Monday, December 21, 2015

My First Time: James Tate Hill

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 James Tate Hill, author of Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Sonora Review, and The Texas Review, among others, and he is the fiction editor for Monkeybicycle. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, he lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.

My First Failure

His clients included writers who were anthologized in my college textbooks. It seemed unlikely he’d be interested in my romantic comedy set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, but a writer friend he also represented thought I should send it to him when it was ready. That he was now calling me on the phone, less than two months after I mailed him the manuscript, struck me as odd. Agents didn’t call to reject you, did they? When he called me “old chap,” I felt a warm hand welcoming me into the canon of American letters.

My agent had a kind, gentle demeanor and decades of experience in the publishing industry. To this day, I remain surprised and grateful that someone of his esteem took a chance on a writer in his late twenties whose only publication was a short story in a literary journal with a circulation of five hundred. He gave me some feedback for revisions, which I implemented over the rest of the summer. In the fall, while my then-girlfriend quit her job to begin an editing program across the country, funded largely by my adjunct’s salary of $18,000 per year, my agent e-mailed to say, “That is a fine job on the ending and I will call tomorrow to discuss where we should send your novel.”

We sent it first to only one editor, whose purchase of my book would be called a “pre-empt,” I had learned from my obsessive online reading about how books were sold. That my novel would sell seemed an inevitability—to sell a book one had only to acquire a good agent, which mine sure as hell was—so I didn’t pester him for updates. Instead, I busied myself with student papers and articles on picking the perfect engagement ring to suit one’s budget.

My ignorance of the publishing world circa 2005 was rivaled only by my ignorance of relationships, specifically which ones should end in marriage and which ones should simply end. If the three thousand miles that separated my girlfriend and me that fall made our hearts grow fonder, the distance also obscured how consistently miserable we had made each other as recently as a year earlier. We hadn’t learned how to be happy together so much as how to coexist, but never mind all that: we had a wedding to plan, largely funded by my adjunct’s salary of $18,000 per year. And never mind the finances because an advance for that first novel was heading my way in the coming months, if not weeks, and if advances for romantic comedies set in the wacky world of professional wrestling weren’t what they used to be, well, at the very least I could parlay the publication of a novel into a tenure-track job at a college or university of my choice.

After two months, the first editor had not yet made an offer, and we sent the novel to four additional houses. When more than one of them expressed interest, the resulting sale would be called an auction, according to my research. While visiting my then fiancée in Seattle, I went ahead and purchased a twenty-five dollar bottle of Oregon merlot for when I got the good news. To say I wasn’t writing much at this time would be a charitable assessment. I had an idea for a new novel, but my anxiety surrounding the one that hadn’t yet sold prevented me from making real headway. Let’s see if the first one’s seaworthy, I was thinking, before I build another with the only blueprint in my possession.

One by one, the rejections started to come in. Before we had sent my novel to that first editor, my agent asked if I wanted to see rejections that came in. I had said no. Remembering that exchange, I felt a little better—he had expected this, I thought, this mild turbulence through which my veteran pilot knew how to navigate. His phone call late that spring, however, in which he said my novel seemed to have run its course, was nothing I had expected.

At my agent’s suggestion, I took a look at the rejection letters, hoping for insight into what I might fix. I had heard stories of novels being rejected dozens of times, and we had sent mine to fewer than ten publishers. With a couple of exceptions, the letters were complimentary, if vague, most of them stating in various ways how difficult it would be to market “a book like this.” Was there anything I could do? Could we try smaller publishers? Was my novel dead? Questions like these quickly morphed into questions about my future as a writer. What had I been doing with my life these past several years? What was I going to do with the rest of my life? These might have been topics to explore in conversation with my fiancée, a fellow writer, but we weren’t particularly good at talking to each other—about anything, really, let alone our personal failures. Instead, we watched a lot of television. Hours after that fateful phone call from my agent, I came upon Dustin Hoffman being fawned over by James Lipton on an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Hoffman spoke of watching so many of his peers find success in Hollywood while he continued to perform at the Pasadena Playhouse, recalling the moment he decided that yes, if this was all the success he ever achieved he would still be happy; it was the acting itself he needed, not the external validation.

The next morning I sat down at the computer for hours, finally making progress on that new novel. All summer we packed for Nashville, where my fiancée had landed a terrific job that would pay more than twice what I was making as an adjunct, and she would repay the time I had given her in school with a semester to do nothing but finish this new novel. Fifteen months later, I printed the first draft, all four hundred ninety-seven pages of it, and had my then-wife take my picture as I stood on the manuscript, smiling at how much taller it made me. Let’s not mention that a week before that photo was taken we tearfully acknowledged the end of our eleven-month marriage. Let’s not dwell on the ten years that would pass between that phone call from my first agent and the publication of my first novel, the result of a book contest. Tempting as it is to memorialize rejection, what I remember most vividly are those spring mornings in front of the computer, working on what would become my second failed novel. A few chapters in, I had no idea if it was any good, if I was any good, but I knew what I’d be doing the rest of my life.

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