By Gwen Florio
I’ve gotten that question occasionally from people who know me well.
For ten years now.
More, actually. My partner reminds me that I was working on that novel when we first met, and we’ve been together a dozen years now.
The novel grew out of reporting trips to Afghanistan, covering post-9/11 stories in 2001 and 2002. For a journalist, the place was a gold mine. On a personal level it was something more, getting under my skin in a way few places have; its people and dilemmas haunting me for months and years afterward.
So much in my notebooks never made it into the newspaper. But a novel? I’d already written one novel, which deservedly tanked. I was sure that this new material – exotic, timely and inherently dramatic – would be publisher-worthy.
Maybe the material was, but I sure wasn’t. Rejections all around, including such stinging rebukes as “too journalistic” – absolutely true, in retrospect. A rewrite only garnered more rejections. Into the back of the drawer it went. For years. Many years. During those years, when people hit me with “What’s going on with the Afghanistan novel?” I had a standard reply: “Dead.”
But its demise allowed for the birth of four other novels – published ones (!) – mysteries, but something more. Those books were also fabulous teaching tools. I’d always thought of myself as a writer of literary fiction. Now I found myself working in a demanding genre, one with immense respect for the reader’s limited time and attention. I belatedly began to learn story.
And with each new book I’d find myself saying, “If only I’d known this when I wrote the Afghanistan novel.”
I don’t know when the logical follow-up thought – “Yo, dumbass” – finally made its way through my skull. But when it did, I freed the poor Afghanistan novel from the Gitmo of the back drawer and took a hard look. Hard as in flinty, and also as in difficult.
I held my nose. Cringed. Faced facts. “Too journalistic” being the least of it.
Basically, I wrote a whole new book, pouring into it four novels’ worth of hard lessons learned. Then, after I was sure I’d done my damnedest, I sent it off to a freelance editor. Turns out I hadn’t done my damnedest after all. More rewriting. Lots more, until Book 2 had morphed into still another book.
After which my baby, now an unrecognizable ten-year-old, went out into the world, accompanied by hopes so high that I actually told people that the Afghanistan novel was a thing again.
Which meant they started asking again. For almost a year. Until I had to start answering, “Dead. For real, this time. I gave it my best shot.” A little shrug. So accepting, so mature! (I never kicked the dog. I swear.)
You read about these things happening. Rejection after rejection, year after year, until – of course, when least expected – comes The Call.
In my case, I was scheduled to talk with a creative writing class at Dickinson State University in North Dakota; had, in fact, already taken my seat, when my phone – set to vibrate – buzzed. My agent’s number.
“Um,” I said to all those young faces looking askance at my rudeness. “I’m so sorry but I have to take this call.”
The delay gave me a lovely success story to tell the students, one about perseverance and working hard and never letting go of your dreams, etc., etc., etc. It’s all been said before. But damn, it’s nice when it’s true.
Now, when people ask about the Afghanistan book, I beam. “Coming out next summer,” I say. Then I tell them the thing that makes it most real – its name: “Behind the Painted Windows.”
Was the wait worth it? Every. Single. Second.
Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose Reservations, the fourth novel in her Lola Wicks series – called “gutsy” by the New York Times – was released in March.
To learn more about Reservations, click on the cover below: