Picture it: a shitty house in Lansdale, PA, August 2001. A woman sits in the master bedroom, the roof caving in, Christmas lights twinkling around the perimeter of the windows because the combination Ira Einhorn/Santa Claus landlord has yet to take them down. The ladder still sits propped against her window, erected daily no matter how many times she knocks it over and blames it on a renegade gust of wind when questioned.
Sorry. Bad flashback. Where was I . . .
A woman sits in bed, propped up on the pillows, feverishly typing on a laptop, Fuel playing in the background (she has decided she likes their music very much), visions in her head of what this finished novel could get her: a meeting with her favorite rock star. She doesn’t care if the novel doesn’t make her the next Janet Evanovich; she just wants it published so she can forward an official copy to him. She practices exactly what she will say: “Thank you for having the courage and tenacity to pursue your dream. Because you have put yourself out there, your talent has touched me, and now I am a published author.” And if she doesn’t get to say that, maybe she’ll at least get to touch his arm before being escorted away by the pyscho police unit.
All joking aside, something definitely took over me during the time I was writing this novel, Bike Route. It wasn’t even my first, but it was the first one that mattered. My first novel was (and still is) a piece of first time, self-serving, overly dramatic crap I titled Homesick. I started it in 1993, finished it in 2000 after coming home from the holiday cross country trip from hell. The vacation was torturous, but then again aren’t most torturous events the most eye-opening? I came home in January 2000 with a renewed conviction that I must seriously pursue writing. By May 2000 I had finished Homesick. By May 2001 I had sent out the first batch of query letters for it; all came back rejected. (WRITING SCHOOL: What is a query letter? A query letter is a one page pitch made to agents describing your book, you as an author, and your credentials. Sort of, if you bumped into them at a cocktail party and you have thirty seconds to catch their attention, what do you say? Agents don’t get paid (legitimate ones) unless they can sell your book. So if they think they can’t sell your book, they reject it). Compare this Homesick timeline (began 1993, finished 2000, queried 2001, still sitting in my office collecting dust 2010) to the one for Bike Route (started 2001, finished 2002, queried 2002, got an agent March 2003) and you see what I mean when I say I felt I was compelled to write this book and do my best to get it out there. And that is also the difference between inspiration and a muse. Inspiration floats in and out; muses don’t leave until the project’s finished.
So I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll pick up with the beginning of the novel, summer 2001. I’m coming home from my job at Hush Puppies, going to the computer, putting on some Fuel, and writing. I’m still querying Homesick as it’s the only completed thing I’ve got and sure it’s going to make me a million. Since I’ve never marketed anything before, I’m not a pro at the query letter. Even I would throw it in the garbage if it came my way. But I think I’m being proactive if I’m getting myself out there, so I keep mailing it out to a new agent each time a former one rejects it. Arty Party reads in a community paper that a local college is offering a night class on how to craft the perfect query letter. She asks if I’d be interested. I umm and ahh, and finally say yes. She says, “Good, because I already enrolled you. Your first class is in two weeks.” This is why we have been friends for over twenty years, and it is one of the best presents she ever gifted me. I’m not sure I would have ever enrolled myself. Considering I never pick up a newspaper–local or otherwise–I’d say it’s a safe bet that I wouldn’t have.
So about ten people enrolled in the class, half of them wanting to market their poetry or journal entries or their life stories because they’re so fascinating. Hello. When’s the last time any of you out there bought a poetry book? Name ten movies adapted from poetry books. Name ten poets. Name ten published poets who are alive.
Anyway, I bring in my query for Homesick and share it with the class. As terrible as it is, it’s still better than what most of them have come up with. Except for Mr. Kitchel. As he reads his query aloud (voice a little shaky, clearly he’s nervous) and I follow my own copy on my desk, I decide he is brilliant. And as a frequent contributor to his Chamber of Commerce’s monthly publication, the only one in the class with any kind of credentials. He is usually quiet, and I realize as I listen to him speak I have no clue what he looks like. I peek over at him. Completely normal, unassuming, wearing jeans and a Gap-type checked shirt. A little facial hair, which I normally don’t like, but it suits him. About my age. And a wedding band. Ah, crap.
So the class and the professor offer their critiques and I go home with my notations on how I can make my Homesick query better. Only I don’t write a query for Homesick. I write one for Bike Route, which can’t even be considered a novel at this point. I have less than one hundred pages, am not really sure where it’s going, but Mr. Kitchel’s query has inspired me and I know exactly what I want to say. I completely take one of his best lines and rework it so it suits my story. And after I read my query in the next class, the room grows silent. The instructor says, “This isn’t the same novel as your last query.” I admit it isn’t. I say it’s the one I’m working on now, I think it has more commercial appeal, and that I liked Mr. Kitchel’s query so much I had to translate it to fit my own novel. The professor asks the class for feedback. All say it’s a great query. Mr. Kitchel says nothing. The professor says it’s ready; send it out. I sort of leave the class quickly, my head down. I don’t know it, but Mr. Kitchel–who I’m trying to avoid–is right behind me. “That was a great query,” he tells me. I told him his was a great query, that if not for what he had written, I wouldn’t have been able to compose my query. He is not angry. He is flattered. I tell him I think he is the only one with any writing future in the class, and I mean it. I don’t tell him now bummed I am that he is married.
Class goes on for about two more sessions. Mr. Kitchel and I don’t sit near each other and we don’t talk. But we critique each other’s work in an in-depth way that we don’t go into with anyone else. After the final class I am going to my car and he calls out my name. The first time he’s ever said my name and I feel a little rush. I turn around and he tells me he wants to give me the name of a book he thinks I’d really like. I write down the title. Damnation Game by Clive Barker. He asks me if I want to go get coffee, or something. I’m focusing on the something. I say I can’t. And really, I can’t. I like Mr. Kitchel. More than I should. I’m in that heady, dreamy space that I get into when a guy hits my brain, and if I have something, I’ll want more something, and I’ll want dinner, and I’ll want to watch movies on his couch and I’ll want his and her computers and although he looks disappointed right now because it is so exciting when one writer meets another of his own caliber I know I cannot ever go have something alone with Mr. Kitchel.
When I get home and tell Arty Party (because I’ve been filling her in on Mr. K all along) she says I should have gone and had coffee. Maybe I should have. Last year, as I was going through my writing notes, I came across Mr. Kitchel’s queries. I kept all of them. His name is on them, not his address. No information. I Google him, see if he is working for a paper. There is one person that could be him, as it is published in the general vicinity of where the college was. I hope it is. I hope he’s making a living writing, and I hope he is happy. He helped me craft the perfect query, and for that I will always be grateful.
I still have not read Damnation Game. I’m a little afraid to; I don’t want to open that up. A part of me wants to leave it all back in 2001 where it belongs. Because a part of me would still like to go get something with Mr. Kitchel.