Monday, April 16, 2018

My First Time: Michael A. Ferro

No Country for Recluse Writers: How My First Novel Brought Me Out of the Dark

Perhaps it’s the introverted, quiet side of me, or maybe it’s the cynical, brooding half that embraces absurdity and satire in all its forms, but when I long ago thought about being a writer, I’d imagined that I could do it like many of the reclusive literary heroes of my past: Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, and many such others. I wanted more than anything to keep out of the spotlight—to write novels, perhaps under a pseudonym, have them published, and then slip silently back into the shadows while my agent and editors sent correspondence by way of the Pony Express, inquiring as to when my next manuscript would be ready. When I had finally finished writing my debut novel, Title 13, I emerged from many months of seclusion in my kitchen writing area and began looking for a publisher. One thing quickly became apparent: this was 2016 and publishing doesn’t work like that anymore.

To show how clueless I was, how out-of-touch I’d become, this actually came as a surprise to me. After a pretty rough go of things for a few years following college, I largely withdrew from social life. Sure, I worked at my day job, did my grocery shopping on the weekends and whatnot, but for the most part, I was a man who lived in rural Ann Arbor holed up in his house with his dog and books. Still, it felt like a necessary isolation.

Meanwhile, in the last few months of a long-term relationship, my then-girlfriend and I visited Chicago. I hadn’t been back to the Windy City since I’d lived there during the strangest, darkest twelve months of my life—a time when I was wildly out of sorts and working for the federal government within a massive urban landscape that I found both intoxicating and absurd in many ways. When we returned to Michigan, I knew what the subject of my first novel needed to be: The Second City. On one of my last turbulent days in Chicago years before, I’d written one page of the beginning of a story. I didn’t know where that story was leading, what it meant when I wrote it, or even why I had written it—it just happened. Now, years later, I took out that one page and sat down to start fresh. I was ready to write a book.

After a few months, the relationship with my girlfriend ended when I couldn’t break my focus from the work-in-progress. Each weeknight after work turned into a marathon of reading, planning, and bits of composition. My weekends, on the other hand, were spent from morning to well past midnight writing as much as I could. It went on like this for many months and before I knew it, I had largely cut myself off from friends, people in my community, and even my family to some extent.

Oddly enough, I enjoyed it.

I grew especially fond of knowing that my only responsibilities were going to my job to pay my bills and working on my novel. No more social media, no more dating, no more talking to anyone, jabbering on and on about nonsense that had nothing to do with my interests; I was selfish and this cloistered haven of solitude was all mine. I wouldn’t realize until years later just how dangerous and insular that mindset can become if you’re not too careful.

Once I’d finished the first draft of my novel about a year later, I emerged from my writer’s cocoon, brushed the pizza crust crumbs off my bathrobe, and combed the fruit flies from my belly-length beard. I transcribed my much-too-long typewritten 135,000-word manuscript onto my laptop, editing it in the process, and put my Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter away. The typewriter had left an imprint on my kitchen table that I still notice to this day.

Next came the hard part: finding a publisher. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea then just how many writers were out there trying to do the same thing I was. Like I mentioned, I was pretty much living in a spooky, malodorous cave. After a few months, I came across a small press that looked intriguing. I sent them a sample of my manuscript and to my surprise, they asked to read more. After another month or so, they informed me they had decided to publish my novel and sent me a contract.

After I’d soiled myself, ran around my yard screaming at the trees in joy, and imagined paying off all my credit card debt with royalty checks, I had a lawyer look over the contract. While the basic terms were all fair and good, there was one clause that immediately struck me as unusual. As one of this press’ authors, I would be required to take part in a “social media training” program, as well as participate in a great many number of live interviews, Q&As, and interactive reader events.

My heart sank.

Surely this could be negotiable, I thought. I knew a lot of young writers were “building their brands” in the wake of the successes enjoyed by “branded” writers like J. K. Rowling, E. L. James, and Stephenie Meyer, but I wanted no part of it. My literary heroes had always let their work speak for itself. The publisher assured me that this was non-negotiable, that they wanted their writers to make a connection with their readers, promote themselves heavily on social media, and increase their visibility. To the press’ credit, this can indeed be a very effective way for small publishers to find new readers and spark success, but at the same time, it just didn’t feel right for my novel. Title 13 is a darkly comic satire about the absurdity of modern politics and government, while also being a highly emotional tale of literary fiction that focuses on the devastating effects of addiction and a divisive American culture. This just didn’t feel like the kind of story I wanted to saturate peoples’ social media feeds with—not to mention I’d also just spent years in hibernation and the idea of jumping right into the thick of a “social media training” program felt akin to dropping a baby-faced army recruit fresh out of boot camp into the bloody jungles of Cambodia.

