I was born on the Fourth of July, so independence was one of those multi-syllabic words I learned early.
One of my most vivid memories from my youth was when I was eight or nine accompanying my dad to the courthouse in Hopkinsville, Kentucky where I grew up. He was there to check some plats or real estate records of some sort. He was a realtor so this was one of his regular stops and he was well-known around the courthouse.
While he was concentrating on his work in some stuffy room, without telling him, I wandered off to explore that big impressive building, at least I thought so at the time. It was actually a rather humble edifice and small, but it was my first visit to that building and all that marble and high ceilings was impressive. I poked around for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. I didn’t consider what I was doing bold or adventurous. I was just curious, just being myself.
But some kindly gentleman decided I was lost and led me back to my father, who by then was quite worried that I’d disappeared. I remember Dad’s relief and how he explained to the gentleman who’d found me that I was “a very independent boy.” Though his tone was a mixture of praise and resignation, it was the praise that I registered and that imprinted that moment deeply on me.
Whether it was that incident or just my god-given nature, independence has been a prominent feature of the rest of my life. Though I played team sports (football and basketball), tennis was my passion. I liked the individual test with nobody else to depend on. (I have played doubles over the years but I try to avoid it) As a kid, I built model cars, an endeavor that kept me in a small corner of the basement for years, working and reworking on customizing the plastic cars that came in a box. (I used corduroy to imitate rolled and pleated upholstery. That sort of thing.) I fished on a small boat by myself. I jogged a few thousand miles but rarely ran a race with others and hardly ever jogged with a partner.
When it came time to picture a career, I favored ones that gave me more freedom and individuality than those in which I would work inside a group. Teaching college for forty years was forty years of independence. I was part of a department, of course, but luckily the university where I taught didn’t require all that much committee work and fraternization. And of course, there’s nothing like writing poetry or novels to really discover how much independence you can stand. Seven or eight hours ( frequently more) in a room by myself, creating a world, living inside that world, creating characters, people who became real to me, who spoke to me, who spoke through me. It’s a lonely life in some ways but a life I always found natural.
But the publishing enterprise is a different animal entirely. I started publishing novels in the mid-eighties, thirty-five years ago. And though I’ve made lots of friends in the publishing world, editors, agents, book reviewers, publicists, sales people, booksellers, and more, I found that working with others to publish, promote, and sell my books is not nearly as fulfilling as the independent process of writing the damn thing.
I was lucky to work with a string of brilliant publishers. W.W. Norton, Knopf (where I was edited by and became friends with the legendary Sonny Mehta), Delacorte (where I worked with Leslie Schnur, one of brightest, funniest and most caring people I’ve ever known), and later with St. Martins Press where the publisher, Sally Richardson was my loyal champion for many years. Incredibly lucky. And with Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer, I worked with a team of editors and publicists that were incredibly devoted to books and to the elevation and sales of my novels. What a ride it’s been.
I made good money, I sold hundreds of thousands of books over the years, I traveled all across the U.S. and Europe and Australia at the publishers’ expense. It was a dream.
But I feel it’s time to be even more independent. Because of the rise of ebooks and Amazon’s bookselling universe, now I can be in charge of every aspect of the novel I’ve written. I can design the cover, shape the jacket, and publish it myself. The ultimate act of independence.
It’s a little scary. It’s new and daunting. If I succeed, it’s largely my own doing. If I fail, I have no one else to blame. At this point, I don’t even have a clear measure of what it would mean to succeed or fail. If I sell a few thousand copies of the new Thorn novel, that will make me happy enough. If I sold a million copies, I don’t know that I’d be a lot happier. (Oh, okay, yeah, a lot happier.) Still, it’s a new era for me. A new beginning on an old journey. And I’m heading off on this road with the one thing I value most: my independence.
It seems only right that my chosen pub day for Bad Axe should be the Fourth of July. So that’s what it will be.