“If the same tree that falls without making a sound is turned into pulp, and the pulp into paper, and the paper into the pages of a hardly-read novel, does that novel exist?”
By Daniel Paisner
So here I am, nearly four months in. My third “first novel,” a baseball-ish piece called A Single Happened Thing, was published in early April by the craft-indie press, Relegation Books — so-named, natch, because… oh, you can probably figure it out. My first first novel, Obit, had been published in the 90s by Dutton. My second, Mourning Wood, by Bonus Books in the early Aughts.
Four months in to what, exactly? My Year of Living Shamelessly… and yet the thing of it is, I keep telling myself there is nothing to be ashamed of. (There. I’ve said it again.) It’s my own little pep-talk, and there is a truth to it, of a kind. You see, it appears I have written a novel. My third, as I have mentioned. Why the “first novel” tag? Because it has been my experience that readers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, assignment editors and just plain folks who happen to be seated to my left at a dinner party (insofar as anyone ever really sits to my left at dinner parties) are more inclined to embrace the work of a struggling first-time novelist over the latest efforts of mid-list writers who can’t seem to find a wide audience. So until I do (or until, by some strange alchemy, that wide audience somehow finds me), I will only write first novels — because, alas, they are the best novels, brimming with the best words, and shot through with the kinds of enthusiasm and benefits-of-the-doubt I much prefer over the grudging disinterest that tends to attach to widely under-read writers over time.
It also appears that my experience, in this case, is relevant. I know such things because I am a somewhat successful working stiff writer — a ghostwriter, mainly. Even as I struggle to make my bones as a novelist, I make my principal living helping to write the autobiographies, memoirs and musings of variously celebrated actors, athletes, politicians and business leaders. In the six-month run-up from when A Single Happened Thing was accepted by Relegation Books to when it appeared in stores, I published three (count’ em, three!) New York Times best-sellers: I Feel Like Going On, with retired NFL great Ray Lewis (Touchstone Books); The Power of Broke, with fashion mogul and “Shark Tank” panelist Daymond John (Crown Business); and Game 7, 1986, with SNY baseball analyst and former New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling (St. Martin’s Press). A fourth collaboration — The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami, with David Good (Dey Street Books) — made hardly a ripple, but may or may not be made into a mini-series, or a movie, or something. I mention these things not to blow smoke my way, as might appear, but to place my condition in context.
And here it is: I write books for a living. Lots and lots of them. I have good working relationships with big-time editors and big-time publishing houses. Lots and lots of them. And yet when it comes to my own work, I am on the outside looking in. Still.
Hence, my shamelessness. It comes with this uncertain territory. There are no ad budgets for third-time first novelists, no Times Square billboards, no slick book trailer to off-set the world’s ho-humedness over my new book’s release. And so these days I move about with my hand out, desperate for a blurb or a re-tweet or a tolerant nod in my direction, hoping against hope that someone, somewhere will crack the spine of my novel and find something to admire — to celebrate, even.
To be fair, my experience with the good people at Relegation Books has been altogether wonderful. Dallas Hudgens, the publisher, himself a “relegated” writer of baseball fiction (his “Season of Gene,” published by Scribner, is a wild romp of a baseball novel that deserves to be read “bigly”) has been a tireless supporter of A Single Happened Thing since he got his hands on it. He believes in the written word, in the small, out-of-the-way novels that have lately been ignored by our major publishers. Too, he’s assembled a whip-smart team of publishing professionals who share in this belief, who have also lent their skills and their passion to this project — also, tirelessly.
A Single Happened Thing re-imagines the life (and, death) of one of the forgotten greats of our national pastime, a man named Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap who for a short while in the 1880s was considered the greatest baseball player of his generation. What intrigued me most about Dunlap was that he managed to die in relative obscurity, despite a few glorious seasons in the sun. During one of these seasons, toiling for the 1884 St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association, he ran circles around the league, establishing standards of excellence that have not been approached since, leaving me to wonder what it means to matter, in the end.
