where the writers are

As kids in Catholic school, we were taught about purgatory: a place created to accommodate the gray area between heaven and hell in the afterlife.  The way it was explained to us by the nuns, purgatory is a kind of holding tank constructed to house all of the souls not evil enough to be damned but also not good enough to be allowed yet into heaven.  Souls were sentenced to purgatory for finite terms: four years, maybe, for each time you took the name of the Lord in vain, thirteen years for sassing a nun.

Purgatory was not a festive place: through its windows, souls could look up and see the glories of heaven -- but all of these delights were tantalizingly out of reach.  Catholic schoolchildren like us were taught that by writing "BVM" (for Blessed Virgin Mary) in the margins of our tests, we could commute 2 years off the purgatory sentence of some poor soul.  "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph" muttered under the breath was good for a full seven years.

"And you'd better hope," the nuns had cautioned us, "that when you're suffering in purgatory, some good child in one of the classrooms here at IC" -- that’s Immaculate Conception for you non-Catholics -- "has the compassion to recite an indulgence or two on your behalf!"

My first -- and only -- novel was accepted for publication in October of 2007.  Soon afterwards, the release date was set for November 2009.  With nearly two years until my longed-for goal -- publication of my book! -- would be achieved, I tried to put the once and future event out of my mind and continue on -- as normally as possible -- with my life.  Of course, I kept a count down of months, crossing them one by one off the calendar like a convict anticipating parole.

The beginning of 2009 ratcheted up the intensity.  The monthly count had dwindled to single digits and there were now proofs to be read, decisions to be made, pre-press publicity.  When the reviews began trickling in this summer, I tried to keep a rein on my excitement.  If asked how my book was coming, my standard response was "Months away!"  Still, I couldn't calm the butterflies in my stomach when I approved the final round of corrections and pressed the send button: summer was over and my book was headed to press!

September brought more reviews including my Andy Warhol fifteen minutes as a Publisher's Weekly "Pick of the Week."  But publication -- and the book's transformation from imagination to reality -- was still two months away.

I got sick in October: in bed for almost two weeks, multiple visits to multiple doctors, drugs, tests, and whispered references to the dreaded "c" word.  But through all of the physical pain, I held forth: each passing day brought me closer to my goal, to the holy date of November 1, and publication.  I bought a bottle of champagne -- the real stuff from France -- and a pound of never-been-frozen halibut.

October 29, the publisher called to ask me if I wanted any copies of the book to sell on my own.  "Oh, and another thing.  They had a delay at the press.  The final copies won't be available until November 6."

We grilled the halibut anyway, to keep it from spoiling.  Kept the champagne in the fridge.

On November 3, he called again.  "Earliest possible date we'll get it is November 13.  I'll call you when it's in."  I haven't heard from him since.

That tall champagne bottle was clogging up the shelf in the refrigerator so I took it down to the basement.

I made excuses to all my friends.  "This happens all the time in the publishing industry."  Everyone was still excited and happy for me that first week.  The next week they were understanding.  After that, they stopped calling.

"Down here next to me in this lonely crowd/ There's a man who swears he's not to blame/ All day long I hear him cry so loud/ Calling out that he's been framed."                                                                                                       

As modern Americans, we tend not to believe in random acts: there is a reason for every event that happens in the world.  We believe that we are in control of our lives and the events that effect us.  When something occurs, we seek an explanation.  If the book's appearance on the market has been delayed, there must be a reason.  Perhaps the publisher gave it one final read and realized there were serious problems with the story.  Maybe the writer -- that demanding bitch! -- insisted on implementing a few minor changes and that screwed up the whole printing schedule.  Or maybe it was the printing press: like one of those fairy tale mirrors that refuses to reflect ugliness, the machine choked rather than print the drivel that was contained in the book's text.  Whatever the reason, there is a guilty party -- and since it's the writer's book, we all know who that party has to be.

In an attempt to absorb myself in something -- anything! -- else, I try working on my next novel.  I'm under contract with this publisher for a second novel and since the manuscript is just-about-done, I query my publisher to see when he would like me to send it to him.  He doesn't respond.  A week later, I query him again.  Again, no response.  Apparently I'm guilty in his eyes, complicit in the failure of my first novel.

Tom tries to put a good spin on it.  "All of the good things you've gotten out of this book -- those reviews and everything -- you should be on cloud nine."

"No one's read the thing -- just a few reviewers."

"But they all loved it."

"I didn't write it for reviewers!  I wrote it for other people!  And no one can read the thing because at this moment it doesn't exist!"

That opened a whole can of existential worms.  I didn't argue -- it's pointless to argue with someone who teaches philosophy for a living.

I haven't spoken to anyone outside of Tom in over a week.  I feel brittle, empty, failed.  I use the word "if" now instead of "when."

"I see my light come shining/ From the west down to the east:/ Any day now, any day now/ I shall be released."

Since my publisher doesn't want to see the manuscript for this new novel, I decide to give it one more read through.  I get to page 80 before I realize that it is sublimely stupid: self-indulgent, plot-less, hollow.  Cheap sheep shit.

It's cloudy today: not one light anywhere in the sky.  I'll spend the rest of the day washing windows.