This is worth your read all the way through. But the giant hippo should have been a clue, as to that. 🙂
On a quiet Christmas Eve in 1997, I was working as a senior editor for National Public Radio. That day, a rerun interview of famed poet Wendell Berry was aired on “Fresh Air.” Terry Gross posed the following question: “What advice would you give to a young writer?” Berry responded that a young writer should find a window with a wonderful view, and, simply, write.
I was living in the Maryland countryside, and when I arrived home that evening, I considered that the view of the Potomac outside my window was the stuff of a Thomas Moran painting. So I pulled my desk near the window and began rewriting “The Divine Comedy” with the following sentence:
“But what about my dead cat?”
For the next ten years, I sat at my desk, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, writing no fewer than four hours per day. When I was finished, I had 4,500 pages of manuscript piled next to my desk. It was titled, “The Prodigal: a divine comedy, of sorts.”
I somehow felt akin to Richard Dreyfuss’ character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—that scene where Dreyfuss begins piling his mashed potatoes into a giant tower to the utter bewilderment of his family.
If you know anything about the publishing industry, the following tale will rip your guts out. Or, at least, it tore mine up a bit.
In 2002, I was chugging along on “The Prodigal,” and decided, on a lark, to submit a query letter to Lee Boudreaux, then senior editor of fiction at Random House. (Note: major publishers DO NOT pay attention to unrepresented writers, let alone to query letters sent from out of the blue.) But it was, if I do say, a perfect query letter; my favorite line was:
“One literary agent I sent ‘The Prodigal’ to responded that she knew I wouldn’t have any trouble getting it published, but she personally didn’t represent ‘such books.’ I think this was her way of saying her toilet was so clean you could cook paella in it.”
I was agog when Random House actually asked me to submit the manuscript. I was even more floored when, not only did Random House read the entire manuscript, RH offered me suggestions with an invitation to resubmit in the following months. Folks, this just doesn’t happen.
Well, of course I wore the letters off my keyboard editing the manuscript. After resubmitting, I received a reply that the publisher was simply perplexed. RH had never heard of anything like it, had never read anything like it, but they very much liked it. They were quite certain it would find success with a smaller publisher. Because I did not have any previously published stories or novels to my name, RH had decided to take a pass.
That experience with Random House might seem like a very depressing tale (in some ways it was), but, again, if you know anything about the publishing industry, it was actually a triumph, of sorts.
From there, I continued working on the manuscript (and submitting it to no avail), and also spent five years writing a screenplay that—you’re not going to believe this—was nearly produced by Oscar winners Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack.
Missed it by that much! After this second near-brush with major success, I called it a day, of sorts. I had spent 15 years writing my arse off. I didn’t think I could survive another publishing/producing gut punch anytime soon.
So I took a different tack. I decided to be the captain of my own writing vessel. For the next 10 years, I published hundreds of articles, sometimes under pseudonyms, for a number of local and national newspapers and websites—provided I could write whatever I wanted and had final-say on all edits. (It didn’t hurt that I had worked as a professional editor for years.)
Huzzah! By the end of ten years, I had been read by millions of people in all but three countries of the world. I had also somehow managed to publish 8 books. (Take a peak over at VikingWord Books for sale.) And although my wallet has little to show for it, I couldn’t be happier as a writer.
Very few writers have the freedom to publish what they want to say, precisely how they want to say it, while reaching major audiences along the way.
But those writing opportunities are now behind me. Most of the newspapers and websites have gone belly-up. And so I face a new chapter in my writing life—which brings me back to the 4,500-page behemoth “reshaping” of “The Divine Comedy.”
To be honest, “The Prodigal” is down to about 600 pages. By the time I launch this lexical bottle rocket sometime later this summer, it’ll be down to about 500 pages, maybe 450.
Folks, it’s coming. No one has ever tried anything like this. As my original query letter to Random House stated:
“I’ve spent years of my life reinventing ‘The Divine Comedy.’ My novel resembles a fictional Prometheus composed of Umberto Eco’s head, Ignatius Reilly’s body and Philip Roth’s libido. I usually tell folks it’s a bit of an encyclopedic labyrinth of history, philosophy and religion. Then to get them interested, I add: ‘Oh, and there’s lots of T&A.’ I suppose a lot of writers think their book is unique, but I really don’t think anything like ‘The Prodigal’ has come along since the bygone days of Rabelais.”
Anyway, here’s the initial draft description on the back cover; I’ll probably tighten it up a bit before publication, but I wanted to share it now. Meanwhile, keep on the lookout for lurking literary hippos.
About “The Prodigal”: This contemporary reshaping of “The Divine Comedy” follows the misadventures of a down-on-his-luck, soon-to-be-divorced theologian, Dante Peccato, during one helluva vernal equinox. While attempting to escape Washington DC and track down a long-lost love, our hapless academic suffers and sidesteps a great cloud of madcap characters, including the man with the red horns himself—who may or may not bear an uncanny resemblance to Maurice Chevalier.
Along the way, author, narrator and Bob the Muse wrest for control of the work, which culminates in a remarkable discovery within the bowels of the nation’s capital. Also, readers will enjoy a choose-your-own-lexical-labyrinth section, a valiant German shepherd, a cat that won’t stop dying, and something astonishingly sesquipedalian.
Buckle up! You’re in for an infernal roller coaster read.