The Short Version
Keir Graff is the author of the middle-grade novel The Other Felix, the thriller The Price of Liberty and three other novels for adults. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.
“Not enough has been written about the dangers
posed to the world of literature by the ready
availability of cheap photocopies.”
The Long Version
I was born in a crossfire hurricane. I’m just kidding. It was just a regular hurricane, with the winds moving in a counterclockwise direction.
Sorry, still kidding: no hurricane.
I entered the world in 1969, just after the new year began. Six months later, Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle on the moon. Coincidence? If so, I like it better than Nixon’s inaugural.
As a child, my interest in writing was already evident. At the age of 5, I dictated my first play to my father, who typed it up on his Hermes portable typewriter. Reviews of Zorro and the Bad Guy, however, were unkind. The Entertainer called it “evidence that some talents are better left untutored” while Variety headlined their review Tot’s Swashbuckler Is Total Flop.
My sensitive psyche severely stung, I did not return to playwriting until my arrival in Chicago many years later.
In middle school, I submitted my first query, for the inaugural issue of Mondo Montana. The reply, addressed to “Ms. Graff,” would foreshadow my later experiences in publishing. Mondo Montana rejected my work but ceased publication soon after it started. Again—coincidence? I think not.
The Hallowed Halls of Hell
During my junior year of high school, fueled by the writings of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Stephen Davis (Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga), and Matt “Aleister” Crowley (“Deadly Sex Thrills”), I submitted a work of fiction to my English teacher. I don’t remember the assignment; I hope it was to write a work of fiction. Called “Wolves’ Cry,” it was the story of a messianic rock star named “Keith” who took a lot of drugs. What a knowledge you possess! my teacher scrawled in the margins. Oh, how I wished he were right.
But I really started writing novels during my senior year at Hellgate High School. (Yes, Virginia, there really is a Hellgate High School.) As part of a semester-long elective called “The Detective Novel” or, perhaps, “The Mystery Novel,” my teacher, Greg Lenihan, asked us to start writing our own detective novels. Well, he told us to—it was a graded assignment. I wrote the first chapters of what would become Dark Suns, a haunting tale of detection, vampirism, and deus ex machinations. If you have a copy, please return it to me, postage due, so I can destroy it.
Bright College Days, O Carefree Days Gone By
After applying to Hampshire College three times, I was finally allowed to attend. With the perspective of adulthood, I can see that they were right to be wary of me; I was a halfhearted high-school student. But couldn’t they see that I had finally decided to live up to my potential? My mother, bless her, made me feel better by performing brutal copyedits of the director of admissions’ rejection letters. (I won’t name initials, but the director’s name was Olga E. Euben—seared into my memory.)
As a student at Hampshire College (I would go on to be called “the ideal Hampshire student” by a professor), I began yet another novel, called This Ruined Planet. A post-apocalyptic tale employing Faulknerian narrative techniques, it was most notable for the 37 different words I used in place of the adjective gray. Mercifully, this novel was never finished.
I did, however, finish a semiautobiographical novel called The Basement Dwellers. With the help of my adviser, Lynne Hanley, I was able to cut the 300-page first draft down to 175 pages. It was still probably too long, but at least it was no longer big enough to hurt anybody. I still recall Lynne’s explanation of mimetic fallacy, used in relation to my writing: if you’re writing about something that’s boring, don’t make the writing boring, too.
Point taken and, mercifully, this novel was never published. One copy, however, resides in the Hampshire Colllege library. I would never, ever advocate the theft and destruction of any library property, ever—but, let’s just say that some library holdings would be missed less than others.
After graduating, I filled my lungs with fresh air and lit out for the territories. I didn’t apply to graduate school. I wanted to experience life as it was lived—and to earn my living as a working writer, not some tweedy, out-of-touch academic.
One year later, I was working the graveyard shift at Kinko’s in my hometown. This allowed me to make cheap copies of my novellas, Dark Suns, Limbo, and In the Dark. (Had I written a fourth novella, I suspect it would have been called Limbo in the Dark.) Not enough has been written about the dangers posed to the world of literature by the ready availability of cheap photocopies. As above, if you have any of these in your possession, send them to me and I will replace them with better writing, no questions asked. Your name will be held in the strictest confidence, Sean Dwyer.
