By Michael Miner

Success Stories

John Wessel on his early days and the Reader’s:

“I started writing things in the early 70s,” he told me. At the time he was an undergrad at the University of Chicago, and the Reader was based in a Hyde Park apartment. “I had things in the Reader, three or four cover stories, mostly humorous things. You could write pretty much what you wanted.”

He remembers visits from founding father Bob Roth, now president of Chicago Reader, Inc. “He’d haul records over to my house Monday and come back for the copy on Wednesday. That’s how badly he wanted copy. It was the don’t-change-a-word-just-put-it-in-print philosophy of editing. I think he needed copy so bad he didn’t want to cut a sentence. If anything he wanted to add things to fill out the paper.”

Were you paid anything? I asked.

“No, no,” Wessel said. “Free records and free concert tickets to do the reviews. No, there was no money then. He sent me downtown to do a review of a porno movie once, and he ran it on the cover.”

The other day Wessel dug out some of his vinyl critiques. “Most of the record reviews are more about me than they are about the records,” he said. “‘That reminds me of a story…’ I’d start in the middle of the review. That’s probably why I stopped writing for the Reader. I think I’m a terrible journalist.”

John Wessel on his middle years: He worked in the university bookstore and briefly in the book department at Marshall Field’s. “I really wanted to write fiction, but I wasn’t very good at it. So I stopped.”

Through the 70s, the 80s, and into the 90s Wessel worked in bookstores. He and his wife, a hospital administrator, moved back to their hometown of Cincinnati, and as her career advanced he clerked in bookstores. If these broad strokes of a life in progress strike you as gloomy, they struck Wessel that way too. His last job in Cincinnati, in 1992, was at a Barnes & Noble that was getting ready to open. He stuck it out six weeks. “I couldn’t take it. It was a good job–more money than I’d ever made, and it was a management job. But I was really depressed. I just wanted to write.”

He’d reached the point where some lives go down toilets. “I quit that job in such a way that there was no way I could go back. I was at a really low point. Emotionally–I don’t know if you’d call it a nervous breakdown. I was really fed up with what I was doing, really sick. I started seeing a psychiatrist.”

And he started writing a book. “I didn’t have the whole thing in my head. I still don’t have the whole thing in my head.” But he had scenes, places for those scenes in a Chicago he longed to be living in, and an audience he knew how to please. “No one was clamoring for this novel,” Wessel said. “I was just doing it for my own entertainment.” When he was done he’d written a sort of Gen X thriller, a novel suffused with pharmaceuticals, rock and roll, and underemployment. He created a private eye named Harding, a U. of C. grad who did 18 months for manslaughter and now lives over a gyros joint on Broadway. He gave Harding a sidekick named Alison, a tattooed piece of fluff who wears black, does tai chi, and gets migraines. They met at a pain clinic.

The later years: Two years ago a Cincinnati magazine announced a literary contest. Mystery writer Sue Grafton was going to judge it. Wessel pulled out four chapters from the hundred pages he’d written, rewrote them as short stories set in Cincinnati, and sent them in. He won. He met Grafton, who suggested changes, then sent the hundred pages on to her agent, Molly Friedrich. Finish it, Friedrich said.

“The book was auctioned the day that we moved,” Wessel said. This was January 1995, the happy time when he and his wife Susan finally came back to Chicago. “So it was a very crazy day. My wife was in one car with the cats. I was in the other car. I’d pull off and call my agent and ask what the bids were. By the end of the day the bids were down to three. I remember she told me about the Warner bid while I was in this Cracker Barrel restaurant. The pay phone was in the back by the bathrooms and she said, ‘I just turned down a million dollars.’ She said it was slave wages.”

That bid was for three books. Wessel eventually signed with Simon & Schuster, which offered him $900,000 for two. When I heard the figure I assumed some kind of movie deal must figure in. No, said Wessel. “I’ve been told repeatedly the plot is much too confusing. That that’s why it keeps getting shopped around in Hollywood and heads shake over trying to simplify the plot. In fact, the plot has been simplified. My editor will tell you it was worse before.”

Reviews of Wessel’s book, This Far, No Further, should start showing up early this month. They’ll drive the publicity, and if they’re good he’ll get a ton of it. I’ve known writers whose first novels were thrillers published by big houses that didn’t lift a finger to promote them, and the writers were paid barely enough to keep them in pencils. Nine hundred thousand dollars! I said to Wessel. How do you account for it?

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” he said.

“This is not a predictable or professional business,” explained Molly Friedrich, who in addition to Sue Grafton represents writers as celebrated as Terry McMillan and Jane Smiley. “It’s very capricious.” She asked me when those writers I knew were paid those pittances. Ten or fifteen years ago, I said. She replied, “I can’t sell a mystery for $5,000 now. I can sell a world-class mystery really, really well–but it has to have a terrific original voice, terrific original characters we want to see more of in the future, and a relatively fresh plot. Everybody seems to want something really good and not care terribly much what it costs. What they don’t want is something they’re unsure of. This is not a fair business, and it’s becoming increasingly unfair.”

In Wessel’s case, she said, some early interest from a British publisher primed the domestic pump. Then that million-dollar offer for three books–a commitment Friedrich said was “too scary for me”–positioned the book giddily high in the marketplace.

Then there was the book itself. “There’s something about that voice and that complete confidence and energy that’s very unusual,” Friedrich said. “People are always saying, ‘How do you know? How do you know?’ Read the first four pages and you know. What he has in common with Elmore Leonard is great, great timing and perfect attention for minor characters. The minor characters are just great. And the weakness is a weakness Leonard has–sometimes you don’t know what in the hell is going on.

“Every single publisher who wanted this wanted two books. I’ve never seen anything so stony. I wasn’t offering two books–I offered the one I had. And they all wanted Harding and Alison to come back. If they don’t get their money back on this book, they’ll get it back long-term.”

Wessel said, “The second book is pretty much done. At least the first draft is done that I turn in. It has the same characters. It was a condition of the contract that the same characters be in it.”

I sometimes wondered in the course of This Far, No Further if the plot’s bewilderments sprang from the raptures known to some migraine victims.

“I have them,” Wessel said.

What do you take? I asked. At one point in their adventures, Alison eschews the “Percodan, Fiorinal, Tuinal, Ritalin, assorted yellows, blues, and reds” in Harding’s glove compartment in favor of aspirin, “swallowed dry.”

Wessel said, “Right now I don’t take anything. I know there’s stuff now that pretty much takes care of them. I’m afraid to get rid of them, because they’re really tied in to what I write. The day before I have a migraine and the day I have a migraine are really my best days for writing. Sometimes all I can do is scribble things down, but I get a lot of ideas then.”

In the Beginning

Having contributed to the Reader’s first issue in October of 1971 and having married a woman whose store has advertised here faithfully ever since, I suppose I could take the long view. I won’t. The long view comes too close to navel gazing to be welcome around this office.

But I will say this. In 1971 I heard a very young advertising saleswoman tout a new free weekly newspaper that would be unburdened by the obsessive, incendiary politics that in my view back then were the only excuse such papers had for being. I thought she and her friends were nuts. No, not nuts exactly–they were too young to be nuts–but naive as could be. I regarded the stories I fished out of a desk drawer and tossed their way as self-interested charity. Better that four people read them than no one at all.

I was paid absolutely nothing for those stories. I’ll forever wish I’d held out for shares of stock.

Letter of the Week

The 25th letter is Y. Every journalist’s favorite.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Wessel photo by Leslie Travis/ John Wessell photo (current) by Nathan Mandell.