Who in their right mind, in 2014, would publish a novel that touches upon the American War in Vietnam? And what sort of nutter would write, let alone try to publish, a novel that involves one of the protagonists being accused of sexual misconduct?
I was raised partly by a Vietnam veteran stepdad whose anger and silences over the war both terrified and intrigued me. Later, this turned into a writing seed. That seed, despite my occasional efforts to ignore it, wouldn’t stop growing.
When I was a teacher, in my twenties, there was an older colleague at the first school where I worked; he’d been accused the year prior, by two female students, of making sexual advances in class. The charges were proved false, but only after a two-month police investigation tore through this man’s life. His children ridiculed at their school.
At twenty-seven, I wrote the first draft of that first novel.
At thirty, I found an agent. Agent tried to sell the novel. Editors declined. One editor said, “The world isn’t ready for another generation of Vietnam novels.” Another wrote, “Thirty-five thousand books about the Vietnam War, yes? I’m afraid we do not need more, no matter the perspective offered here.”
Agent kept sending out the novel anyway, persistent in her pitch that here were Vietnamese Americans shown as complex human beings.
Editors kept saying no thanks.
Right, then. Had I indeed been insane to write this thing? Had hubris clobbered me, like it had so many other writers? Three and a half years of work — seven days a week, four hours a day at the desk — and here I was with my “Vietnam” novel bruised up, limping.
But wait a minute. What was that sound? It took a few days to discover what it was. It was coming from over there, the far corner of my office, from that stack of drafts. It was the novel, snarling.
* * *
I got married, worked a few part-time jobs in the afternoons and evenings, and carried on with writing each morning. Wrote a few other novels, some of which ended up in the drawer and will stay there. Yet every year or so, I kept coming back to that first one. I’d find myself taking a month to reread it and make some cuts, then I’d put it away again. I could sometimes hear the old Vietnamese American grandma in the novel, Hoa, still berating the short-sighted editors who found the novel too risky.
In other words, the characters’ fierceness became part of my fierceness.
By one way or another, all of them harrowing, writers come to find out something: the stories most worth following, those worth struggling after through lonely woods, are only those with the fiercest of spirits. They simply will not stop calling to us, leading us onward. They will not be denied.
In 2006, after working with a freelance editor, I sent out that first novel on my own to a small press in Brooklyn. Four weeks later I returned home one evening to find a phone message from the editor. They wanted to buy it. They wanted to publish it the following spring, make it their “big book.” My wife and I stared at each other. We hugged.
Before returning the call the next day, however, I spoke with my former agent. She advised me, first off, to ask them where their novels were reviewed. She also said, “Remember: You only get one chance to publish a first novel.”
When I spoke with the editor, I listened to her plans, said I was honored, and then asked about where their novels were reviewed … Crickets. She seemed offended that I’d asked. Mumbled that they were still a fairly young press.
The more I listened, and as much as I desperately — after ten years of working in total obscurity — wanted to shed the unpublished writer label, I kept hearing the words, You only get one chance to publish a first novel.
Thank you, really. But no thanks. I’m sorry.
I hung up the phone. I swallowed.
December 2009: Another novel, new agent. This novel had a Cambodian American family in it, the parents scarred by their years under the Khmer Rouge. Agent sent it out widely … and collected another round of rejections. Thirty-one, to be exact. A few of which were tough to swallow in that the editors said yes but the publishers said no. “We all wanted it,” one editor wrote. “The recession did play a role.”
After reading that email, I sat for several minutes at my desk. I looked around … Was the sound of crickets coming from inside my office?
At Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, most family members and friends, by that point, had stopped asking about my writing. A few years earlier, I’d told an aunt about declining the offer of publication and she only nodded, a concerned look on her face.
For all writers, there come those days, more often than we like to acknowledge, when it all gets stripped down. The life-choice rears up yet again, gets in your face.
And at times, of course, it helps to get a little pissed off.
I wrote another novel and finally found an agent with whom I felt truly aligned. She started to send out the new novel. But then a strange thing happened.
At the Wordstock Book Festival in Portland the year before, I’d met an editor. Within a couple of minutes of talking to him, it was clear that I was dealing with an up-front, dedicated, sharp guy. It didn’t hurt that he worked for a respected university press, one that had been around for fifty-some years and had consistently done right by its books.
In the course of our conversation, I’d told him about my first novel, and he’d asked me to send it to him. Seemed genuinely intrigued, not spooked about the Vietnam or sexual misconduct aspects.
And then … I didn’t hear back. That is, I didn’t hear back until just over one year later: the very week that my new agent began sending out the new novel.
If you’ve worked alone at a desk in a quiet room for many years, you learn something too about open doors. You often learn it the hard way. You have to at least walk through, see what’s there. If you don’t, you’ll probably always wonder.
In a move that partly astonished me, I asked my agent to suspend submissions. It had been nagging at me for a couple of weeks: that open door, there waiting. We had to see about it.
And so it went. Another year of waiting for the university press process to run its glacial course. Outside readers. Author response letter. Editorial board meeting. The decision finally came five days before Christmas. They would publish The Brightwood Stillness the following fall. “Everyone here’s excited,” the editor said.
By that point, I’d worked on that first novel over the course of seventeen years. Bill Clinton was president when I wrote the first draft. I was now forty-four.
Here’s something, though. Something that I came (kicking and screaming) to acknowledge over the years. I’d had the chance — call it forced revision — to make the novel better. Leaner.
With the stories that matter most to us, those fierce ones, it’s that decision — to go back in yet again, with an older self, and see what’s what — that can turn out to be as crucial as it is vexing.
After I received word of publication, my wife and I stared at each other. We hugged. In a state close to shock, I went to the kitchen cupboard, where in 1998 I had stored, way up on the top shelf, a bottle of champagne that someone had given me. I’d vowed not to open the thing until that call finally came. At the time, I assumed that within four or five years, at most, we’d be pouring out those tall glasses.
There in our tiny kitchen, our son in the next room at his table, coloring, my wife and I raised a toast. She smiled – eyes wet – and said, “Well, it’s about time.”
The following morning, after delivering our son to a friend’s house for some play, I came back home and poured my usual half-liter mug of mint tea with honey. I went into my office. I closed the door.
In the usual, taunting quiet, I sat down at the desk.
Mark Pomeroy’s first novel, The Brightwood Stillness, was published by OSU Press in October. The author lives in Portland. For more about the book, see this review in The Oregonian or ask your local independent bookseller.