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 Allen Morris Jones, author of A Bloom of Bones. Here’s what Mark Spragg (author of An Unfinished Life) had to say about the novel: “Allen Jones’s A Bloom of Bones is simply riveting. Always lyrical, often wise, filled with vitality, and the promise that love and loyalty can surmount the darkness in our lives. I couldn’t put it down.” Allen is also the author of Last Year’s River (a book I personally loved), A Quiet Place of Violence, and The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction (co-edited with William Kittredge). He has also published more than one hundred short stories, articles, essays, and poems. He began his twenty-year career in publishing as editor of the magazine Big Sky Journal before going on to work as an acquisitions editor for the Lyons Press and as publisher of his own small book house, Bangtail Press. He lives in Montana with his wife and young son, and has recently returned to work as editor of Big Sky Journal. Click here to learn more about Allen and his work.
My First Bad Review
In a modern American context—the context of Horatio Alger capitalism, of everybody gets what they deserve—few narratives are as off-putting as failure. Nobody wants to hear about it, the same way that nobody wants to hear about your recent colonoscopy. Failure is all around us in our culture but nonetheless embarrassing. I couldn’t cut it, I got the shit kicked out of me, I’m not good enough, I went broke. Where’s the box office?
Kurt Vonnegut famously couched the rise and fall of narrative as a line chart, up and down with the good and bad fortunes of the protagonist. People are suckers for Cinderella wherein the protagonist starts at the bottom (shoeless, and at the mercy of stepsisters) and her fortunes gradually improve until, after a couple of setbacks, she’s at the top, glass slippers and all. That story line never gets old.
The obverse of this narrative is the freefall toward flatline. Starting at the top and just taking a nose dive. You hardly ever see that happen in narrative, and with good reason. It’s boring as hell, and makes you depressed.
Last Year’s River, was published in 2001 by Houghton Mifflin, a noble publisher. My agent had sold it the year before for the fabled six-figure advance. My entire life, I’d wanted to be nothing but a novelist, and with this book, with this advance, I’d arrived, man. In the Vonnegut-esque arc of my personal narrative, the line is a gradual ascendancy toward Last Year’s River, peaking on a sunny summer day in July 2001 when my flight banked over the Statue of Liberty. I was traveling to mid-town to meet my editor and agent. And can there possibly be anyone happier than a first-time novelist flying into New York to meet his agent and editor?
Then the book was published. A week after 9/11. I drove to Portland for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show, and gave a brief talk to a mostly-empty room. A few days later, the first review appeared. This was the first professional critique of my work, and it came from Kirkus, an infamously cranky publication. They gave a brief summation of the plot, and then ended with a zinger. “Slow and pretentious, if occasionally affecting.”
Hiding my trauma, I wrote to friends that I found the review curiously apt, as I was myself slow, pretentious, and only occasionally affecting. Other reviews came in, most of them quite positive. My photo was in People magazine. The book was included by Barnes & Noble in their Discover Great New Writers program. It was nominated for a Spur Award. But some part of me never really got over that first review. Rather than being mollified by later, more positive notices, I found myself feeling sorry for those critics who liked their books slow and pretentious. And after the sales figures started to come in—not bad, pretty good, just not up to the advance—I thought, well, of course. It’s slow and pretentious, and oh yeah, only occasionally affecting. From the peak of New York, my career tipped over into the downslope. I didn’t realize it while it was happening. My editor had promised to publish anything I wrote, then proceeded to reject my next three projects. He had his reasons, but that didn’t lesson the devastation. Having thus been hauled out to the curb by my existing publisher, there came to be an odor around me and my work. Everybody could smell it but me. Other editors were less interested. Self-pity is cold comfort, but it is a comfort. I was a novelist who couldn’t sell a novel. My career was just beginning; my career was over. Dave Eggers had sold A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for $100,000, less than what I’d been paid for Last Year’s River. Piker, I thought. Jonathan Safran Foer got close to half a million for Everything is Illuminated, but he sold it to the same publisher. We shared a publicist. I was in the ballpark.
Until I wasn’t anymore.
Cue the inspirational montage.
As I write this, fifteen years after Last Year’s River, I have a new agent, and my second novel, A Bloom of Bones, is in the midst of meeting the world. It’s being released by Ig Publishing, a small house looming large, in nobility if not lineage. Like so many other smaller publishers, it’s driven by the passions of one or two personalities, and is thus a more or less direct reflection of their devotion to literature. And while I’m resisting the temptation to look for redemption in old failures, I will say, in all honesty, that I wish Ig Publishing, or a house like them, had published Last Year’s River fifteen years ago. Knowing then what I know now, I would have gladly given up the meaty advance in exchange for an editor who was willing to nurse the career along, introduce it to a handful of devoted readers and be pleased with the modest profits that might result. Those editors are few and far between, but they are out there.
The line chart is inching back up. In so many ways I’ve exceeded my previous spike. Knocked for a loop, limping and grinning around wobbly teeth, I’m back up off the canvas. I’m married to a woman I love, and we have a five-year-old little boy. I’m editor of a magazine that allows me to collaborate with some of the finest writers in the West. I’m publisher of my own small press. I’m often dumbstruck by my good fortune. The fiction I’m writing now, although there’s not nearly as much of it, is considerably better than what I was churning out all those years ago—better by some orders of magnitude. It has something to do with empathy, and a greater awareness of the power relationship between individuals. On my corkboard, I have a note to myself. “Love your characters. Every one.”
Kirkus just reviewed A Bloom of Bones. And they liked it. Indeed, they loved it.
Which shouldn’t matter to me, but oh it does. It does.