I knew I wasn’t ready for this. Something felt off.

After some additional back and forth, the publisher and I amicably parted ways. While I was devastated that this meant my novel would probably never see the light of day, I couldn’t help but to also feel a twinge of relief. I could go back to my hole, safe and secluded.

That’s when everything changed.

In an effort to see if my long-held dreams of being a recluse writer were effectively dead in the twenty-first century, I began to reach out to all sorts of publishers and writers. Before long, I came across a person who would change my whole perspective on the publishing world: Laura Stanfill. Laura runs the incredible Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon, about as far from Ann Arbor as anywhere else in the continental United States. And yet, after emailing back and forth with Laura just a few times, I began to realize how crucial (and, more importantly, rewarding) it can be to make friends with others in the writing industry.

Laura then put me in contact with another publisher in Ann Arbor named Jon Wilson who runs Fish Out of Water Books and the two of us became friends. I couldn’t believe it: someone who lived on the other side of the country had just put me in contact with a person whom I had probably run into once or twice at a shop downtown. And better yet, I actually liked this guy! How had we not already been introduced to one another in this relatively small town? Then I remembered my smelly cave. It was already growing smaller and smaller in my mind. From that moment on, I vowed to get to know all these amazing literary citizens.

In a moment of serendipity, I soon heard back from a different publisher I’d contacted many months earlier: Harvard Square Editions. They were intrigued by my novel. They had a few questions, and after some back and forth, I was given a contract. This time, there was no clause about having to participate and engage with readers, but I was of a different mindset now—I knew that connecting with other readers and writers wouldn’t damage my soul, rob me of my creativity, crush my privacy, or anything shortsighted like that. Rather, it could be quite the opposite: I might make meaningful connections with others who shared the same interests, created their own works that I would now know about, and together we could help one another succeed. It was a win-win.

After my lawyer reviewed the contract, I signed with Harvard Square Editions and off we went. From the start of that terrifying and exciting process of publishing my first novel, I knew I had a legion of new friends and colleagues who were at my side. And in true form, folks like Laura and Jon assisted me with absolute gusto, never once seeking transaction, and even put me in contact with others who helped me along the way to boot. I made an oath then and there that should ever a young writer come my way seeking aid or advice, I would bend over backwards to lend them a hand. It’s a pay it forward business, folks.

I’d signed my contract with Harvard Square Editions in February 2017 and my book was published one year later. Between that time, I worked with a crackerjack team of editors, designers, and, now, friends. We all supported one another, wanted one another to succeed, and looked to make sure that the world of books and literature had a place in our everyday society, despite the devastating presidential election and its effects on America’s arts and culture. There would be times that I would be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of preparing a novel for publication, even losing much of the eyesight in my left eye due to stress, but in the end, it was all worth it. Publishing your debut novel can be terrifying enough, let alone trying to do it all alone. Making friends in the publishing business has made all the difference in the world. And now, Title 13, the thing I suffered, sweat, bled, and lost some of my eyesight over, is finally out there in the world. It’s a reality.

All that being said, you might ask: Do I ever still wish that I were a recluse novelist like my hero authors of old? Do I still envy the likes of Cormac McCarthy, sitting out there in the New Mexico desert somewhere, typing up his latest masterpiece on a dusty, aging typewriter in his self-made “no country for old men”? The answer is sure—who wouldn’t want that at times? But when that happens, all I need to do is close my laptop, shut the curtains, and lay down in the dark for a bit with my dog.

I’m convinced that we are all split personalities—the dark and the light. I centered Title 13 around this concept. At different points in our lives, depending on our circumstances, one side gets the better of the other. Will I remain this socially-connected forever? Probably not. Is there a chance that I, like anyone else, might slip back into isolation? Of course. It’s only realistic to realize that we are complicated beings always being pulled by the cosmic whims of an absurd universe. Still, while I’m here, let’s stay connected and get to work, friends.

Michael A. Ferro’s debut novel, Title 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions in February. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Stories for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, he has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest. He currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Click here to visit his website.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic insights from a first time novelist emerging from the solitary cave of obsessed writing. Thanks!