Harry W. Schwartz was empty. Oh, the books were there, fresh and smart on the shelves in the large, upscale bookstore in a strip mall in Milwaukee. The salespeople were there, eager, friendly, eyes twinkling with bookish goodwill. And I was there, hungover, wearing a sports coat.
They were ready for me. Posters of the cover of my new book, Don’t Give Up the Ship, were in the window, along with stacks of the book. More books were piled on tables in the front of the store, and an array of empty chairs waited for the one thing that was missing: customers.
Not only was nobody there for my reading on a pleasant evening last June (“It was in the Journal Sentinel,” the manager said apologetically), but there was nobody in the store at all. Not a soul, no one I could stare at, draw over with my tractor beam. I looked at all those books. Seed corn, I thought dolefully, cast on rock.
Writing is a constant struggle to avoid cliches–half the battle is striking out stock phrases like “half the battle”–so it’s fitting that the agony of a bookstore humiliation doesn’t even have the benefit of being unique. Every author goes through one, or many.
This sure wasn’t the first time for me. I had endured similar ordeals with previous books–that reading in Tacoma that Doubleday had scheduled during the Mariners-Indians playoff game at the Kingdome. The time at the Barnes & Noble on Diversey when they had me read to the people in the coffee shop. When I opened my mouth they looked up, as one, annoyed to have been interrupted by some jerk at a podium, then dropped their noses back down into organic chemistry and guides to cheap hotels in Paris, while I stammered and flop-sweated.
But those were exceptions for books that did reasonably well. The same book that drew nobody in Tacoma sold 247 copies at an author’s luncheon in a ballroom at the Phoenician in Scottsdale. The nightmare on Diversey was for a book excerpted in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear…
This most recent book, however, was an entirely new level of disaster. And the thing is, I had tried to avoid it. My father, a retired scientist, had been writing his memoirs, as many retired guys do, about his days as a radio operator in the merchant marine in the 1950s. He wanted me to help him, and I, recognizing a nightmare in the making, said no. We never went camping or fished or took in a baseball game, how could we attempt something as complex as writing a book together?
“No” didn’t satisfy him, however, and he kept harping on this memoir of his, and I kept saying no until he finally mentioned that the ship he’d been on was still operating, taking cadets from the State University of New York Maritime College across the Atlantic each summer on a training cruise. Something clicked for me–we would take the ship to Europe together, have an adventure. I would use the time to interview him about his life, then present his story, filtered through me, sandwiched into a father-and-son odyssey. It would be fun. He was reluctant, but I talked him into it and we went. It wasn’t fun. We fought like cats in a bag. I wrote what I thought was a gentled-up version of what happened.
Reviewers ignored the book utterly, magazines coughed into their fists and turned away, and all the while my father stormed and protested and denounced, a Greek chorus bursting out of the telephone, damning me and celebrating the book’s failure. I never knew, when the phone rang, whether it would be him, proclaiming once again how my book was a vindictive lie, or my mother, happily informing me that there were a few copies at the Boulder Book Store but that she’d hidden them behind other books. Or my sister, weeping that I had betrayed the family in a story about the book in the Chicago Jewish News by referring to our upbringing as “assimilated.”
Last June in Milwaukee, there was still hope. The book was in the stores. Ballantine had actually paid the ransom Borders demands to place a book on a table by the front door. Something could happen. I was suspended in an endless, unendurable moment, waiting for a miracle.
At Harry W. Schwartz, the manager, as friendly and solicitous as a hospice worker, sat in the front row chatting with me. A clerk drifted by and sat a few rows behind her. I did my best to be charming and philosophical–what else can you do? Grace in these situations softens the memory’s sting. At the Tacoma signing, one couple drifted over, the only people in the store. I read to them for a bit, then, detecting some unease in their eyes, closed the book and said, “You’re not going to buy this, are you?” They squirmed. I reached for my wallet. “Tell you what,” I said. “Here’s my card. You buy the book, you read it, if you don’t like it, send it back and I’ll refund your money.” They sat there, frozen. “OK,” I said, smooth as snake oil. “Tell you what. I’ll do you one better. Here’s my card. Let’s go to the register. I’ll buy you the book. You read it and, if you like it, send me a check.”
