When I was eighteen, I attended a Billy Graham crusade and came away with a sense that the Christian faith was far different than I had previously thought. So I started reading the Bible and tried attending churches. The Bible reading continued, the churchgoing did not, at the time.
Over the next few years, I started earnestly writing, and in King’s Beach, on the shore of Lake Tahoe, I attended a party where, on one side of a large room, a group of kids held a Bible study, while across the room other kids drank and smoked stuff. And a girl stood between those groups, gazing left and right, looking bewildered, before she dashed out of the house. I followed and watched her run down the road and plunge into the lake.
I saw myself in that girl, often torn between what appeared to offer pleasure or fun and what felt good, blameless, and beautiful but required sacrifice. Together, the girl and I became Jodi, the narrator of Midheaven.
After we completed the story, I sent Midheaven to an agent named Keith who asked to represent me after he read a story of mine in the Virginia Quarterly Review. He declined to take on Midheaven since he doubted he could sell it.
Around that time, while I attended the University of Iowa graduate program in Fiction Writing, I gave a manuscript copy to a Viking Press editor who came to visit. After waiting a couple months for her reply, I submitted Midheaven to another editor, who soon replied that she loved the narrator but not the story, and then to another who wrote that he loved the story but not the narrator. Meanwhile, now and then I queried the Viking editor to ask if she had yet read my novel. She didn’t respond.
For adventure and business, I rode a Greyhound cross country (the cheapest way besides hitchhiking, which by now I had given up). In New York City, twice I visited the Viking office and twice was told the editor was in a meeting and would get back to me. She didn’t.
Back home, I started a new day job as a welfare worker, and was at my desk when I got word that I should call Maureen Rolla, who would soon become my brilliant, wonderful editor. She explained that the editor who had visited Iowa recently quit and and left a stack of manuscripts in which Maureen discovered Midheaven. She loved both the character and the story.
A day or so later, Keith the agent called and asked to represent the book he had earlier declined. By now, of course, I considered my future home to be somewhere along easy street.
But, as I would learn some years later when Maureen came to a book-signing shindig, the Viking Press sales department didn’t judge Midheaven a potential big seller, so they opted not to fund any promotion, which disturbed Maureen and helped her decide to quit her job and leave commercial publishing months before Viking released Midheaven.
My novel was well reviewed and chosen by Poets, Essayists and Novelists as a finalist for their Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction Book, but its sales were puny compared to John Grisham’s The Firm, which Viking released (and promoted) the same month.
In the memorable words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”
By now I had turned to other stories including the Hickey family crime series, in book nine of which I discovered journalist Clifford, son of detective Tom Hickey, falling for Midheaven’s Jodi McGee.
And so, my first published novel also became book eight of the Hickey series, and book one of a trilogy I call, (strangely enough) Hickey and McGee.