“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston S. Churchill
Becoming a published novelist is a story of blind luck and perseverance—of never losing a childhood dream, even when life seems to steer you into a different direction.
As with many novelists, I began as an avid reader from a young age, starting with a collection of books called My Book House. It was a beautifully produced twelve-volume collection that first introduced me to nursery rhymes, and as I grew older, to fairy tales and eventually Shakespeare. I recall my parents reading me the nurseries as a pre-bedtime ritual, and eventually reading the books on my own as the years started to accumulate. Who would have known that a childhood book would influence the course of my life so deeply—I certainly didn’t.
I was a voracious reader. I fondly recall the moment I entered the hushed, sacred precinct of the Brownsville Children’s Library in Brooklyn where I grew up in the mid 1930’s. I think I cleared the library shelves and read every book of Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Hardy Boys, and Allies Boys. But my most profoundly joyous memory is walking through the crowded, noisy, aroma-filled atmosphere of Sutter Avenue, between rows of pushcarts selling everything edible and wearable, on my way to that vine-covered magic castle of books. It was like crossing a moat from the reality of a contemporary world of struggle and strife, to a paradise of storytelling, which opened infinite possibilities and aspirations in a young boy confronting a strange and scary future.
By the age of fifteen, my love affair with reading inspired my seedling of a dream to become a novelist. After high school, I went to New York University and pursued a degree in English Literature, where I was introduced to the roster of great American novelists, becoming bewitched by the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. My freshman English professor, Dr. Don Wolfe, inspired me and I later went on to study creative writing with him at the New School, along with Mario Puzo and William Styron. Throughout the years I’ve had many careers, but even when I was working a million jobs to make ends meet, I always made time to write and haunt the library — I could not stop doing either.
I didn’t end up publishing my first novel until I was forty-five. Before that I had published some short stories in anthologies, and I had even written several novels over the years, but I never tried publishing those manuscripts; I never preserved them either.
At age forty-five I was running an advertising and public relations agency in Washington, which I had founded, but my true ambition to become a working novelist stayed lit within me. I had finished my manuscript, Options, and it had received the usual rejections that a first novel typically receives.
Then a man walked into my office and changed my life.
The man, John David Garcia, had written a brilliant book titled The Moral Society. He arrived at my office by simply picking my agency name out of the yellow pages. His objective was to find an agency that could help him promote his book published by a small publisher in Philadelphia. I liked John instantly and although I had not read his book I agreed to help him publicize it, a difficult task at best.
When he asked me what our fee would be, I had the eureka moment that would profoundly impact my future. I told him that if he could persuade his small publisher to publish my first novel, that would serve as the fee. He apparently liked the challenge, submitted the book to his publisher and I had a deal. My first novel Options (I later renamed to Undertow) was to be published. No advance was involved but publishing the novel was good enough for me. As they say, the rest is history.
I was ecstatic—I was beyond happy. It was one of the happiest days of my life, a celebration and a vindication. Even though Options had practically no sales, publishing my first novel was a feat—a gateway—a break through into my writing career. It was the acceptance of my second novel by Putnam, a major publisher, that was my real breakthrough.
We all heard this a thousand times before when it comes to our dreams, but it is true: never surrender—never give up. Keep the flame lit. If it’s the real thing it will stay lit. If it’s not it will flame out. I continue to believe that. Of course you must have the self-validation and perseverance that spurs you on, not to mention the element of luck, which remains a mystery.