That shamed them into buying the book–and no, they never sent it back. But I had flown all the way out to Washington to sell one book. That was better than I did in Milwaukee. Harry W. Schwartz gave me a little box of brass book points–those little triangular markers that hold your place. So the visit wasn’t a total loss.
My book-publishing career, such as it is, began in a bar. I was a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, but that never seemed enough–not enough money, for one thing, not enough gratification for my howling ego, for another. I also wrote magazine articles, and one was about college pranks. Pranks were funny, sometimes historic, and, I was surprised to discover during my research, not the subject of any books. Opportunity knocked.
I knew I needed an agent. Without an agent, you might as well sit on a rag on the sidewalk with your manuscript piled in front of you. But how to get one? I turned to Writer’s Market–the amateur’s friend–and picked one based on her saying that she liked working with journalists.
She agreed to represent me. I excitedly hurried to New York to visit her. I remember a woman with blue hair and a yippy lapdog. I remember her books, books whose authors she’d represented, scattered on the coffee table. They were large photo books with titles like The Flowers of Versailles.
But being represented was just the start. After a year went by and nothing happened, I rethought my situation. “I need someone younger, and from Boston,” I thought. “That’s where the colleges are. A Boston agent will understand pranks.”
I found one. She had a wan voice that sounded as if she were on her deathbed. I’d call every few months to check up on things. “The book’s been at Fireside for the past three months,” she’d whisper. “I ought to give them a call.” I wasted another year waiting for her.
Then one night in the early 1990s, I was in the Billy Goat Tavern regaling a crowd of pals with my sad tale when a reporter leaned over and said, “Why don’t you use my agent, David Black?”
I pointed out to the reporter that he didn’t even know if my proposal was any good.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “He’ll decide that.”
So I sent my proposal to Black. Two weeks later, the phone rang. “Hi this is David Black I got your proposal I want you to find five books already on the market that appeal to a similar demographic that your book will appeal to and list those in the proposal–take your biographical section from the end and move it up to near the top–and change the title I hate the fuckin’ title.”
He took a breath and I managed to say, in a squeeze-toy squeak: “But you haven’t even said you were going to represent me yet.” There was a pause, the meaning of which could not have been clearer had Black turned to a colleague, jerked his thumb at the phone, and said, “Get a load of the cow town bozo.”
Finally, he spoke.
“If I wasn’t going to represent you,” he said, slowly, as if not wanting to confuse me, “would I be telling you this?”
A month later, three publishers were bidding on the book. I spent a year writing it, happily trekking to Harvard, to Wisconsin, to UCLA. I loved doing research, loved digging into a subject I was certain nobody in the world was thinking about. I remember crossing one of the lush green lawns at Caltech in Pasadena, my briefcase filled with photos of pranks I had sweet-talked out of the publicity department. I looked around at the palm trees, smiled, and thought, “This–this!–is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
I titled the book “Wicked Acts of Sacrilege,” after a complaint in a Harvard professor’s diary in the early 1700s. But at a St. Martin’s sales convention in Kansas City, someone stood up and complained that he couldn’t sell a book called “Wicked Acts of Sacrilege” in the heartland–people would think it was about satanism. So they changed the title to If At All Possible, Involve a Cow, one of the pranking commandments I had written when the book was excerpted in the old National Lampoon. I begged my editor not to use that title. Don’t do this to me, I said. If At All Possible, Involve a Cow was ridiculous. It would always be the first book I ever had published. It would haunt me to my grave. My complaints didn’t matter–after all, I was merely the author, and thus my input on these practical matters was limited.
