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At my stage of life, it’s best not to wish for your days to slide by any more quickly than they will anyway. Still, I’d be lying if I denied that I’m eagerly awaiting September’s approach and my trip to the East of Eden Writers Conference in Salinas, California.
I’ll be presenting a workshop called “When to Self-Publish,” a subject I’m particularly interested in, as that’s how the original iteration of 600 Hours of Edward came into being. In the year since I set up my book with CreateSpace in a pique of naivete and started flogging it, the publishing landscape has shifted dramatically. Those who wish to go direct to market have more choices than ever, more access to distribution channels than ever and more competition than ever. Enterprising independent publishers are forming their own imprints, banding into collectives and, in impressive numbers, challenging the assumption that all self-published novels are irredeemable dreck. (Now, let’s be honest: Many are, for reasons that are easy enough to figure out. But what excuse do the big publishing houses have for their own trash?)
In other words, something is afoot. When established authors like J.A. Konrath realize that self-publishing their out-of-print backlist makes more financial sense (and cents) than some of their in-print titles, it’s hard to dismiss self-publishing as some passing affliction on the book world. When folks like Lisa Genova and Dan Suarez ride self-publishing to big-time deals with major publishers, it’s hard to dismiss it as a dead end.
My own experience with self-publishing will provide plenty of how-not-to fodder, which is valuable, too, in its own way. So, be warned, Cheryl Anne Gardner and Zoe Winters and Henry Baum and R.J. Keller: In the coming months, as I prepare my workshop, I’ll be knocking on your door for advice.
So, about Salinas …
I lived there once, for 12 months in 2000-2001. I moved back to California after my crazy 10 months away, when I pingponged from San Jose to San Antonio to Olympia, and had the misfortune of trying to squeeze into the Bay Area when rental capacity was something like 99.7 percent and the only place I could find was a shithole in Hayward at $1,400 a month.
So I looked south to Steinbeck country. For a solid year, five days a week, I drove the 60 miles to San Jose for my night shift on the Mercury News sports desk. (In a stark display of just how battered all sectors of publishing have become, the Mercury News no longer has a dedicated sports desk.) At 1 a.m., I headed home down the 101, through the garlic haze of Gilroy, skirting San Juan Bautista (this is your hint to (re)acquaint yourself, right now, with Vertigo), along one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state (every day, on the way to San Jose, I’d pass a sign on private property warning motorists of “Blood Alley”).
I put a ton of miles on my Nissan Altima and ceded a ton of hours to my commute, but oddly enough, I didn’t mind. It’s such a gorgeous drive, for one thing, and for another, I always traveled during non-peak hours. I had a lot of time to think and to wear out my car’s CD player.
In my off-time, living in Salinas was, at best, a mixed bag. I grew up revering Steinbeck, and so I was enchanted with the opportunity to go to the National Steinbeck Center any time I wanted (Rocinante is there! Rocinante!), eat at Sangs Cafe, visit the Steinbeck house, sneak off to Monterey and Pacific Grove, where he spent so much time. The black earth and the vast fields of lettuce that are evoked so beautifully in Steinbeck’s writing are still there, and are every bit as awe-inspiring as you would imagine.
But Salinas is not the town it was in Steinbeck’s time. And while it might be unfair to expect it, or any other place, to hold to such a standard decades after the fact, the truth is, I yearned for San Jose. So when the dotcom bubble burst and rentals tumbled in my direction in availability and affordability, I moved along. The subsequent few years were some of the most remarkable of my life, and though I’ve found my best home yet in Montana, I miss California something fierce some days.
It will be good to see it again.
I turned 40 today. I don’t want to give that number more sway over me than it deserves. Yes, it’s a big, fat, round number. Yes, it’s a milestone. No, I’m not any different than I was 24 hours ago, when I still resided in my 30s.
But let’s face it: If you’re a contemplative sort — and underneath the fart jokes and the NFL mania, I am — big, fat, round numbers prompt some assessing of the road traveled and the bend ahead. With some luck and clean living, maybe there’s another 40 inside me, waiting to get out. Maybe. But those steps are uncertain and largely hidden, and frankly, I don’t want to traverse them any faster than I have to. There’s a lesson in the first 40 years: I took them too quickly and didn’t appreciate the moments of grace and beauty as much as I should have.
I’ve been thinking a lot this morning about the things we want and the things we strive for, and how sometimes we get them — just not always in the way we imagined. When I was 17, my family took a two-week trip to Yellowstone. I sat in the back seat, with my younger brother and sister, listening to cassettes (Rush’s “Moving Pictures” was on heavy rotation) and inhaling Hemingway. In Cooke City, I met an old woman who knew Hemingway, and I gazed at the mountains and imagined that someday I would be a novelist, living in Montana and pursuing my art.
I got the novel, and I got Montana. The cabin in the mountains will have to wait.
