Write Until I Die
I read, in one of the Brain Mind Bulletins many years ago (I forget what number, even the date), that writers who published early in their careers have a lesser chance of leaving a mark in the world of literature.
Above ten years, the figure said, was the invisible line.
The same article mentioned that writing—as a profession—had also one of the highest incidences of emotional distress. In fact, a multi-decade study had come up with some really depressing figures regarding writer’s emotional lives.
A worrying percentage had committed suicide, for example. And many more had felt the need to use psychoactive drugs.
I was in no way considering either course. The throes of depression were not unfamiliar to me, though, upon getting rejection after rejection.
The fact that I was still early in my career—a few years “only”—and finding out that publishing too early might not be the best thing to happen to me, was of little solace.
When you write for some time, a day comes when you crave to be published, and that can turn into an obsession. Basically, it’s like going to University and never graduating because you always fail the final test.
Years later, as I was returning to Ecuador from an eleven-month trip through the Coral Sea aboard a sailboat, during a trans-Pacific flight from Suva, Fiji, to Los Angeles, I saw an interview with Dany DeVito.
He was being asked about his sudden success.
“That kind of success has taken fifteen years to happen,” he said. It is, he added, the time it takes to make it in the artistic world.
My heart fell, my gut clenched, and I felt distraught. I was returning from yet another set of South Seas adventures with the idea of doing everything it took to get published. I had some manuscripts under my belt, stuff I’d written while at sea, in need of revision, yes, but I knew I had a winner.
And by golly, I had been putting in the required time to learn the craft.
Writing writing writing.
Not counting the first texts from my early youth—twelve years old, a few short stories and a novel that I burnt some years later—I’d really began writing my first novels when I was fifteen. So, with twenty-three springs under my belt … did it mean that I was only eight years into my writing career?
And that therefore I would have to freaking wait another freaking seven, according to DeVito?
I couldn’t believe that was going to happen.
Absolutely bloody not!
When I got home, I bought Writer’s Market and, like many times before, began ticking off potential publishers for my short stories, as well as looking for agents since, without agents, the turf of novel publishing—at least in those days—was utterly banned unless you wished to use a “vanity press” (later on called “subsidy publishing”).
I was in the midst of those efforts, when only a few months later I was asked to deliver the yacht I’d been sailing in the Coral Sea from New Zealand to Ecuador.
There’s a lot of ocean between New Zealand and Ecuador, especially if the chosen route is what’s known as “The Roaring Forties”—forty-degrees latitude south, and average of forty knot winds and forty-foot waves.
What the heck. I set out on another adventurous journey putting my plans on hold since being skipper of a million-dollar yacht that needs work done to prepare for such a crossing would take my full attention.
What happened in that adventure is another story.
It includes dead people (not on board, in spite of the confusion within New Zealand’s Police, Customs, and their version of the DEA). According to New Zealand’s Chief of Customs (after the whole affair was cleared up), mine was “The most incredible story of the year in the City of Sails.”
It was the 28th of December of 1990, so there was little chance of someone else surpassing it.
Incredible enough for me to dare approach Oliver Stone’s agent at the time (when I had made my way to California some months later), by means of a mutual friend who’d introduced us.
When I told Paula Wagner about my idea to write a screenplay based on that adventure, she recommended I put it on the back burner.
“You might be the next one who gets himself killed,” she said. “Better find the right angle before you write anything about it. You might be divulging stuff you’ve no idea you shouldn’t.”
Stuff, that by then, had already killed two people I’d known.
Needless to say, I decided to listen to her. If she’d gotten spooked by my tale … I wasn’t going to plow ahead, was I?
I’d flown to the US as part of my ongoing pursuit to see my work being published. I found day-time work in a travel agency in Watsonville, CA, and writing at night, until midnight or one in the morning.
But after a year of this, publication still seemed unattainable, so distant, with rejections piling up once more and my energies due to my rhythm of work taken a toll on me.
I had read Jack London’s Martin Eden—his autobiographical novel—I thought there were way too many parallels there, so I decided to change tacks.
I returned to Ecuador in 1992, where I could live in my parents’ house and dedicate as much time to writing as possible without having to work my ass off. I did some occasional tour-guiding to make a few bucks—enough to send out manuscripts and continue hitting my head against that massive granite wall that was separating me from publication.
Although I didn’t relent, I became increasingly more convinced that publication was somehow and for whatever reason not going to happen to me. There were too many things against it. Invisible barriers that needed a special key.
So I began to wonder how much longer I should continue dedicating so much time to writing. I was twelve years into my “career” and still no takers.
I plowed on.
Another year went by.
One dawn, just past five in the morning, as I was walking home after a night out with friends—journalists from one of Ecuador’s newspapers and people from a news agency I’d befriended—I asked myself again how much longer I would continue to pursue my mad idea to become a published writer.
It was one of those moments when you step on your own heart. And you say to yourself that you must make a decision.
Thirteen years is a hell of a lot of time to dedicate to a pursuit that—in my case—seemed to be cursed by the gods. What was I doing wrong?
I’d heard of writers who had published after they’d died. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole came to mind.
Was I going to be one of them?
Not commit suicide, like John Kennedy Toole did, no, but would I be “discovered” after I died?