If At All Possible, Involve a Cow came out in the fall of 1992. Most bookstores carried it under reference, with the dictionaries. Still, it sold well–I went on Good Morning, America to chat about it with Joan Lunden. Afterward, over Bloody Marys at the Plaza (where do you go to celebrate at 8 AM?), I clinked glasses and thought: This–this–is publishing.
My second book–Complete and Utter Failure–had been an editor’s idea. Bill Thomas, who bought the pranks book for St. Martin’s, had moved to Doubleday and taken me with him. Subtitled “A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres, and Total Flops,” the book was a compendium of ruminations on the way so many confidently embarked-on pursuits wind up, a phenomenon I would have been wise to have kept in mind. The reaction to Failure was great. I appeared on Oprah and got reviews in publications from Playboy to the Times of London. Granta, the prestigious literary journal, carried an excerpt; so did Reader’s Digest. Pavilion published a British edition. One review I remember distinctly: Jonathan Yardley’s, from the Washington Post. It came across the syndicate wire and Henry Kisor, the Sun-Times book editor, sent it to me. It began this way: “Original ideas for books, as for anything else, are rare; good books are rarer still; good original books are so rare as to make hen’s teeth commonplace. So raise a glass in celebration of Neil Steinberg, who has written in Complete and Utter Failure a good original book that is also inordinately entertaining.”
I was ecstatic. This was it, the breakthrough into that rarefied world of success that always happens to other people. Now it was my turn. I was certain my life had just changed forever.
“How’s the book doing?” August. In a charmless, windowless hallway at the Sun-Times, I take a long look at the person asking the question. A fellow reporter. A vague smirk playing over his lips. Not a guy who’d ever ask me out to lunch, or even step into my office to say hello. But he wants to know how the book is doing. Everybody wants to know. The same question, the same identical words, though in my ears they sound like “Hey, how’s the cancer?” My fingers curl slightly–I think about just making a fist and, wordlessly, driving it as hard as I can into his face. “It’s going like this!” But that would be bad.
At first I told those who asked the unvarnished truth: “It’s circling the drain.” Then later, “It tanked. Sank like a stone.” But my wife kept telling me I shouldn’t say that. I should put a good spin on things. Be upbeat, cheerful. “Everyone else is,” she said. After hearing that enough times I began to recast the situation in a rosy glow. “Who knows?” I’d say, shrugging, serving up what I hoped passed as a smile. “I’ll find out when I get a statement from my agent six months from now.” Also true, in a sense.
But keeping that up was hard. I felt like I was joking about the dead. I knew.
Once, when an editor from the features department dangled the bait, I snapped at it. “Have you read it? Have you?” I challenged her. She shook her head no, stepping back, immediately sorry, I could tell, for putting her hand in my cage. “Then you really aren’t interested,” I said. “Are you?”
You can’t do that to people. Eventually I found refuge in sarcasm. “It’s a big best-seller,” I’d say, examining their faces to see if they were dumb enough to believe me. “Huge. Haven’t you heard?”
How could I tell them the truth? That I’d crucified my father and slit my throat on paper, slammed my head against the wall and howled, only to look up, bloody, and realize nobody had noticed. All a writer wants is to be of his time, to have his work cause a ripple here and an echo there before vanishing with everything else. Forget about immortality, I was hoping for a few scratches in the sand and didn’t even get that.
One thing I didn’t realize when I started the project was that I was shuffling down a well-worn path. One of the tougher hurdles of writing is the realization that the inspiration that comes to you in the dark not only isn’t unique, it’s a trend. Everybody’s doing it. Father-and-son books are a genre, believe it or not. At least 25 and maybe 50 or 100 have been written in the past decade. I’ve collected a shelf full of them. Sons and dads building houses together, going to ball games, the dads sometimes dying of mysterious diseases, the sons subtly preening about their professional successes. A worrisome number take place at sea.
