People love to talk about when they got “the call.” The phone call saying that someone wanted to publish their book. I honestly don’t remember too much about my first one. I know I said “So, it’s definitely going to come out now?” I think I was in my kitchen, but it’s a blur.
The better story is about the time I got the call for Play Me Backwards, the new one. I was quite literally dumpster diving when I got the call about that one.
My career was at sort of a low ebb, you might say. In late 2011 I had two novels out on the same day from different publishers (and under different names). But I never saw either one of them at a store where I didn’t do events. The one that came out under my own name didn’t even get reviewed in the trades; when your new hardcover from a major publisher doesn’t even warrant a mention in the trades that loved your last one, it’s hard not to feel like you’re pretty much washed up. Even one of the contracts for those two had come with a lecture about what a risk I was, and how I probably wasn’t going to be worth it. Now that they weren’t troubling the sales sheets, it was hard to see a way towards recovery.
After a dozen or so books, I’d never had one that sold even moderately well, and one can’t live on good reviews forever. My editor at the old publisher had left, and the two new projects I came up with failed to land me a new one; one editor responded to my middle grade project by saying “Did he ever think of writing YA?” I felt like that was a good punch line for the end of my career (since I’d published several YA books) at least until WorldCon 2012, where I somehow ended up booked to do an autographing session sitting next to George RR Martin. That was the better punch line. I didn’t sign a single thing, and none of my books were for sale at any of the dealers’ booths.
But then the book I did under SJ Adams won me a Stonewall Honor, so I felt as though I was going out on a high note if this was the end. And Random House told me I could spin off the “Smart Aleck’s Guide” series for whatever ebooks I felt like, so I’d always have something to do. I could write Shakespeare guides for years and not worry too much that the global market for The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Timon of Athens was pretty tiny.
And now I had a new agent who was sending out the project I called Satan’s Parents’ Basement, the “Satanic YA” novel that I’d really written just to stay sharp. I’d been tinkering with it for a while; I’d work on it for a few weeks, then decide it was time to get back to “work” and switch over to something more commercial. This was the era when a book being a “boy book” made it seem about as marketable as a technical manual written in Welsh, after all. It felt like the only options for a book with a male narrator were either to get it made into a movie, be John Green, or get James Patterson’s name on it somehow. For the record, I’m not sure we’re entirely past that yet, but the market has changed enough that contemporary books by lower mid-listers at least have a shot again. Still, I always assumed that the Satanic one would be one that I just had to toss up on Amazon or something.
By the way, I got “the call” from this agent saying she wanted to represent me while stuck in traffic on the way back from a haunted cemetery where I’d had some photos taken for my new Ghosts of Chicago book, none of which showed a ghost, but some of which showed more butt crack than I’d intended.
So, anyway, one cold day around January, 2013, I was dumpster diving. Not that I was that broke (I was paying the bills as a tour guide), I had just made a mistake. But I was digging around in a whole series of dumpsters. In the snow.
I should probably explain how garbage works in Chicago. We don’t have “garbage night” or anything. In the middle of every block is an alley full of dumpsters that we put our trash in, and periodically a truck comes and takes it. Black dumpsters for most trash, blue for recyclables. Often, one can find some nice furniture out there, too. It’s strange – you decide you need a table top, or a certain kind of shelf, and presto! You find one in the Enchanted Alley.
Theoretically you have a dumpster assigned to your apartment, but in practice everyone just uses whichever dumpster seems to have the most room, and no one really cares (except this one woman who used to live next door, and who also thought that the Navy Pier fireworks were gunshots, and who often told me the End of Days was at hand). It’s seldom that all the dumpsters are too full to fit another regular garbage bag or two, but the recycling bins fill up fast. On this particular day, I had to spread my recyclables between four or five different dumpsters, since none had nearly enough room for the whole load. Then, when I got back to my apartment, I realized I no longer had my keys. They were either in the snow, or in one of the dumpsters.
It was while I was rooting through them that the phone in my pocket buzzed, and it was Adrienne, my new agent, saying that someone at Simon and Schuster wanted to talk to me about the Satanic book.
“Really?” I asked. “The Satanic one?”
“Well, don’t be so surprised, Adam!” she said.
“Huh,” I said. “Well, whattaya know!”
Then I found my keys.
This wasn’t THE call. There wasn’t a firm deal for a few weeks after this. I got THAT call at Disney World, which was a nice change of pace. I knew we were going to find out one way or the other that day, and bought a little devil-face looking thing at Epcot and took pictures of things being sacrificed to it throughout the day. There’s a great shot of me holding it up, along with a knife, and standing next to Chip and Dale.
Play Me Backwards will be out in August from S&S.