Monday, April 20, 2020

My First Time: Philip Cioffari

My First Time: A Long Time Coming

I’d waited many, many years before it happened—what I like to call, to borrow a term from baseball, a triple play. Mine was the literary/dramatic version. The year was 2005.

It’s easy now that my fifth novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, is being published to forget or minimize the time and effort it took me to get here. As I’ve said, prior to the “triple play” I want to tell you about, I’d been writing a long time.

Upon completion of my doctorate in English, I began writing full time—that is, four to five hours a day, every day. It took me six years and many rejections before my first story was accepted by the Northwest Review, a literary journal published by the University of Oregon. I remember thinking, naively, that my literary career had finally begun, that my stories would be accepted on a regular basis from then on: no more rejections. How wrong I was. It took many rejections and another two years before my next story was accepted, this time by the Michigan Quarterly Review.

It’s probably safe to say that writers—artists, in general—are never satisfied. Though I went on to publish many stories over the years in both commercial magazines and literary journals, my true goal was to have a novel published. The novel, for as far back as I can remember, was what I considered to be the ultimate artistic achievement. It was the form I read in childhood and adolescence; and during college and graduate school my love for the genre blossomed into undying love. I loved the weight of the novel, the feel of it, the graceful arc of its structure and, of course—what all readers love—the way it creates for us another world that embraces us till the final page.

I don’t know how many “failed” novels I wrote over the years—at least a half dozen, I’m sure—and as time went on I began to consider the possibility that I might go through my entire life without realizing my goal. That possibility grew with each passing year.

In the meantime, I was doing all the things I believed a writer should do to improve his craft. I read as many novels as I could, re-reading my favorites again and again. I continued to write every day, I wrote and re-wrote the novels I was working on. I took evening classes in writing at the New School. I attended conferences and workshops, seeking all the feedback on my work that I could get.

At one of those conferences, the AWP Conference in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, I was drifting through the book publisher’s section when, from across the room, I spotted a man fronting the booth for Livingston Press. He had a dark beard and wore a black jacket, black shirt and pants, black boots. His black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His outfit and demeanor reminded me of Johnny Cash.

In one of those rare occurrences in a lifetime, I said to myself: that man is going to like my work. Believe me, I am not a person full of self-confidence, but for some reason I felt a moment of certainty in that room of book stalls.

So I approached him, asked him about the press, fingered several of the books on display. I was impressed by the books themselves and their cover designs. I asked him if I could send him some work and he said, “Yes, send me some stories.” Which I did. He wrote back to suggest I enter the nation-wide story collection competition the press ran each year. So I put some stories together and entered that year’s contest. By some stroke of good fortune, I managed to place second. No publication, but he encouraged me to apply again the following year. I re-assembled the collection, removing stories he seemed lukewarm about, replacing them with what I hoped were stronger pieces and that second time around I won the competition.

Thus, the first step of my triple play.

While all this was going on, I had two other projects I was simultaneously working on. One was a movie script I had been developing, and the other was a novel I was putting together using some of my stories as a stepping stone. Actually, the novel had been in progress for nearly ten years; I was at this point on my 20th draft.

A TV producer friend of mine read my script and suggested I direct the movie myself. At first I resisted, never having done a film before, but second only to getting a novel published was my goal of making a full-length feature film. So against all odds I forged ahead, put together a cast, a crew, and scouted locations.

In the midst of all this, I managed to complete a 21st draft of my novel, Catholic Boys. On a whim, to help fend off the discouragement I was feeling at the difficulty of making a movie, I sent it off to Joe Taylor, he of the Johnny Cash outfit, at Livingston Press. Within several weeks I heard back: he was accepting it for publication.

Step two.

The final step occurred when, having completed the filming and editing of the movie—Love in the Age of Dion—it went on to win (the first of several awards) Best Feature Film at the Long Island International Film Festival.

All of this occurred, after a lifetime of waiting, in the year 2005.

I mention all this to reinforce some age-old truisms. Perseverance does pay off. Just when things seem hopeless, hope—as if by wizardry—magically returns. As Woody Allen and others have said, ninety-nine percent of success is simply showing up. Show up often enough and who knows what might happen. Sometimes the most unlikeliest of things.

Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreak BluesCatholic Boys, Dark Road, Dead End, Jesusville, The Bronx Kill, and the story collection A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film, Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Film & Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. 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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Author photo by Ken Haas

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