I thought mine was different. They were all very serious, self-important journeys of discovery, of growing and stretching and bonding, of life’s lessons learned. Ours wouldn’t be like that–I was certain. My dad and I were not the hugging, bonding sort. We were aloof, cynical bastards, and our book would reflect that. Our book would be funny. Almost a parody of the form. I tried to wink at the reader. The original subtitle was “A Salty Dad ‘n’ Lad Adventure.” (“It sounds,” a friend told me, “like gay incestuous porn.”)
David Black sold the book, and initially things looked great. I got a big advance–my wife forbids me to mention the exact amount, but it impressed me. Less than a year’s salary but more than a Porsche Boxster. The contract was noted in Publisher’s Weekly’s “Hot Deals” column.
And I got to go to Venice. The Sun-Times actually let me duck out of the office for six weeks while taking a boat with my father from New York to Barbados to Italy. I had tried to get an unpaid leave but they wouldn’t grant it–they insisted I file my columns from the sea. That was all right by me.
True, the trip was difficult, even with my low expectations. My father was counting the days by the third day out, and very quickly so was I. But the material was there–raw and real and emotional. It certainly would make a book. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t write it. “All’s misalliance,” wrote Robert Lowell. “Yet why not say what happened?”
That was in the spring of 1999. It was another three years before the book was published. When I turned in the manuscript, the editor rejected it. “It isn’t a book,” he said. “It’s just a collection of scenes.” I asked him if there was anything he liked about the book.
“I don’t want to play that game,” he said. “Just think of a new approach, write the book differently, and we’ll see where we are then.”
I considered just giving up. This was my Vietnam–a sinkhole that would draw in all my efforts without producing success. I had poured too many resources into it as it was. Just walk away. Write something else.
But quitting didn’t seem like a success strategy. And besides, I already had a contract. I needed the money.
Thinking of a new approach was harder than it sounds. I was reminded of Tolstoy’s line about how he and his brother used to believe that they could have any wish granted if they could find a way to stand in a corner for five minutes and not think of a white bear. The trick, of course, is that you can’t.
Same for coming up with a new way to write a book you just wrote. I’d try to wash my mind and creep up on it another way but always found myself back somewhere I’d already been.
So I took a different tack. The book was long–over 400 pages. I would begin cutting it, as if my editor had loved it and just wanted it tightened. I was pretending, like the man who loses his job but puts on his suit and goes downtown anyway. Every day I whittled and revised the book. It helped that I had a writer friend who echoed this strategy. “If you cut the book in half,” he advised, “he’ll accept it no matter what you give him.”
I’d followed up Failure with The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances, an A through Z collection of essays on things I found irksome. I thought it was very biting, very Juvenal the Satirist. I enjoyed researching esoteric subjects like noise and litter, and found tearing into bugbears like McDonald’s and Disney and Elvis inherently funny, in the way of so much humor generated by the Soviet Union in the old days of the Lampoon. I sent the manuscript off feeling I had fired a shot at the world–how could you not be proud of a book that refers to Oprah Winfrey as “that froglike dominatrix presiding over her Theatre of Pain”?
The book got a few good reviews–the Toronto Sun called it “clever, erudite, and strangely un-American,” un-American being perhaps the highest praise a Canadian can offer. But despite being excerpted in the New York Times, the book died a quick death. I think it sold 1,600 copies.
It took me six years to get another book in print. I think this was the point where most writers would have just given up. But I was too dumb to do that. I kept plodding forward, trying to find a way to the next book, a peasant dragging his plow through the hard earth. I wrote one proposal after another–one took a year. My agent wouldn’t submit it.
That’s why it strikes me as funny when every so often someone tells me he’s thinking about writing a book. Or maybe he’s already written a book and it’s about to be published. He knows I’ve written a few and wants tips, advice, help, to make it a success.
I look at those people for a long, pitying moment, and then I ask if they remember Ugarte.