When I was 18, I dreamed of being a big-city newspaper reporter. In November of that year, my first front-page story appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
When I was 19, I fell in love for the first time. I highly recommend it.
When I was 20, I lost love for the first time. Strangely enough, I highly recommend that, too.
When I was 21, I left my home state. I moved to Kenai, Alaska, more than 4,000 miles away. The loneliness, at times, crushed me. I also met some of the best friends I’ve ever had. That, too, I recommend.
When I was 22, I returned to Texas and took a job I hated. A good lesson there: Don’t mess with happy.
When I was 23, I moved to Owensboro, Kentucky, and went to work with a wonderful group of people, all within a few years of my age. Never have I had so much fun at a job. So, to Lovett, Heen, the Toddler, Cindy, Noelle, Kristin, et. al.: Thank you for a wonderful time in my life.
When I was 24, I moved to Dayton, Ohio, for another job I hated. A good lesson, repeated: Don’t mess with happy.
On the day I turned 25, I received a job offer from the Anchorage Daily News. I took it, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. I turned 26, 27 and 28 in Anchorage, and I grew up. Some.
When I was 26, I met my birthmother for the first time. It’s been an amazing, odd, frustrating, wonderful relationship. I wouldn’t trade it.
When I was 28, I moved to California for a job that intimidated me. It’s hard to think of this now that the economy and Dean Singleton have laid waste to the San Jose Mercury News, but in 1998, it was one of the finest newspapers in the country. I joined a staff full of some of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and I wasn’t at all sure I was up to snuff. It turned out that I was.
When I was 30, I left the Mercury News and returned to Texas one last time. I took a job in San Antonio and bought a big house with a pool. But it didn’t take, which, I suppose, was mostly my fault. By August, I was in Olympia, Washington, and that didn’t take any better. By November, I was back in San Jose, where I belonged. My three-times-the-fool lesson: Don’t mess with happy.
In San Jose, my 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th birthdays clicked by. I held several positions: Sunday sports editor, assistant sports editor, Raiders beat writer, deputy sports editor, and finally, in October 2004, sports editor. People came and went, and the newspaper’s fortunes pretty much went, but it was still a great time in my life. So, to JR, Amy, Rachel, Brownie, Brucie, Bud, Darryl, Teeb, the Rook, Will, Richard, Smitty, Wilner, Timmy K, Purd, Killer, Darren, Sumi, Pam, Pinky, Gary and so many others, thank you.
When I was 36, I met the love of my life, and I came to Montana to be with her. I couldn’t possibly recommend anything more highly.
When I was 37, I got married and we bought a house. Also highly recommended.
When I was 38, I crashed a motorcycle and nearly ended everything way too soon. I do not recommend this at all.
When I was 39, I published my first novel. Those dreams I had at 17 started coming around.
And now, here I am at 40, wondering what’s next. You’ll notice that the most important things have happened in the past few years. That’s a trend I’d like to see stick around awhile. So come on 41 … but not too quickly.
I’m not gonna mess with happy.
If you happen to be in the vicinity of Columbus, Montana, tomorrow — and I should point out that in the context of Montana, “vicinity” means “roughly 300 miles in any direction” — please drop by the Stillwater County Library from 4 to 6 p.m. I’ll be chatting up the Friends of the Library and other patrons about 600 Hours of Edward, autism, publishing, Tony Romo‘s role in literature and anything else folks want to talk about. It’ll be a good time. (I’m just kidding about the Tony Romo part, although the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is a fixture in Edward’s world.)
That’s the launch of what’s shaping up to be a busy couple of months for me and the book. Three weeks later, on Feb. 25, I’ll be joining with my friends at Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids to present a session on autism and the way that reality intersects with art in my book. My good friend Connie VonBergen will talk about her experiences as the mother of an autistic child, I’ll chat about the underpinnings for Edward (an Aspergian) and how the character was drawn. That event runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mary Alice Fortin Center at Billings Clinic, Rooms B and D. It’s free and open to the public.
Then comes March …
I’ve lived in Montana for nearly four years now, and can you believe that I haven’t traveled to Missoula since I got here? (I have been there several times in the semi-distant past.) Anyway, that will change next month, when I have three events lined up in Missoula and the “vicinity”:
- On Thursday, March 18, I’ll be at the Ronan City Library for a chat with the Friends of the Library group there. The address is 203 Main Street SW, and the event begins at 7 p.m.
- On Friday, March 19, I’ll be at Fact & Fiction, 220 North Higgins in Missoula, for a reading/signing. That runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- On Saturday, March 20, I’ll be at the Chapter One bookstore in Hamilton, 252 W. Main Street, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a signing.
Then it’s back home. But the following weekend, Saturday, March 27, I’ll be back at it, with a signing and perhaps a reading at Red Lodge Books, 16 N. Broadway, from 3 to 6 p.m.
It’s safe to say that I’m looking forward to each and every one of these events. Please join me.