aprilhenry (aprilhenry) wrote,

When words of encouragement are as precious as silver

Ten years ago I worked for a non-profit literary magazine called Boswell. By worked, I mean volunteered. We interviewed authors who had come to Powells and then ran them in our sporadically appearing magazine. Powells grew organically, which means upstairs there are warrens of funky little rooms. I would sit in one of them, with the tape recorder in the middle of the table, and with Carol Shields or Robert Crais on the other side of the table.

Once it was James Less Burke. He was sweet and intelligent. Read my interview with him here. [Full disclosure: I think that interview actually took place in 1997, although it says 1999 on my website.]

During the course of our interview, he asked me about myself. I told him that while I had an agent, I had not yet found a publisher. In that soft drawl of his, he assured me that it would all work out, saying, "You're a winner, I can tell." I kept that tape in my car for months, and would occasionally rewind it for a few seconds just so I could hear his reassurance.

It took me several years and two books to find an agent. She took me on, but couldn't sell that book or the next. The book that sold was the fourth one I had written. It sold in three days. The seven-year overnight success.

From the Writers' Almanac: Today is James Lee Burke's birthday. Half of Paradise (1965) was published just after he finished graduate school, and it got great reviews. Burke wrote a few more novels, but none of them sold well. He fell into depression and alcoholism. He had finished a book called The Lost Get-Back Boogie, but he couldn't find anyone to publish it. He collected 93 rejection slips for the book over a period of 10 years. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a land surveyor, a social worker, a forest ranger, a teacher, and a truck driver. He later said, "I reached a point ... where I didn't care whether I lived or died." Finally, in 1985, The Lost Get-Back Boogie was published by Louisiana State University Press. The novel is about a released prisoner who goes to live on a Montana ranch with the family of one of his friends from prison. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Burke's novels have been successful ever since.

Happy birthday, Mr. Burke!

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