Today, my local paper, the Duluth News Tribune, published my rather lengthy (what did you expect from a novelist?) rumination on the writing life. You can read the edited version here:
Or the unedited version here:
A WRITER’S JOURNEY
It started with a subtle suggestion from my wife. On the eve of my first spinal fusion surgery in 1991, René knew, given my OCD nature, I’d be a handful for her if I didn’t keep my mind and my body occupied. “You’re going to be off work for three months,” she said as we rode to a medical appointment with my neurosurgeon, “you need to do something to occupy your time.”
I shrugged, looked out the window and simply let her keep going. “Why don’t you write a novel? You’ve always wanted to,” she added.
I won’t belabor the point. I’ve told many gatherings, book clubs, and groups who’ve come to hear me speak since my first novel, The Legacy, hit bookstores in October of 2000, how I came to writing, how, as a small child learning to read, I penned my first “book”, a daring-a-do adventure saga entitled The Priates and the Two Man (The Pirates and the Two Men) in Mrs. Nelson’s first grade class. The writing bug struck early, stayed with me through high school (I was the sports editor of the Denfeld Criterion), but took a hiatus during college and law school. Still, even while navigating courses and papers and professors on my way to attaining a juris doctorate degree, I remained an avid reader. Mostly of historical and contemporary fiction: books like Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, Rich Man, Poor Man and The Godfather. It wasn’t until we moved back to Duluth and started practicing law that I explored the classics: diving into Hemingway, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, and other authors of note. Those novels rekindled a desire, an urge, a calling, if you will, to write. But instead of staking out a plot of writerly ground from which to plant and harvest fiction, I started writing a column for my local newspaper, The Hermantown Star, a slice-of-life effort entitled “Living Out”, chronicling our family’s life in rural NE Minnesota in an old Sears farmhouse along the banks of the Cloquet River. For eight years, editor Cindy Alexander (and her successors) welcomed my essays portraying the antics of the Munger clan until, as I faced surgery, René issued her challenge to my creativity.
Oh. I didn’t stop writing “Living Out”. Rather, that effort became secondary to my research and writing a James Michener-style combination historical novel/thriller set in my maternal grandfather’s homeland, Yugoslavia. From 1991 until 2000, I worked and reworked the novel, queried literary agents and publishers, and waited for someone to say, “This works. We’ll publish it!”. Along the way, I was hoodwinked by an unscrupulous agent, had a Canadian agent pass away just as she was going to accept the book, and tried to hold my fire and let things play out. In the end, the book came out in October of 2000 through Savage Press, a local collaborative publishing house, and became a regional bestseller.
Following book tours (that took me from Youngstown, OH to Denver, CO and all points in between), I hunkered down to write Pigs, a Trial Lawyer’s Story, a John Grisham-style legal thriller set 0n Minnesota’s prairie. But even after the modest success of The Legacy, neither Savage nor any other publisher was interested in the manuscript. Which, after much consideration, led me to form Cloquet River Press (CRP) as a vehicle to self-publish Pigs in 2002. I’ll spare you the details of what that journey entailed, other than to simply chronicle, that, along the way, two of my U.S. distributors closed their doors; my Canadian wholesaler filed for bankruptcy; and I was left distributing my books through Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the world. That wasn’t a good fit: the publishing game requires that books be sent to the wholesaler with the caveat that all books not sold are eligible to be returned to the publisher (me!) for full credit. In the end, that model proved too expensive and difficult for me to negotiate (I was working fulltime as a district court judge), which led me to rely heavily on hand sales (at events) and internet sales (through Amazon).
I changed printers because I couldn’t afford to order books in amounts that allowed for a reasonable per-book-cost, migrating to KDP, Amazon’s self-publishing platform, where books are priced, not upon quantity ordered, but upon page count. Since moving to self-publication, a number of my novels, most notably the Finnish American trilogy (Suomalaiset, Sukulaiset, and Kotimaa) have sold well, with two of the Finnish historical novels garnering national grants towards publication. But I’ve never made money, much less broken even, on any book following the success of The Legacy. More devastating to my writerly ego, of the fourteen books (nine novels) I’ve penned in the past 30 years, nary a one has been seen worthy enough to be a regional or state-wide award winner (or even receive an honorable mention) from judges reviewing my work. Oh, a couple of short stories have won local writing contests but the collections containing those stories (Ordinary Lives and Kulukari (Vagabond) and Other Short Stories) have been largely ignored by the powers that be. Even so, I’ve soldiered on, my fragile ego buttressed by reviews from Kirkus, readers, and book clubs who’ve found my work worth a read. But a writer can only chase a dream so long. At some point, the costs associated with paying professional editors, printing review copies for pre-readers, and attending craft fairs, book fairs, and other events (which require paying a table or booth fee), and printing books for sale become something akin to Ahab sailing an endless ocean in search of a white whale.
This book buying season, I find myself once again facing spinal fusion surgery. I’m not able to host a book launch of my latest tome, Muckraker, a Novel Noir, or attend book festivals, craft shows, or readings and signings. Like all my work, for better or for worse, I put my heart and my soul¾not to mention considerable coin¾into researching, writing, editing, formatting, and uploading my latest book onto KDP (Amazon’s printing arm) and Ingram Spark. My own hubris may have well brought me to this point, a point where I unplug my keyboard, end my research (the new book I’m working on is a massive historical novel chronicling Yugoslavia from its inception to its disintegration through multiple characters and families), and simply admit, “I’ve done the best can. It’s time to rest the pen.”
Agents? I queried an even one hundred while working on Muckraker, following the carefully described protocols on their websites when submitting the manuscript. Perhaps a dozen agents wrote back, saying, in essence, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Small presses? Two dozen received queries from me. I never heard back from a single one. So, as autumn turns to winter, as the sleeping lawn between my writing studio and the black waters of the Cloquet River whitens from snow, I’m left to consider: What now?
I’ll let you know if I arrive at an answer that suits both my writerly ego and my desire, my passion, to tell stories.
(Mark Munger is a life-long resident of NE MN, retired attorney and judge, author of 14 books, and a writer for the Finnish American Reporter.)