You may not find my story encouraging. But here it is.
When I stepped down from administration and joined the faculty at a small liberal arts college as Professor of Ancient History and Classics, I decided not to resume academic writing. I’d already published two monographs and enough articles to fill a drawer, and what I really wanted to do was reach a broader audience with a fictional tale about the conflict between Christianity and Islam in the Renaissance. Admittedly, the freedom of writing without the confines of footnotes, cogent argumentation, and verifiable facts was appealing.
Did I mention that I’m a college professor? That means I have a week off for Fall Break, four weeks of Christmas Break, a weeklong Spring Break, and ten weeks of Summer when I can write. It’s not enough, and heaven knows it goes by so fast, but every seventh year tenured professors are eligible for a year of sabbatical at half pay, and you can write a lot in a year if you stay focused and disciplined about your writing.
When I finished the first draft of about 120 pages of INFIDELS: A Tale of the Renaissance, I approached several New York agents using Publishers Lunch. One looked through the first pages and called me. “I’d like to see the rest,” he said, and I replied that I didn’t have any more. “I need an advance to take time off from teaching and write the rest of the novel,” I explained. “Who do you think you are,” he shouted over the phone, “John Updike? I can’t go downtown and sell an unfinished novel by an unpublished nobody. When you’re done, send it to me.” With that he hung up.
It took several years to finish the first draft of the novel, and by then the same agent was no longer interested enough even to reply to my offer to send the whole 800-page manuscript. But through a personal connection, I got another New York agent to consider it. She said she liked the story but warned that it was too long to sell from an unpublished author. “Cut it down,” she said, “and I’ll look at it again.” So I carved the tale down to 528 pages and sent the new version to her. When she got back to me, she said she couldn’t help me because, in her words, “The novel is too sympathetic to Islam for American readers.” Unfair but final.
It took me a couple of years, but I eventually sent the novel to another New York agent, whose readers liked the story. She, however, insisted on more tightening to speed it up. So, with the help of a professional editor, I attacked the historical narrative and provided more emphasis on a female character that had been less developed in earlier drafts. The result was 407 pages but still no happy ending. After reconsideration, the agency decided not to represent me, because, they said, the revised novel still had problems.
You may be exhausted, but the story doesn’t end there. While I was revising INFIDELS, I decided to start over and write something that fit exactly into the expectations of agents and publishers for the first work of an unpublished author: a 250-page-maximum murder mystery drawn from my experience in Greek archaeology. I also recognized that I needed more instruction in the craft of fiction writing, so I took classes in UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. Shifting from one literary genre to another required serious adjustment, but I used my recent sabbatical to write Snake Goddess, an archaeological thriller about a stolen artifact that enters the international black market. I haven’t sold it yet, but when I finish incorporating the improvements that I, and other readers, think will polish it and improve its appeal, I’ll try the New York agencies again.
Is there any broader lesson in this tale of rejection and reaction?
I think so, and I hope so, because what I’ve discovered from the experience is that, for me, writing is therapeutic. When I’m in Greece, on the island of Crete, during the summer, I try to begin each day by working on writing or editing. It gives me purpose and discipline. Being away from home and beyond the reach of Wi-Fi, there is almost no distraction. Writing takes concentration. It also takes revision, rewriting, and editing—lots of it. But if you like the whole process, as I do and always have, the real accomplishment is not getting your writing published, but the intense pleasure of pursuing your own thoughts and imagination wherever they lead. Perhaps that’s what “academic freedom” truly is.