Monday, July 21, 2014

The Story of a Book

Wa-a-ay back in the late '90s, when I was in my third semester of the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College (now Vermont College of Fine Arts), I'd been assigned the wonderful Graham "Sandy" Salisbury as my advisor and I needed a project.  One of my favorite books was (and still is) Sandy's beautiful Blue Skin of The Sea--besides the stories themselves, and the gorgeous writing, I was intrigued by the way he wrote the book:  a novel made up of short stories that could also stand alone.  

"Do you think I could do something like that?" I asked Sandy.

"Sure," he replied. 

And so the project was begun.  The  format I came up with was a bit different from what Sandy had done--rather than a story arc that would begin with the first story and end with the last, I decided on a sequence of stories with a common link.  That link was a stone house, a kind found almost exclusively in western and central New York, called a cobblestone house.  This one belongs to a friend of mine from high school and his wife.

 The round or egg-shaped stones on this kind of house are a veneer applied to a rubble wall, and they came either from fields that had been cleared for farming, or from the shore of Lake Ontario, where they'd been rounded by wave action.  The folks who built these houses were artists.  I could write a whole blog post about cobblestone houses.  But that's for another day.

I created a small town on the Erie Canal, inspired by the town of Lockport, where I grew up.  It took many, many tries to come up with a name for this place that wasn't a real one, but I finally hit on one I liked:  Port Rose.  The first story takes place in 1833, eight years after the canal opened, and is about a widower and his two daughters coming out to what was then the western frontier, and about how they acquired the house.  Each story after that comes forward about a generation, and the main character is a young person who lives in that house.  Eight stories, 164 years.

This book's gestation period was long--almost nine years--because, up until the story set during the Great Depression, most of my research was done in the local history room of the Lockport Public Library, and I only got back to Lockport once or twice a year.  But oh, the wonderful things I found there.  The city's newspapers are all on microfilm, back to the late 1800s.  I was able to read first-hand accounts of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, where President McKinley was shot, and day by day reports of his condition and finally, his death.  I read recountings by people who had come out here in the early days, of what it was like on the frontier, and about how the town grew.  There were gazetteers showing the city's businesses from year to year, and maps showing how the city grew.  

Much of the research for the later stories was done online--about the Great Depression, about the launch of Sputnik (do you know what television show debuted that same night?), and about the Blizzard of 1977.  I emailed experts with questions, and they were all so generous with their time and information.  I think I had more fun writing this book than any other I've written.

When it was finished, and revised, and revised again, it was sent out and, unfortunately, editors' responses were not as eager as I'd hoped.  Two that I'd worked with said almost the exact same thing:  "This is fascinating.  It's beautifully written.  And we wouldn't be able to sell enough copies to make it worth our while."  According to publishers, nobody wants short stories for upper-elementary-aged kids--which is strange, since teachers and librarians tell me they not only want them, they need them.  Go figure.   After a while, my agent told me he wasn't going to be able to sell this book, and it got put into a drawer.

Several years later, I mentioned on Facebook that I had this book, and I knew there was at least a regional market for it.  (I'd approached some regional presses about it, but they all said they didn't do children's books.)  A wise, much-published friend said he had tried doing a couple of books on Amazon's Create Space, just as an experiment, and suggested I give that a try.  I thought about this for a while and, despite the fact that I've railed against self-publishing for most of my career, I decided "what the heck."  I did have it professionally edited, and I did have a lovely cover done (and that's a whole story in itself).  I didn't like the templates Create Space provided, but it turns out you can find almost anything with Google--I was able to find out the margin settings for the size book I wanted to do, and then it was just a question of putting it all together.  And proofreading.  And proofreading again.

So, now it's a book--a book that will have its official launch this Thursday.  Will I ever see the money I invested in its creation?  Who knows?  A few people who have already read it have liked it, and they're picky readers.  I hope it will find an audience.  Would I go the Create Space route again?  I honestly don't know.  But I'm glad I did it with this book.

 Next time:  the cover story.