New fiction from David Daniel.
By David Daniel
A panel of writers, editors, and agents were talking on the radio about how publishing has changed, taken over by Amazon and e-books and POD, literary agents running scared, good books and bad glutting the market, most with nary a ripple of notice, the old gatekeepers gone . . . the slopes and sloughs of the democratization of the printed word.
I found myself thinking back years, to my first few books and how, through a sequence of events I couldn’t possibly have foreseen, I became a bestselling author before I turned twenty-five.
This wasn’t due to rare talent or inspired marketing. No, what brought it about was a strange magic. Windows, you might say. But not the Microsoft kind, as you’ll see.
A senior editor at a big New York publishing house bought my first book. Cecilia was old school and, at nearly eighty, something of a legend in the trade. And of all the offices in Manhattan, no one had a sweeter one than she did. It was on the 22nd floor of the iconic Flatiron Building, where it comes together like the prow of a sailing ship pushing into the seas at Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Her office had a pie-wedge shape, windows on both angled sides, and on my occasional trips to NYC I loved to sit there and listen to her stories and hear the panes rattling in the cross breezes. In my twenty-something mind they sounded like the very winds of literary weather.
Cecilia would take me to lunch and to book launch parties and introduce me to other writers and people in the literary world. Young in spirit, she would bum a cigarette from someone, and she still liked the icicle-cold spike of a gin martini. I was strictly a beer man from the ’burbs of Boston then, but no matter: She considered me one of her small flock, which I was happy to be. This included several big established names, plus a trio of newbies, namely a middle-aged author of historical romance; a dude my age, who was one of the creators of the cyber punk genre; and me. The latter three of us having come into Cecilia’s stable around the same time, we became something close to friends.
One day I got a phone call from Simone Dalton, the historical romance writer. “I’m going over the page proofs of my new book, David,” she said. She had a rich, husky voice, like the heroine of one of her Regency novels. “I’ve found several pages I didn’t write. I think might be yours.”
“Don’t you have a book in production?”
I did: a new entry in a mystery series I’d begun. I said I’d have a look, and I did find several pages missing—and in their place were pages by Chet Lee, the cyber punk guy. I phoned him and he discovered some of Simone’s pages in the galleys of his book. We three talked and got it sorted out.
Or so we thought.
When the books actually appeared that spring, there were some other mixed pages that had not been there before. We agreed we’d speak with Cecilia. But before we could connect with her, all three novels started bumping their heads on the lower rungs of the Publisher’s Weekly Top 100 sellers list. We shut up.
The page proofs for our next round of books were even more scrambled, with sections of each others’ prose mixed in. Damn, I thought in frustration; though when I re-read the books, they made a kind of random good sense. Again, we said nothing. This time, to our collective astonishment, the books broke into the coveted New York Times list. Simone’s was 10, mine was 9, and Chet’s reached 6!
We swore an oath of deep silence, and we each wrote our own books, sent them off to Cecilia and trusted in her practical wisdom—and whatever imps or angels were at work there on the 22nd floor of the Flatiron.
Our third round of books did better still. My Chin Music hit the number 3 spot (ahead of Tom Clancy), followed by Chet’s Titanium Sun at 5 and Simone’s Lust among the Temple Ruins at 8, right behind Danielle Steele.
We were delirious with excitement; and flush with a spurt of royalty money. We were on our way to the top.
And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over.
Nothing else I—or any of us—wrote after that ever came within hailing distance of a bestseller list again (unless you consider #1461 on Amazon Crime Novels a metric of note, and that was only for about an hour, apparently). But I still write. Most mornings you’ll find me at my desk, starting, pausing, starting again, for it’s by such labor that any story ever takes form.
Simone gave up writing after she met online a woman who was serving a term at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. They were married in the prison chapel. Her spouse will be eligible for parole in a couple years.
Chet Lee’s is a sadder story. After a few more books, which were well reviewed but didn’t approach his earlier sales, he dropped out and wandered off to Bali. He lived there on the beach, surfing, and then, according to a local report, climbed the cone of a nine-thousand-foot active volcano and leapt in.
Rocked at hearing this, I felt a need to discover what had happened, and while I don’t believe our sales drop-off was directly to blame, I wonder if it was factor. I wonder if his mind, immersed as it so often was in conceiving things that the rest of us can’t even begin to imagine, took him too far. I remember one time at a literary cocktail party where he stood apart, socially uneasy. I went over to talk to him. I picture him pulling nervously at his pony tail and telling me he sometimes felt as alone as a man consigned to a chunk of space rock, doomed to orbit forever beyond the warming rays of some sun. I told him that as writers we all walked alone, and that the dynamic tension created by that and our desire for connectedness was . . .
Ah, that was probably just my seeing it through rose-tinted glasses, which I’ve had a tendency toward all my life. In truth, the shelf life of a published writer is a lot shorter than you might imagine. Sure, you can point to the Steeles and the Kings, but of all those people who will publish a book this year (not counting self-publish), only about fourteen percent will ever publish another.
Still, I felt a need to discover what had happened to cause our precipitous rise to literary heights and then our fall.
By then Cecilia had smoked her last cigarette and sipped her last martini, may she rest in peace. On a visit to NYC, where I still go once a year, I went to Cecelia’s former office. Her successor—my now editor—is a young man of thirty who is unfailingly kind to me and supportive of the hardboiled mysteries I continue to submit (though it’s plain he has little taste for the genre). He is partial instead to formalist poetry; but he’s a fine editor and sympathetic to my declining sales. “It happens, Dave,” he consoles me. “Even the biggest names see a fall-off if they live long enough.”
I’m okay with that because writing is its own reward, driven by some senseless necessity. But I was seeking something more tangible when I visited him on a blustery day last March. As I sat in his office (formerly Cecilia’s), a wind gusted, and in that small pie wedge of the Flatiron I felt the building tremble slightly as it always had. But there was no rattling of panes, no puff of air in the office. Of course not; energy-efficient windows had replaced the old ones.
Suddenly, I remembered the first day I had sat there with Cecilia, and a wind blowing across that angle of the building had shuddered the glass, eddied through the office, and fluttered pages off piles of manuscript on her desk. She made a joke about two old relics hanging on—linking herself with the venerable architectural landmark (and allowing me to feel okay about being just twenty-three and green as country corn)—and then she cheerfully picked up the pages and put them back onto piles.
That city wind blew the way, I imagine, over the next several years, at night perhaps, it would blow and swirl the pages and inadvertently shuffle them together in a random mingling of pages that actually—don’t ask me how—improved each book. Crazy, right? On discovering this and recognizing myself as the lucky beneficiary of a strange magic, I did the only thing a writer can do.
I’ve kept on writing.