When the novellas didn’t make me famous, even locally, I decided to become a filmmaker. Then a rock star. Then a filmmaker who scored his own films. I published a short story. I had my picture published with the short story! To celebrate, I drank fifteen beers.
I decided to leave my hometown for Austin, Texas, where I would be a rock star and novelist. Hey, if Nick Cave could do it, so could I—and I wasn’t even addicted to heroin!
Then I met Marya Key, the woman who would become my wife. Having grown up in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, she loved Missoula and didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave without her. I persuaded her to at least visit Austin with me. Six weeks after we started dating, we got engaged on the banks of the Colorado River—excuse me, Lady Bird Lake—as bats flew overhead. But we decided not to move to Austin.
Five months later, we were married in St. Timothy’s Chapel, overlooking Georgetown Lake. We had our reception at Club Moderne in Anaconda. The following year, we visited Chicago and loved it. We went home, packed, and went back to Chicago. When we want to do something, we don’t mess around. (The whole thing was chronicled, if not copyedited, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)
I Call Hollywood; Call Goes Straight to Voicemail
“The movie medium is the manna of the masses!” I crowed, and quit my job. Putting myself on wife support, I spent 1997 writing screenplays—five in all. As I production companies with calls and queries, I got some nibbles but no bites. It soon became apparent to me that I would need to earn some money to support my screenwriting. What better way, thought I, than by becoming a freelance writer?
I would like to say that it soon became apparent to me that I would need a job to support the freelancing that was supposed to support the screenwriting. Alas, I didn’t realize this until the spring of 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst.
But these years were productive, if poorly paid. I wrote or cowrote 10 screenplays in all. If you have any of these in your possession, please consider producing them as motion pictures. A few of them aren’t half bad. I even wrote and directed a play, Driving a Bargain, which was later optioned for film by Luminair.
I also wrote articles for Playboy.com, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Fiction Writer, Billiards Digest, Chicago Social, NewCity, the Chicago Reader, et cetera and so forth.
More importantly, I began revising a novel that I had written in my parents’ basement over the course of three weeks in the winter of 1993, after I had returned from a brief sojurn as a bookseller on Charing Cross Road in London but before I began my tenure at Kinko’s. The novel, a mystery, was my attempt at selling out. “You can’t sell out until you’ve sold something!” the old me shouts at the young me. But the young me still won’t listen.
I submitted Into the Cold, Cold Mountains perhaps two dozen times and was told repeatedly to change the name, because Charles Frazier had already locked up the words “Cold Mountain” back in 1997. I changed the title to Cold Lessons—it is set in winter, and it is about a teacher—but they declined to publish it under this title, too.
Graff Needs Work
After a six-week period with no assignments, no checks, and no hope of either, I turned my writing skills to yet another form: the resume. Having published a wide variety of articles for respected publications, I was confident of securing a position as assistant editor, if not associate.
Months later, I accepted my only offer, as editorial assistant at Booklist magazine. Then nearly 100 years old, Booklist provided prepublication book and media reviews to aid public librarians in their purchasing decisions. Books! More books! What’s not to love?
Well, I was working for Reference Books Bulletin, a once-separate publication that now appeared in the back pages of Booklist, right before the index. I love dictionaries and encyclopedias as much as the next guy, but did you know that there’s a set of books titled The Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences?
I worked hard and kept my head down. Rather, I kept my head up, hoping to be noticed. I streamlined procedures. I weeded the files. I rewrote the style manual and put in plenty of jokes. I began contributing reviews to the Adult Books section of Booklist. (That means books written for adults—get your mind out of the gutter.)
Eventually, when Editor & Publisher Bill Ott decided that Booklist needed one of those new-fangled website thingies, there was only one logical choice. Fortunately, he was unavailable and I got the job.
