The below is a short story recounting one of my first attempts at getting a publisher, which took several wrong turns, but ultimately tells of how I came to find my voice.
In September 2001 I traveled to Philadelphia to meet an agent who was interested in representing my first book. I was beyond thrilled; after receiving dozens of rejection letters, an agent wanted to meet me, go out to lunch, and sign a contract. After paying the taxi fare from the airport, I asked the driver, which of two identical high-rises was my destination. He looked at the piece of paper I handed him and shrugged his shoulders. “They’re both assisted living facilities. Take your pick.”
Entering the closest building, and checking in with the front desk, I took the elevator up to the 8th floor and knocked on room 822. Silence. I knocked again, a little more insistent. Then, Click. Click. Click. The sound of an un-wheeled walker approached the door. A deadbolt was pulled back, a chain was undone, a latch released. The door cracked open and there was my agent leaning heavily on her walker for support. Her hair was drawn up in a gray, prim bun. A pair of reading glasses hung from a delicate gold chain from around her neck. When she released a hand from the walker to shake hands with me, she wobbled and caught herself.
The apartment was bright and airy. On the walls inside her apartment were framed posters of books and authors she had represented. I relaxed. This was the right place. Maybe the wrong decade, but the right place. After chatting for a few minutes, she asked if I wanted to go out for lunch. “We can get to know each other and discuss my plans for your wonderful book over a glass of wine. I have your contract ready.”
I discretely glanced at my watch. A full day of rheumatology patients in my office in Portland, Maine awaited me tomorrow. I had been naïve to believe that I could fly from my medical practice to Philadelphia in a single day. What folly. Now, I was looking at a lunch which would begin no sooner than 3:00 pm. “Of course,” I said.
“Would it be okay if my husband, Jerome, comes? He’s a retired dentist, and enjoys meeting my new authors.”
“Absolutely. That would be great.” Jerome Click, Click, Clicked from a side-room, wrestled into his overcoat, and stopped to catch his breath halfway down the hallway. A taxi delivered us to a favorite restaurant. Jerome, an ancient ruddy faced bull of a man ordered whiskey, straight up, finished off his first drink, then ordered a second before I’d looked at the menu.
My agent ordered a salad. The soup looked good. I ordered fish chowder. Jerome sipped contentedly on his drink. Was that number 2 or number 3? Out came the contract. It seemed fair, but each time I reached for the pen, my agent waved it like a prop as she recounted her life in the world of publishing. Our food arrived. I grabbed the pen and signed the contract. There. It was done.
Jerome ordered another drink. I ordered a beer. We toasted each other’s health. By my calculation, I had 30 minutes to finish the meal, guide Jerome and his wife into a taxi, and head for the airport. It was a heady moment. Then Jerome excused himself. He needed to use the bathroom. He pushed back his chair, caught his foot, and tumbled heavily to the ground. Oh my. Examining him, I was unsure if he’d fractured a hip or merely strained it. The wait staff called an ambulance but when it arrived, Jerome insisted he was fine. He insisted there was no need for him to go to the emergency room. By then, he’d sat up, against my advice, and attempted to crawl back into his seat. The owner came by and was naturally worried about liability. He insisted that Jerome go with the nice ambulance attendants. Jerome insisted he was fine, more than fine. I had a headache. Eventually, Jerome agreed to the ambulance. I agreed to take my agent home.
I missed my flight but made the last U.S. Air connection out of Philadelphia that evening on standby, in time to make the last ferry to my home on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of Portland. At 6 am the next morning, having spent the previous night at the local Comfort Inn, hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari flew out of the Portland airport on a U.S. Airways Express to Boston. Later that morning they crashed their plane into the World Trade Center.
Many of us knew families who lost loved ones that day. Stories circulated about friends or relatives who were scheduled to be in the World Trade Center but were delayed that morning in traffic or called in sick. Fate determined that I would be on one flight instead of another, one airline rather than the other, a few hours before the coordinated attack. I was grateful that my family and friends were spared the horror of dealing with my loss.
The book world, like so many businesses in America, paused. My agent recommended that we wait a few months. When she did meet with publishers, tastes had changed. It was felt that a book about a doctor practicing on the Casco Bay Islands in Maine was not likely to sell. She tried for a year, then after a long and successful career as an agent, she retired. No-one else picked up the book.
In retrospect, the original Casco Bay Ferry Tales, was only average. I mostly forgot about publishing it and concentrated on seeing patients in my practice and spending more time with my family. I viewed self-publishing as yet another job — promoting the book and convincing bookstores to carry it didn’t appeal to me. The book lay fallow for a number of years. Then I decided to get outside advice; I asked Bill Roorbach, an accomplished Maine writer, to edit and review the book. He had a lot of suggestions. He enjoyed the writing but felt that something was missing, something which would connect the reader to the story: It was me. He felt he didn’t really know or understand me. I was too much a passive observer of my unique island practice. His advice: Allow the reader to understand your inner conflicts, your absent-mindedness, what it meant for you to be a doctor.
What’s more, he didn’t get a good feel for my wife, Sandi. She was, he felt, probably more interesting than me. Mid-way through the book, she changed professions from a social work counselor to putting on coveralls and working with the island plumber. “Now, there’s a story,” he said.
I took his advice. I rewrote Casco Bay Ferry Tales and renamed it Go By Boat. Characters are no longer one and off. They keep showing up, chapter after chapter. Sandi agreed that it was okay that I write about our relationship together. Perhaps, my character is more accessible, more understandable, than in the previous version. I truly don’t know. When looking at who I am, I’m often at a loss to understand myself, much less communicate that insight to a reader.
What’s next for Go By Boat? Stay tuned for another essay.
All the best,
Chuck Radis D.O.