“I have always believed in the kindness of strangers,” Tennessee Williams wrote. Me? I have always believed that really good writing will out. Will find its way to publication. We know that cream rises to the top of the jar. So does really good prose. Whatever your level–beginner, emerging, or a veteran writing making a comeback–if your writing is heartfelt, honest, and clear, it will eventually reach an audience. It will move your career forward. This has worked for me in the past, with short stories and novels for adults and young adults. With my new novel, Power & Light, I’m about to test that theory again–but in a greatly changed publishing and cultural landscape.
First, a little about the novel. The genesis of Power & Light came from silence. Family silence around “what happened” to one of my great aunts. She was a shy young woman from a farm in northeastern North Dakota. I remember her, though she was quite old when I was quite young. What happened to her? Somehow, in some manner, a powerful man in the community–a doctor–changed her life forever. She either worked for him, perhaps as a maid or house cleaner. Or else she made a visit to his office for a minor medical procedure, and there was assaulted. “Evidence” points to the latter, that is, what I could glean (and remember) from the murmurs among my aunts when, once again, she did not attend a family gathering. Can justice work retroactively? Likely not, but the novel is my attempt, long after her death, to speak on her behalf.
The writing of Power & Light took five years. Daily writing. Daily rewriting. Trying to tell her story, set in the 1930s, believably even as I had to imagine ninety percent of it. And my first chance to share the novel-in-progress in a public reading was a debacle. “Who was I to write about a woman’s assault?” And “So what if it’s your family’s story–you’re working out your shit without our permission.” The detractors, a minority of the audience, were loud. The supporters, a big majority, mainly sat on their hands, though consoled me afterward. Better late than never, I suppose.
But fuck them (the detractors). It was indeed my story to tell, and I continued to write it the best way I knew how. That is, scene by scene. Detail and description using a full range of imagery, though carefully around the crime itself (no reason to be graphic). Causal narration that always pointed forward. Compelling characters that, should you encounter them on the street, you would call out their names. And all of these leaning into a thematic unity, in this case, the effect on a family of a crime without punishment. In short, I employed, by habit and design all the techniques of fiction. If you can get all those techniques working in concert, magic happens: you are writing something that the reader cannot put down.
The next challenge was a finding a publisher. None of the New York “Big Five” publishers for my previous novels, including Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and FSG, wanted to hear from me. (“A man writing about a sex crime that happened to a woman in the 1930s? Sorry.”) A couple of university presses had mild interest, but were booked out for two years. In the end I went with Calumet Editions, a small, hybrid publisher based in Minnesota. Calumet promised the novel within a year, and delivered.
With an all Minnesota team of editors and designers, the novel “dropped” just last week. I have no reviews yet other than a few, early bird readers who seem to love it. So far so good. But it will take several months at least to prove my theory that good writing will always find its way. In a complicated cultural moment for books and and publishing, I’m about to find out. Check back right here (this post) for updates.