I met Andrew Wilson in Belize, and shortly thereafter began an almost daily dialog with him via email. He has been, and still is, my biggest supporter and one of my very best friends. Andrew had been my sounding board, my second set of eyes and my surrogate heart since I began writing Serpent Box. During the creation of the first draft I wrote him 165 pages of letters, single spaced. In those letters (an idea I borrowed from the Steinbeck - Covici East of Eden correspondence) I faced the demons that have plagued all writers during their blackest moments of doubt and despair. I used those letters as a canvas to test ideas and plot threads and Andrew, who is a better writer than I will ever be, gave me the love and support I needed to persevere.
It was only natural that I'd turn to him at this stage of the book's development. Andrew knew the story better than I did and more importantly, he understood my philosophy and my intent. He knew I was trying to write a different kind of book, a book whose characters' hearts were reflected in their exterior world. Andrew's unpublished manuscript, then titled The Odor of Sicilian Lemons, was the most inspiring novel I had read in years and its emotional affect lingers with me to this day. Who better to diagnose Serpent Box? Shortly after I settled in Maryland, Andrew and I went to the Maine coast to work on the Serpent Box revisions together.
The result was a major structural change. The new draft flowed better, felt more natural. It breathed. It shifted the focus of the story, centering it squarely on Jacob, the little boy. Armed with renewed confidence, I sent the new revision off to Lane Zachary and waited. Weeks went by before I received a reply. Lane was supportive, but doubtful. She clearly signaled her waning faith in the novel. But I did not see it, or I simply refused to see it. I continued to assure her that I would do whatever it took to fix the book. I was desperate and pathetic. I made another round of revisions, mostly line edits and polish work. By spring of 2004 Lane kindly suggested I find another agent. We parted amicably. But I was crushed.
I had finished the novel but the work of getting it published was only about to begin. I needed an agent now. My first came so easily. I knew the second would not. I was lucky to have Andrew, who had been through the process before. Both he and Adrienne Brodeur gave me some names and I began to send out query letters. Finding agents is not difficult. Finding their email addresses is another matter entirely. Andrew told me about a website however that published the emails of every agent in the business and not only that, it published correspondence between those agents and a writer who clearly did not give a damn about playing the game.
Everyonewhosanyone.com, is a combination online resource for writers looking to get published and a running rebuke of publishing's dark underbelly. Gerard Jones' scathing letters and dogged persistence often revealed the true character of the editors and agents he despises. I gleaned names, emails and glimpses of personalities from him that helped me frame queries. I received thirty-six rejections before connecting with Laura Strachan who was, at the time, also representing Gerard Jones.
In the Fall of 2004 I had found an agent who believed in the book. Laura Strachan promised she'd shop Serpent Box until it was sold. Her conviction paid off. Marie Estrada, an editor at HarperCollins/Perennial, fell in love with the story and with my serpent handling boy, Jacob Flint. In July of 2005 we signed with Harper Collins. I felt as though I had stepped out onto the surface of the moon. It had been six years since I wrote the first line of Jacob's story in Belize. Between that moment and this, everything had changed. I lost my company and abandoned my old career path, had two children, almost lost my wife, moved cross country and wrote a novel about the search for God and the meaning of faith.
More than twenty years ago, sometime while I was still in college, a man carried a camera into the hills of Tennessee. He had a technique for bringing out a certain quality in the faces of his subjects, who were the rural poor. He used an automobile headlight rigged to a car battery to illuminate the faces of a vanishing people. In the glare of one such headlight, on a day that is unrecorded and unremembered, stood a boy without a history and without a name. How is it that a light, reflected off a face and back through the lens of a camera, could travel so far and change a life on the other end thousands of miles away? That, is Serpent Box.
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