I probably wouldn’t have guessed the year right without looking at the inside cover, but in 2006 I finished a novel and released it to the world on lulu.com, a print-on-demand website. I had one copy printed for myself. Soon after I was holding my “first book” in my hands. It didn’t look as professional as a Penguin paperback or even as good as your average local small press trade paperback, but it was close. I mean, it was a book and my words were in it. People could hold it in their hands and read the story I’d written, if they bought the book.
But why would they buy it? It was hard to imagine someone browsing through lulu.com for a book to buy. If people had $10 and wanted to buy a book, they would be on Amazon, or at their local bookstore, not on the website full of self-published novels.
Indeed, after a while–six months, a year, I can’t remember–no copies of the book had been sold. I occasionally took a look at the copy I had received and I wasn’t happy with the layout. The main issue was that the type was quite small. The indentations were also too large. I must have also thought the cover was a little cheesy (now I like it), because I redesigned it. I also wanted to make a few changes to the text. Just a few. I wasn’t thinking at the time of rewriting it. I’d already worked on it for two or three years while teaching full-time.
When I was finished with the new look, I uploaded the documents to Lulu and “demanded” a copy of the new version, which was larger: 8 1/2″ x 5 3/8″, whereas the first “edition” was 6 7/8″4 1/4″ x The new version looked a little better than the first. Mainly, though, it was just different. Both felt pretty good to hold in my hand.
After admiring it for a couple of weeks, I gave the second “edition” to a writer buddy. He congratulated me on finishing a novel. He said that it might not be my best work, but that there was a section that he loved. I think he said that it was “like something out of Dostoevsky”.
The part he liked was actually a flashback to a couple of years prior to the main timeline of the novel, when the main character, Warren, goes to stay with his parents for a few days at the end of his university semester. He hasn’t seen them in half a year. During that time he started to become very self-conscious in social situations. When he gets home, he’s embarrassed to discover that he can’t look his parents or younger sister in the eye without blushing. He doesn’t know why he is like this and he’s too embarrassed to mention it to anyone. His family has noticed a change in him, but they don’t discuss it either. He returns to school. Very gradually, over the next couple of years, his self-consciousness lessens.
The novel begins a few years after the worst of his “self-consciouness attacks”, as he discovers online dating sites. He’s is understandably drawn to this safe method of “meeting” people. Although he doesn’t get to know many women in his real life, he ends up being able to have a few intense relationships virtually. The question that I wanted to hover over most of the novel was whether online dating would draw him further from or closer to the real world.
Every year or so I pick it up and read a few pages. Often, I find a typo, in which case I dog-ear the page for future reference, just in case I decide to do something else with it. Sometimes I think that I should throw it away; other times I wonder if I should try again to get it published. I had sent it to a few publishers and agents before resorting to self-publishing, but I received only form rejections, except for one agent, who, in response to the synopsis in my cover letter, wrote something like, “It sounds like quite an inventive tale”, before adding that he wasn’t interested in reading it. He was actually the agent of a friend of mine, a woman who wrote a well-received novel at about that time. I didn’t mention that I knew her. For various reasons I’m glad to have resisted that temptation.
I have been thinking about the novel more over the past year. I must admit that I haven’t sat down and re-read it from start to finish, but when I dip into it here and there, I’m not embarrassed by the writing–although there have been moments in the past when I’ve been tempted to throw away my copy and delete the files. Honestly, my destructive impulse probably came out of my frustration at not getting the novel published, rather than dissatisfaction with the novel. Now, older and a little less fiery than I used to be I have different feelings about it. The novel was started before my daughter was born and finished, I reckon, near the birth of my son. Even then, it was dealing with the types of experiences that were in my past–finishing university, finding your first job, getting into your first adult relationship. Now, the period in which I worked on the novel is also well behind me. It almost feels like the work of a different person, definitely a younger one. Perhaps this is why I finally feel slightly generous toward it.
I am trying to decide the best way to republish the novel. I could put it back on Lulu; I could put it up here, chapter by chapter; I could send it out again to publishers (just to see what would happen). I’m not sure yet how I will do it, but my gut feeling at the moment, even literally at this moment, is that sharing the novel in some way is the right decision. The story is bleak and out of necessity open-ended, but it’s a pretty honest piece of art that I worked hard at. To keep it hidden–and I know this sounds a little dramatic–feels like keeping a part of myself hidden.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that the scene that my friend liked was, loosely speaking, a flashback. The novel came out of my own experience. At the time of writing, I was uneasy about this. Given how uneasy, it is funny how feebly I attempted to hide the autobiographical elements–by using masks and transformations and splitting up personalities. Mainly, though, my method for hiding the personal stuff was to avoid the most painful truths–one of which was excruciating shyness. That is why the most autobiographical part of this book, the Dostoyevskian part, was stuffed into the backstory.
It is played down, but, interestingly, it is there. It isn’t integral to the plot, but I suppose I needed to put it into words. I suspect my friend, who is older and gentler than I, sensed my need for cathartic purging, which is why he mentioned that part of the book, to show that he had read and felt it.
I didn’t sit down today knowing that I would get into this theme (isn’t that a handy euphemism for “the dark shadow of my childhood”), but I find it interesting that I’ve ended up here. Maybe that is why I have a soft spot for a novel that on the surface seems to be about a girl crazy guy who among other life mistakes falls for a porn star (that part’s not autobiographical, honestly). Shyness was the great monster in my life when I was younger. Morrissey turned shyness into a catchy tune, but I think it’s hard to make a gripping novel out of it. Still, I would like to write about it more. I think I’m almost beyond the stage of being embarrassed about being shy, which I always found to be as debilitating as shyness itself, half of the vicious circle. I think it has been tackled, but usually using subterfuge, metaphor, switcheroo. I’ve wondered if shyness isn’t largely what Kafka is writing about, if its not the thing about Hamlet that we struggle to put our finger on, the same for Holden Caufield. Something to ponder further another day.
Love Traffic wasn’t the first novel I finished–that was A Jar of Minnows, my MA thesis–but I held it in my hand in the from of a book, something meant to be read, by others. I’ve said “held it in my hand” three times now. It must be important. It did–it does–feel good in my hand. And the pages I re-read hold my interest. I can’t help but wonder if they would hold anyone else’s.