I should mention that, before I was promoted from Editorial Assistant to Senior Editor, I had fallen into a despairing funk over the impossibility of ever being promoted. People who love books and more books, it seems, have little incentive to leave Booklist, leaving little chance of upward mobility. Therefore, I used my spare time—when I was done entering bibliographic information for The Library Book Cart Precision Drill Team Manual (By Linda D. McCracken and Lynne Zeiher. 2001. 160p. McFarland, paper, $25 (0-7864-1159-7). 021.2.) I used time at my desk to write a novel called Like Getting Paid to Read.
Like Getting Paid to Read is about a guy who quits his job at Kinko’s to write screenplays but soon finds he needs money to support him in that goal and so becomes a freelance writer, eventually ending up as an editorial assistant at a prepublication review source called Book Journal. So, you know, science fiction.
Actually, it’s really not a roman a clef; I intended it as humorous metafiction, and really wasn’t trying to settle any scores. Nevertheless, I knew I couldn’t publish it while employed by Booklist. But, since I wasn’t going to be at Booklist long, it wouldn’t be long before I would be able to thrill the world with my harrowing tale of bibliographic data entry, screenwriting, and Serbian war criminals. (As you may guess, there’s a twist.)
That was half a decade ago. I am still at Booklist. If you possess a copy of the unpublished manuscript of Like Getting Paid to Read, please return it to me postage due, et cetera.
Success! (Sort Of)
I recount these tales of woe not to gain the reader’s sympathy but as an aid to aspiring writers. Unless your first name is Jonathan and you live in Brooklyn, or your first name starts with a vowel or consonant and you roomed with the daughter of Binky Urban in college, you will have to write a lot, and submit a lot, before good things start happening for you.
So, shortly after I got my corner office—and just a little while before they took it back—I worked a referral from a friend to get Cold Lessons in front of a decision maker at Tekno Books, a packager that acquires manuscripts for Five Star Mystery. They wanted to publish it! How much was I paid? Well, I don’t like to brag, so let me just say it was in the high three figures.
Why did I publish Cold Lessons under the name Michael McCulloch? Well, I was proud of the book, but it was about 13 years old by that time and I felt I could do better. So I decided to save my real name for my next book.
Or the book after that one. Having been introduced to the chairman of Severn House, I pitched him my idea for a contemporary political thriller, in the style of Eric Ambler, over breakfast in Chicago. He asked for an outline and two chapters, then offered me a contract for—yes, I had broken into the low four figures! I told him I wanted to publish it under the name Walter Key. Why? Addicted to anomynity, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted to save my real name for the book that would win the National Book Award.
Anyway, just before the book went to press, Severn asked me to use my real name instead. Vanity won; I consented.
I sat back and waited for the reviews. Publishers Weekly was the first to weigh in. According to them, My Fellow Americans was “thoughtful . . . challenging . . . intriguing.” There were more words—145 of them, to be precise—but those 3 were the only ones worth quoting. I held a wake in my office; my fellow book reviewers consoled me, at least until the whiskey ran out.
(For what it’s worth, Library Journal gave me a terrific review.)
The next book was harder to write, partly because I now had two strapping sons, partly because one of those sons (he knows who he is) felt that sleep was a luxury wasted on parents. Publishers Weekly hated One Nation, Under God, too—what is it with those anonymous reviewers?—but the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it “evokes such paranoid 1970s thrillers as The Parallax View and Six Days of the Condor.”
I wholeheartedly recommend the book reviews at the Chicago Sun-Times.
As I write revise this, it’s
March July 2010, and my fourth novel, The Price of Liberty, is about to go to press has just been published. On the back cover is a quote by the author of Six Days of the Condor, James Grady. That’s worth any six PW reviews, even good ones, if you ask me.
(Update: PW has given The Price of Liberty a good review. And so has LJ. I’m well chuffed.)
And, I am pleased to report, I have just signed contracts for two children’s books with Roaring Brook Press. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that they’ll be coming out in 2011 and 2012.
Wait—isn’t the world supposed to end in 2012? Well, if it does, at least I’ll die a published author.
Wait, There’s More
The world did not end in 2012, and neither did my publishing career, although things did slow down there for awhile. My second middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle, is slated for publication by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in early 2017.
And there’s another novel for adults in the works, too—more on that soon, I hope.