Back in 2006, laid off from the Boston Herald, I was freelancing and worrying about paying the bills. I was also using my suddenly abundant free time to write a novel. An earlier effort at this long-held dream had been rejected with just enough encouragement to keep me going. I was a few thousand words into the new manuscript when I got a Globe assignment that would pay for the next week’s groceries. The story was fun but low in nutritional value, a journalistic Twinkie. It was also my idea. I needed groceries.
I had just read Stephen King’s new novel, Cell, in which a mysterious cellphone signal turns people into bloodthirsty zombies. One nail-biting sequence takes place in Malden. Why not ask the real-life residents how they felt about being overrun? Fun idea, my editor said, and of course you’ll have to talk to King, too.
I drove to Malden and interviewed the locals, getting lucky comedy-wise, in that one of the addresses King used belonged to a funeral home. Then I took a deep breath and dialed King’s office in Maine, expecting many hurdles ahead. I spilled my guts to the nice woman who answered, explaining that I was a freelancer who really needed this interview: “It will only take a few minutes.”
I had one other card to play. Long ago at the University of New Hampshire, I’d studied fiction writing – got an A, even – under a marvelous but little remembered novelist, Thomas Williams, who won the National Book Award in 1975 for The Hair of Harold Roux. I’d read that King had held Williams in high esteem, so I told the nice lady, “Tell him that I studied with Tom Williams at UNH, would you?”
She said to put all this in an e-mail and send it to her and that Mr. King might call me back, although he was currently in Florida. She seemed to be trying to both talk me down off the ledge and not get my hopes up. I sent the
e-mail and went on to some other task.
A few minutes later, my cell rang.
“Hi, it’s Steve!” said a cheerful, slightly high-pitched voice on the other end.
My mind went blank. Zombie blank. “Uh, Steve who?”
“Steve King!” he said, sounding slightly disappointed that I had turned out to be an idiot. “You wanted to talk?”
After a stuttered apology, I asked about Cell, but King wanted to know how long I had studied with Williams and what feedback he had given my short stories.
Then King asked, “Do you still write fiction?”
Why, yes, I do.
That’s what I could and maybe should have said, but I didn’t. Reporters are not supposed to ask for advice; it would be an egregious ethical violation. Yet King seemed a generous soul – he called me back, right? A word of encouragement would have been nice.
But that wasn’t a conversation I could have had then. It was hard enough to hold on to my professional identity as a journalist. I lacked the confidence to tell the truth about my secret ambition. I would rather have admitted to a plushie fetish than tell Stephen King that I was a wannabe novelist.
So I lied.
Reporters, of course, are not supposed to misrepresent themselves, either. But a terrible self-loathing gushed through my brain in an instant, and I told arguably the most famous novelist in the world – who is a nice guy, a supporter of other writers, and a Tom Williams fan – that no, I hadn’t kept up my fiction writing. Busy with the newspaper work and all. So what’s with Malden and zombies, anyway?
That was the single worst moment of my non-career as a novelist, worse than any rejection. So toxic were the emotions, though, that it changed me. I couldn’t go on denying the existence of my ... project.
After that, I became less reluctant to show my work to friends. I went to a writers’ conference, sat among the unpublished masses, and took a few notes. And when no agents could quite bring themselves to represent the manuscript, I decided to publish it myself.
My 2010 novel, Mirror Ball Man, sold well here on the North Shore, where the mystery is set. Turns out that cold-calling bookstores isn’t any worse than asking strangers how they feel about zombies. I’ve spoken to book clubs and cashed a check from Amazon.com. Readers rebuilt my self-confidence by complimenting my prose and demanding a sequel.
It’s a very modest kind of success, but I wouldn’t have gotten here if not for that horrifying moment on the phone.
So, sorry for lying, Steve, wherever you are. And thanks.Joel Brown’s second novel, Mermaid Blues,is now on sale. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.