Yes, it was one of those moments riddled with melodramatic thoughts writers can sometimes get when we walk the earth yet feel we are below the ground. One of those moments when that one thing you want to attain seems a total impossibility.
Even worse than sailing through a Category 4 hurricane.
I stood in front of the door and asked myself: “How much longer am I willing to continue writing without getting published?”
With tears in my eyes, and with a pressed jaw, I said:
“I will to continue writing until I die … even if I never ever publish anything … even if nothing ever gets published even after I die. I’ll write. Writing is what I do.”
I stopped sending out my short stories, gave up on trying to find an agent. I was going to continue writing, but wouldn’t concern myself with publication.
Yet, like in Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, the moment I gave up wanting to pass through THE DOOR, something shifted in the Universe.
A week later, a friend called.
He’d just been offered the job of editor in one of Ecuador’s national papers, in La Hora’s Cultural Magazine.
He asked me whether I might be interested in writing articles for them. I could choose the topic, and yes, it offered modest pay. However, if I accepted, I would have to write one article per week.
Did I have any ideas?
By God, did I!
I immediately offered to write a series of articles on science fiction, a strange topic for Ecuador, and he accepted.
Not just that, but he made my article the leading piece for the week’s installment, which basically meant he gave me two pages rather than the usual one.
That piece kicked off my career as a published author.
Curiously enough, the week after my “And Why Science Fiction?” hit the stands—the week of the 28th of May/3rd of June—El Comercio (Ecuador’s second-largest newspaper) appointed a well-known journalist to write a feature on science fiction too, right after mine, though very broad and general.
Little did they know, mine was just the introduction to a more in-depth exploration of the genre. And then into other genres:
Romance, murder mysteries, fantasy, science-fantasy, suspense, thrillers … the type of literature that hardly mattered in Ecuador’s literary circles.
Then I went on to do a series on Ecuador’s publishing houses, most of them little more than “vanity presses” as there is no book market as such in a such a small country where, back then, the statistics stated that Ecuadorians read a eighth of a book per year.
At the end of 1994—six months later—I received a call from Germany, from the Hermann Lietz Schule. I’d met the Director in Ecuador in July. They had a project called High Seas High School. They wanted me to fly to Germany, embark on the Fritjof Nansen—a Tall Ship—and sail across to South America following Humboldt’s route. I was to be hired as a navigation instructor as well as Spanish teacher.
What was I to do?
I’d just began publishing.
Could I simply leave, in search for new adventures?
They lured me with the fact that a well known German author—twice winner of the German Literature Prize—was coming aboard, too.
I consulted with my editor at La Hora Cultural and he said he would keep the slot open for me for when I returned. Although, could I now and again send them articles from abroad? Sort of like their own international correspondent for La Hora Cultural? I could on whatever struck my fancy, though something that could be of interest in Ecuador.
I had a feeling about this trip.
My sailing adventure turned the door to a new level in publication.
After a couple of months aboard the Fritjof Nansen—and two Force 10 storms in the North Sea in December, an Atlantic crossing from Lisbon, Portugal, via Tenerife, The Canary Islands—we arrived in Barbados where I met Hans-Christian Kirsch, better known as Frederik Hetmann.
We hit off immediately, and he took me under his wing.
When he read one of my manuscripts written in English which I had taken with me—Unemotion—he said it had to be published.
He offered to take it with him to Germany upon his return, and pass it on to various publishing houses. But just in case, he said, we should also write a novel together, an Adventure-Fantasy. I saw what he was doing. His byline would increase the chances of my name being accepted in the inner circles.
The two of us flew to Ecuador from Panama after a kind of “mutiny” broke out aboard the Fritjof Nansen. He stayed at my place for three weeks, during which we worked a bit on the novel idea we’d cooked up, and he decided to translate the first few chapters of Unemotion into German, as editors would not read the English version unless it was of a well known—and published—author.
As I waited to hear from Hans-Christian and his German editors, my “article per week” at La Hora Cultural turned into three articles per week—one of the Cultural Magazine, and two for the Sunday Magazine, of which one was on environmental issues and the other on science.
I chose the topics.
It was mid-1995 when one of the collaborators for La Hora Cultural told me he was on an advisory position with Ecuador’s National Library System (SINAB) and that they were looking for manuscripts. He asked me whether I had an unpublished novel ready for publication, because if I did, he could pass it on to the SINAB’s Director.
I handed him Oro En La Selva—Gold In The Jungle, based on one of my adventures into the Amazon as a photographer hired for a gold-survey expedition.
Soon after I received a fax from Hans-Christian telling me that a German editor had decided to publish Unemotion; none other than Friedbert Stohner, the man who’d discovered Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World (which became that year’s world bestseller). Also, that C. Bertelsmann was interested in hiring us to write Die Insel Die Es Nie Gab—The Island That Never Was—based on our book proposal.
I was to fly to Germany in October for the Frankfurt Book Fair—the World Book Fair—to sign two book contracts and meet my new editors and he’d been talking to Fischer Taschenbuchverlag about another project.
And thus, the door to becoming a published author burst open, thirteen years after I’d sat down to write my first novel.
And twenty years after having sold my first novel, I finally managed to break into the English market with The Galapagos Agenda.
Quite a long haul.
If you are interested in it—my first published in English—click HERE.