On a quiet Christmas Eve in 1998, I was working as a contract senior editor; my job was putting together the daily transcripts for National Public Radio. That day, a rerun interview of poet Wendell Berry 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 River 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, seven 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 mashed potatoes into a giant tower to the utter bewilderment of his family.
In 2002, I was chugging along on The Prodigal, and decided, on a lark, to submit a query letter to a senior editor of fiction at one of the nation’s largest publishers. Note: major publishers, as a rule, ignore unsolicited query letters from unrepresented writers. 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 bowled over when the publisher asked me to submit my manuscript. I was even more floored when, not only did the publisher read the entire manuscript, it offered me suggestions with an invitation to resubmit in the following months. (Note: at the time, a coherent, 400-page version of the book existed. The reference above to 4,500 pages includes multitude scenes that never made the cut.)
I wore the letters off my keyboard editing the manuscript. After resubmitting, I received a reply that the publisher was simply perplexed. It had never heard of anything like this book, had never read anything like it. The novel (if that’s what one calls it) was good, the publisher very much liked it. That said, the publisher was quite certain the book would find success with a smaller house. Because I did not have any previously published stories or novels to my name, the publisher had decided to take a pass.
That experience might seem like a very depressing tale (in some ways it was), but if you know anything about the publishing industry, it was a triumph, of sorts.
From there, I continued working on the manuscript, submitting it to various publishers and literary agents to no avail, and also spent five years writing a screenplay about the Holocaust that was nearly produced by two Oscar-winning directors, 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 decade, I published hundreds of articles, sometimes under pseudonyms, for a number of local and national newspapers and websites—for free, provided I could write whatever I wanted and had final-say on suggested edits. (It didn’t hurt that I was also a professional editor. There are lots of writers who can’t edit, lots of editors who can’t write. There’s nothing a publisher loves more than a writer who can edit.)
Huzzah! Over the next seven years, I was read by millions of people in all but a handful of countries. And I published eight books. Although my wallet had little to show for it, I was happy. Few writers have the freedom to publish what they want to say, precisely how they want to say it, while reaching major audiences. (I recall Nick Tosches dealing with this subject at length in his masterful novel—get this—In the Hand of Dante.)
Eventually, these writing opportunities dried up. Most of the newspapers and websites I wrote for went belly-up. And so I faced a new chapter in my writing life—which returned me full circle (or bolgia, as it were) to my 4,500-page behemoth “reshaping” of Dante’s epic work. Obviously, I’ve reduced the page count considerably. Given that 2020 has been such a hell-on-earth year, the timing seemed apt for a newish Inferno.
I should also take a moment to mention that Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy in 1320. Happy 700th Birthday!
For years, when people asked me what my novel was about, I replied, “It’s the story of a priest who becomes a porn star.”
Really, though, for me, The Prodigal is about the problem of evil. It took me all those thousands of hours at the keyboard to work out that the problem of evil is memory: “We simply forget what we are capable of, until it is too late.”
As author and narrator wrestle between the lines and around the margins for control of the work, the nation’s capital reveals itself to be every bit a superb contender for Inferno. Its street vendors, adult entertainment spots, bookstores, subway system, and even the Smithsonian museums themselves reveal all that is outrageous and tragic, and perhaps even a bit diabolical, about humanity as it slips on banana peels into the third millennium.
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. Finally, the Problem of Evil itself is revealed deep within the bowels of the nation’s capital.
The Prodigal was written over the course of more than two decades. It takes place the day after the vernal equinox in 1998. Its publication coincides with the 700-year anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s completion of The Divine Comedy.