Monday, October 20, 2014

My First Time: John Abraham-Watne

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is John Abraham-Watne, author of the new novel Our Senior Year, a story that deals with high school, "quarter-life crisis," friendship, religion, and love.  John lives near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis with his wife Mary and their two cats, Marble and Scout.  He has done freelance journalism for the Minneapolis Examiner since 2009.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Book

My first time getting published finally happened, after twelve years of work, last month.  My debut novel Our Senior Year had been patched together in my mind since my own senior year of high school in 2002.  Up until then I had bounced among friend groups, usually older than myself, and was now faced with the possibility that I didn’t have many friends my own age.  Thankfully, the people I embraced that year became some of my best friends ever; some of them even show up in the novel.

I was struggling with many emotions at this time.  I thought I was in love, but I also hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to actually speak to a girl.  I was attending a religious youth group in another rural town and attempting to be a better person.  Yet this was the year I (mostly) discovered alcohol and partying, and did plenty of both on the many gravel roads criss-crossing the corn and soybean fields outside my hometown.  I was attempting to be better and yet I was embarking on the quest that would ultimately cause me to disown the religion I was brought up with since birth.  All of these contradictions and more continued on throughout the year.

So what caused the actual book?  Like many nerds before me, I often enjoyed delving into fictional universes more than the one that surrounded me.  The first stirrings came as I approached the end of my senior year.  The more I thought about things, the more they started to come together like a movie in my mind.  Things in this early version of the book got really dark and involved a lot of death and destruction, and reflected my sour world view as I made my way into post-secondary education.  It would remain that way, in one sorry-looking first draft or another, through most of my college days as I fantasized about the writer I was to become without doing much actual writing.

The big push came after I was married a decade later.  My wife and I had been living in the same space for about a year when she finally let me have it.  I had been moping and feeling sorry for my writing career since I had started doing freelance work for the Minneapolis Examiner in 2009.  I was cranking out blog posts bemoaning the state of international affairs and our current federal government’s intransigence, but had also branched out to interviewing local politicians and public officials in Minneapolis.  My wife must have had enough one evening because I recall her telling me, rather vehemently, to “finish the book.”  I wanted people to take me and my writing seriously, so why not take this route?  I’d had the idea in one shape or another rolling around my head for the past decade.  I may have been a victim of what holds many writers back: If I finish the book, that means I have to let other people read it.  I’m not sure how much terror this notion instilled in me, but I did know that if I was serious about trying to be published I’d have to let this story escape the confines of my head.

As is usually the case during arguments like this with my wife, she was right.  I buckled down, started writing every day, and damned if I didn’t finish that thing within the year.  The next step was finding an editor.  So, I did what most starving artists do: I turned to family.  My wife’s cousin had an English degree and was a teacher.  I asked if she would take a look at my novel, and thankfully she did!  She mentioned later that she had no idea what she was getting into (who would?) but was glad to see the book had things like actual structure, plot development, and believable characters.  About six months later we had our first major sit-down discussion, and she told me all that she thought needed work.  To this day I am grateful to her for doing this for me.  This book would not exist without her efforts.

Her work on the novel allowed me to make it much better, and in another few months I was ready to submit it to a publisher.  I got the contact information for North Star Press and sent them the first few chapters.  After a lengthy amount of time, they responded, saying that they'd publish it!  This was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Looking back, I still can’t quite believe that I would hold a copy of this story in my hands some day.  This is a testament to the fact that if you put your mind to something, have the proper support network, and simply do the job, you can accomplish anything.  Even if nobody likes the book I will always have this accomplishment, and no one can take that away from me.  So I say to anyone reading this who has a similar dream: just do it.  Don’t let self-doubt trap you into a fictional universe of your own in which the idea of publishing seems so much better than the reality.  Reality is messy; people are eventually going to have to read your work, so get used to it.  Trust me, the benefits far outweigh whatever you think the costs might be.

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