agents, none of whose names or affiliations I recognized, except for Alice Turner, who was the fiction editor for Playboy Magazine. Now, you can snicker if you’d like, but Playboy was (and still is) considered among the literati elite to be one of the very most prestigious publications in America for its short fiction. Getting published there is like going to the Superbowl, Preakness Stakes, and Pebble Beach Pro-Am, all rolled into one. It is no place for amateurs. John Steinbeck is just one among a long list of literary giants whose works have been printed in its pages.
I didn’t know all this until I heard Ms. Turner explain the magazine’s history, however. In fact, despite my close familiarity, I was only vaguely aware that its pages ever contained more than a few sentences of verbiage. She then went on to explain what types of stories she was looking for in the few unsolicited manuscripts she had time to read. Finally, as she took questions from the audience, she offered some sage advice to another aspiring novelist like myself about the importance of first cutting his teeth on short stories to hone his craft before attempting to write a novel.
I listened with rapt attention to every word she said. I was already painfully aware that my novel in progress was drifting off, going nowhere, and I still had a lot to learn about the subtler nuances of character and plot development. What really hooked me, though, was when she named my idol, Ray Bradbury, as one of the top modern masters of the short story whom one should study to learn the art. I had read just about everything he had ever written, short or long, at least twice.
She needed to say no more. I flew out of there before the session ended and went straight home to my typewriter and a freshly opened box of chardonnay, stopping along the way only to pick up a carton of cigarettes. I had mostly given up smoking by then, but to this day, I have to admit that the slow countdown of drags on each cancer stick, and the steady accumulation of butts in an ashtray, lends a real cadence to the act of writing – even when the pages themselves aren’t exactly piling up. Especially for a marathon session like the one to which I was committing myself that evening, and notwithstanding the fact that it just feels so damn ‘writerly.’ It cannot be underestimated how important it is to feel like a writer in order to commence writing anything of great import. Hence the cheap white wine. Red wine would have just made me feel sleepy.
There was a glimpse of a story that had popped into my mind while I was sitting there listening to Ms. Turner speak, and I didn’t want it to escape before I could capture it with wood fiber and ink. The story itself had not fully emerged, but I saw the main character so clearly – a tall Gringo, red headed, freckled and pale, standing in the hot sun on a remote beach of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. He was propositioning an itinerant band of shark fishermen to rent one of their boats, in broken Spanish. That was really all I knew. That, and the fact that he was never going to accomplish whatever mission he was on, or get back home alive. But I wrote anyway, and the pages piled up faster than the cigarette butts until the sun came up the next morning. Back in those days, words flew out of my fingertips like electricity, and writing was not the hard work that it is today. Unfortunately, I lacked any sort of voltage regulator or transformer to convert them from direct to alternating current, and I’m afraid I must have zapped my few hapless readers with a stunning torrent of run-on sentences that were replete with adjectives.
I made just one quick proofread and edit, and then typed out the second draft at double speed, amped up by then on black coffee. The adrenaline of writing had nullified the effect of wine all night, but I knew I was going to crash hard the moment I slowed down. Call it courage, audacity, or just feckless optimism, but I drove back to the Sheraton hotel at breakneck speed, determined to deliver my story directly to Alice Turner while she was still there. Nowadays, this sort of activity would be labeled as ‘stalking,’ and hotel clerks are much less obliging to release information about guests, but I had already called and verified that she had stayed the night there and had not yet checked out.
My plan was actually slightly better thought out than that. I had originally intended to head straight for the hotel’s kitchen, where I would casually loiter until I could find a room service waiter who would discreetly deliver my neatly bundled manuscript for a generous tip (with an explanatory note and self addressed and stamped return envelope inside). When I stepped into the hotel lobby, however, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had gotten there just in the nick of time, because there stood Playboy Magazine’s fiction editor herself, with luggage in tow, paying her bill at the front desk. Not only had I just saved myself five bucks, but what’s more, I had the kind of unfettered access to an editor that most writers can only dream about – without resorting to stalking tactics, that is.
With as much genuflection as I could muster, I breathlessly introduced myself and stuttered out some sort of lame explanation for our chance encounter. I didn’t give her the chance to say much in response – I then just placed the manila envelope in her hand, and fled.
As I look back on this now, it amazes me that I ever received any type of response or acknowledgement that she read my manuscript, much less a formal rejection note. One arrived in the mail just a month later, however, just a standard printed note that consisted of only a sentence or two politely declining the use of my story, but it did bear Alice K. Turner’s personal signature in ballpoint ink. Like the young, dumb idiot I was, I threw it out, for which I will forever hate myself. I was mortified with embarrassment ever since I went back and re-read the marked up first draft in the light of day, and a big part of me was hoping and praying that she had just thrown away the envelope without opening it up.
Someone once said that ninety percent of success is just being there, but someone even wiser also said that you only get one chance to make a first impression.
I didn’t give up, however. With undaunted tenacity, I polished that story as best I knew how, and sent it out to several other magazines that it was equally unfit for and got rejected by, one by one, including The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Eventually, I couldn’t deny the fact that the story was only growing in my head, as did the number of characters in its cast. The plot thickened, until it became a supernatural mystery that could only be told as a novel.
I suppose that’s generally what happens when you play with a short story for too long, or put it off indefinitely as I did. Since I was still young, I stayed busy the next few years living a life that was richly textured with adventure, travel, and culture. And then I settled down, got married, and had a family. And then got divorced, remarried, and divorced again. Life went on, and decades passed in the blink of an eye while my dream of becoming a published novelist sat dormant, packed away in boxes.
Today, I know exactly why that guy wanted to rent a boat, and what his intended mission was, once he got it out on the water. He’s never been far from my mind. Until recently, my real challenge has been to believe once again in my ability to write his story, without underestimating the real work and disciplined focus that it will require as I did when I was young and foolish. I’m just about there now, thanks to some drastic changes I’ve made in my lifestyle these past few months.
I have a couple of stories to tell first before I can tell the one about that Gringo, but his day is coming. Soon.