Of course they don’t. Ugarte was the character Peter Lorre played in Casablanca. In the movie, shortly after Ugarte is arrested, Victor Laszlo shows up at Rick’s Cafe. He goes to the bar and meets Berger, the Norwegian. “I’m looking for a man named Ugarte, he is supposed to help me,” says Laszlo. The Norwegian shakes his head sadly and says: “Ugarte cannot even help himself.”
The early signs were good. Chicago magazine ran a profile. True, it painted me as a dark, brooding alcoholic shithead. I didn’t mind that so much. What troubled me more was how the central theme–Why isn’t this man happy?–seemed naive. And it gave the book short shrift, calling it “amusing and brisk.”
Yet it was a profile. Splashed over five pages. How many people get that? Which underscored the central existential dilemma of my life: where should I point my gaze? Do I look toward most writers–who’d never dream of writing a book, who lack the skill, the perseverance? Do I look at those who fail after a dozen false starts, or farm their completed effort to a thousand agents and publishers to no avail? Who fall into the trap of self-publishing and pay some firm behind a metal door to print 1,000 somehow-not-quite-right copies of their masterpiece, then foist them on friends and relatives and bighearted librarians? Compared to them I’m doing pretty well.
Or do I look to really successful writers–J.K. Rowling in her Scottish castle with her $30 million a year, or my fellow stablemate at the Black Agency, Mitch Albom, with his $300,000-a-year sportswriter’s job and his millions of “Morrie” books? My four books, put together, don’t sell what a best-seller does the first 15 minutes it’s on the shelf.
It’s a question I’ve never answered properly, so I waffle, back and forth, between satisfaction and despair. Maybe most people do.
This most recent bolt from the gate ended closer to despair. Only two publications reviewed Don’t Give Up the Ship. One was Publisher’s Weekly, an industry magazine that runs capsule reviews. It was puzzled.
“Steinberg returns home empty-handed–no hugs and tears, no major insights–it’s enough to make one wonder why he felt the need to write it,” the anonymous reviewer sniffed, while I slapped my head and thought, Exactly!
Still, I wasn’t worried. I knew that nowadays a writer has to struggle to get noticed. So I went on NPR, wrote letters to any newspaper where I had a connection. Ohio’s Berea News Sun, a weekly I delivered for seven years, ignored it, as did my current local, the Northbrook Star. You haven’t lived until you’ve been jilted by the Northbrook Star.
My parents live in Boulder, so I tried the Boulder Daily Camera. It took several letters, several phone calls before the local angle finally threw off a spark.
The Camera called the book “starkly honest,” “moving and poetic,” and “often funny and brilliantly descriptive.”
I was relieved. At least it was a good review; maybe it would help my father accept the book. No dice. It only inflamed him. Nor did the Camera review infect the Denver papers, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News. They ignored it. The Daily Camera was the only newspaper in the country to review the book.
Six months after publication, the dust has finally settled–“dust settling” is a cliche, but we’re at the end, so let it go. The notes for Don’t Give Up the Ship are in their box in the basement. My father is speaking to me again. They’re coming for Thanksgiving and, who knows, it could go well.
I’m working on the next book–something historical, closer to the pranks book. I think of myself as one of those movie monsters–like the Iron Giant–who get blasted to smithereens yet whose smoldering parts somehow drag themselves back together, the eye flickering back to life, the otherworldly beast rising from its grave to begin its task anew. The proposal should be sent out by Christmas, provided of course I finish it. It’s always easier to mow the lawn or rake the leaves than to write–at least when you’ve finished raking leaves, you know you’ve accomplished something.
That said, unlike many writers, I actually like to write; I enjoy the process. You get set up at your desk with your coffee and your music. The distractions–the kids, the wife, the job, the chores–are stiff-armed at the office door. You tentatively set your hands on the keyboard, gradually sink down into the work, like a pearl diver heading for the sea bottom, and get at it. Progress is slow at first–it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel like it’s going well at all. Until it is, and you’re clacking away. Then suddenly it’s lunchtime.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.