Each writer at the Belize workshop was offered the opportunity for a private one-on-one consultation with Terry McMillan. I was terrified. She is a very direct and candid person. She held strong opinions on writing and on writers and I knew that my meeting with her would be my moment of truth. When I entered her bungalow that stifling hot afternoon, she was holding my story in her hand. It was an overly ambitious piece about my parents' divorce. It was the second story I had completed and Terry had a grave look on her face. When she shook her head at me, I thought I was done. But she said to me something I will never forget, she said: you're a great fucking writer.
I left her bungalow in shock. I took my notebook out into the forest and wrote the first line of what would become a short story about the boy in the photograph. It was called The Serpent Box and the Poison Jar. In that moment, in the high forest of Belize, I saw that boy - my boy. I saw his hand reaching out, reaching up. I saw him doing something, going someplace. Jacob Flint and I were going where we had dared not go before. I wrote one line and literally found the door into the story of the boy in the photograph.
I submitted the completed story to an obscure New York City literary magazine called Literal Latte and won their 2000 fiction award. I was stunned. My third story won a prize. I was published, and saw my name in the back of Poet's & Writers. Apparently I was not the only one. I soon received a letter from an assistant agent at Zachary, Schuster, Harmsworth, who asked to represent me. I signed with them without even knowing who they were. My agent then, Lane Zachary took me under her wing. She's probably the most important person in the story of Serpent Box because she saw the novel before I ever did. I did not want to write a novel. I didn't think I could, but Lane did, and she gently bullied me into writing it.
Lane asked me to write fifty pages. Just fifty. If I could write these pages, she said, she might be able to sell the book. I think we both knew that a no-name writer, without a pedigree, or an MFA, or any formal writing education, was unlikely to get signed with a mere fifty pages. But she must have had faith in me, or perhaps in the story itself, because she did not let up. I doubted my abilities, and I resisted, but something happened that helped me changed my mind. Once again, the forces of the universe came to my rescue. The bottom dropped out of the digital economy. The internet bubble had burst, and in less than a month the tiny start-up studio I co-founded became a casualty of the dotcom crash. The studio was named Jinx.
The San Francisco job market was dead. I had no prospects and, suddenly, time on my hands. So I tackled Lane Zachary's fifty pages. I had no idea what I was doing or how to even begin. But Lane gave me courage. If somebody with her experience believed I should write this book, then who was I to say I couldn't? I barely knew how to write a story, let alone a novel. I had no outline, no character profiles. No idea. No ideas. It was as if they put me on the Manhattan Project and told me to design the bomb. The quantum physics of writing was a mystery to me. I had no process or routine, but by reading the letters of John Steinbeck, Hemingway and Rilke, by reading Rumi every day, and Walt Whitman, I began to create one for myself.
I wrote the first fifty pages of Serpent Box thinking the book would come in around two hundred pages total. Those first pages were surprisingly good. The story came alive and gained momentum. The boy I saw in the photograph was no longer that boy. He was my boy. Jacob Flint. He became, a person with volition. I did not so much write Jacob's story as record it. I watched him do things and I wrote what I saw. I soon had my fifty pages, but all was not well.
Things began to go bad for me at home. My lack of income was a problem. I had to sell my car. I had to take on freelance work. I also had to be a father to two children because another baby had arrived. I now had two real daughters and this one fictional son. My marriage was suffering. My friends and family began to openly question my sanity. Several had privately urged my wife to consider divorce. And Lane was asking me for more pages. I kept going by remembering the little boy in the photograph, by remembering that I was writing about faith. Jacob Flint and I were on parallel paths. We were on a journey together, both of us trying to discover what we truly believed in.
I wrote the first draft of Serpent Box in fifty page chunks, delivering each new draft to Lane Zachary. After each batch of pages she'd tell me it wasn't enough. By the time I finished, my little story about a Tennessee boy in search of his faith was six-hundred pages. I cut it down to just over four-hundred and asked Lane to send the book out. By the summer of 2003, The Serpent Box and the Poison Jar had been shopped and rejected at seven houses.
Lane assured me that we had only just begun and that, after I made revisions, she'd send the book out for another round of reviews. She seemed optimistic, but I was beyond distraught. The fact that I expected rejections did not lessen their sting, despite the positive feedback I received. The book lacked something. Perhaps several somethings. But I could not see it. I was too close to it and too emotional. I needed help. I needed another angel, but Lane was busy with other projects and I sensed that she needed distance from the book. I needed distance too. Not just from the book, but from my life as I knew it. Again, the universe intervened.
My wife was, at the time, the sole provider, so when she was asked to transfer to her home office in Maryland, we sold our house, packed up the kids and the animals and moved east. It would take me a year to understand why such a move would prove critical to the story of the book.
Lane's Zachary's interest had clearly cooled and the feedback I had gotten was, in my mind, vague and somewhat unfounded. I knew in my heart the book needed a major revision. So I called upon the one man who had been my closest advisor throughout the entire process, a man I have not mentioned until now because only now did I come to realize how important he was to my development as a writer.
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