In the novel, Sure Shot appears to haunt our late 20th century protagonist, David Felb, a going nowhere book publicist whose days are sufficiently insignificant and leave him wondering these things as well. And in the back-and-forth that passes between Felb and the specter of Dunlap, there is the stuff of baseball fiction: history, moment, legacy, the enduring bonds of family… good things all.
At least, that’s the idea — a coming-of-middle-age novel about leaving some kind of footprint in this world. (Like a third first novel, I guess.)
I am plugged-in enough to find a way to get the book into meaningful hands. I sent a copy, through a friend, to Robert Redford, thinking there might be something in these pages to spark his interest. (You know, because of his work in “The Natural,” his professed love of the game, our shared good looks.) I sent another to the actor-turned-novelist David Duchovny, through another friend, thinking that since Duchovny is just out with his own baseball novel he’ll want to know he’s keeping shelf space with another moonlighting baseball novelist. (Again with the shared good looks.) I reached out to my celebrity collaboration pals, thinking they’ll want to tell their millions of fans on social media that the middle-aged hack ghostwriter who helped them with their autobiography/memoir/musing has written a new book they should probably think about reading. (As if…)
And now here I am, three months in, bending that old philosophical saw about a tree falling in the forest to suit my frustration: if the same tree that falls without making a sound is turned into pulp, and the pulp into paper, and the paper into the pages of a hardly-read novel, does that novel exist?
I have no answer. I have only to keep flogging.
In the first quarter of My Year of Living Shamelessly I gave a talk and a reading at my local library, which seemed to go pretty well until I took questions from the audience, at which point a disheveled looking gentleman in the back row (one of the few people I didn’t recognize, this being my local library and all) raised his hand and said, “Ty Cobb. You ever hear of him?” I fielded that half-question, best I could, and moved on to another show of hands, only to return to the disheveled gentleman again: “Satchel Paige. You ever hear of him?” Then, a short while later: “Rogers Hornsby, you ever hear of him?”
At another library talk, a member of the audience raised his hand to tell me excitedly about a book he’d just finished reading. “It was so good,” he said, “I binge-read the entire thing.”
At a group book signing at my local independent bookstore, I was seated next to another author, and when the crowd of book buyers invariably thinned (as crowds of book buyers are invariably wont to do at these sorts of things), we fell in to talking. I asked the young woman about her book. “Oh,” she said, “it’s a novel-a,” accenting the word in an unfamiliar way and leaving me momentarily confused. “Ah,” I finally said, “a novella?” Sort of asking, making clear. But now I guessed it was the young woman’s turn to be confused, because she looked at me like I’d sprouted horns. And then she looked away.
At another group signing, at another independent bookstore, a self-published writer confided in me that he’d paid for the review he’d printed up and was now displaying on his author’s table. “Thank God it was a good review,” he said.
Yes, I could only think. Thank God.
Perhaps the highlight of these first months has been the inclusion of A Single Happened Thing in a round-up of new fiction on the excellent Writer’s Bone website, beneath the heading “6 Books That Should Be On Your Radar.” Joining me on the list: Dodgers, by Bill Beverly; Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo; We’re All Damaged, by Matthew Norman; Bucky F*cking Dent, by my not-yet pal David Duchovny; and, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which had just been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was delighted to be in such good company, in the estimation of the excellent Writer’s Bone editors/curators, whose excellence of course has nothing to do with their determination that my third first novel does not, indeed, suck.
I was so delighted, in fact, that I did what all struggling novelists are now required to do to lubricate the grudging disinterest in their work: I tweeted about it.
Here’s what I wrote: “so a couple #Pulitzer winners, @People’s #SexiestMan and a balding/paunching hack walk into a bar and order beers…”
I made sure to drop in a couple hashtags and handles to draw just the right amount of attention, and to attach a link to the Writer’s Bone mention. Then I sat back and waited. And waited.
I can’t say for sure, but I believe the world took note. I got three “likes” and a re-tweet. That’s good, right?
DANIEL PAISNER is the author of 14 New York Times best-sellers and more than 60 books, most in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell, including tennis great Serena Williams; Ohio governor John Kasich; Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn; and potty-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried.