As I mentioned in part one, I began writing Alexander’s Song in good spirits, with high hopes. In those early days I dared to think some fairly audacious thoughts: that this book could be a breakthrough book of sorts, big enough, different enough, ambitious enough to lift me out of the midlist and carry me to … well, to some higher place. Back in those days, that generally meant things like hardcover publication with a modest advertising budget, to be followed, of course, by a nice little paperback deal, some foreign sales, and possibly even the holy grail — a three-book deal for the next contract. I didn’t think about those things much when actually writing the novel. I was too caught up in the struggle, in finding the story and bringing it to life. But when I had finished, I allowed myself to entertain the fantasies again.
One of my friends was an author much more successful than I. He will remain nameless here, but trust me, you know him. He was a household name then and still is now, a talented and accomplished novelist who has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list more than once. Interestingly, despite the vast and obvious differences in our careers, he was going through some of the very same things I was, and we talked about it often. Both of us still dearly loved the horror genre but had grown wary of the horror field — the publishing, marketing, and bookselling end of the business, which had changed dramatically from just a few years earlier. Both of us were restless, looking to stretch our wings and stake out new ground somewhere beyond the borders of horror, which seemed to be shrinking and becoming more inflexible every day. Both of us had written books that moved us toward that new territory, and both of us were now getting pushback. Remember my agent, who told me I’d have to choose between artistic satisfaction and having a career? We had since parted company, but her words still haunted me. Because the stakes were so much higher for him, my bestselling friend was having an even more difficult time.
I sent him the manuscript of Alexander’s Song, and he liked it – liked it enough to share it with his agent. Needless to say, I was over the moon, sure that this was it. A famous writer had embraced my work and was recommending it to a big-time agent. My moment had arrived. My breakthrough was nigh.
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
The agent responded with some kind words. She liked the book. She thought it was well-written. But ultimately, she said, she didn’t know how to sell it.
I’d like to say I was undaunted by the rejection, but that would be a lie. I was daunted, all right, big-time daunted. The more air you pump into a balloon, the bigger the bang when it pops, and I had pumped a lot of air into that particular balloon. But it was still early days, so I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to work. I spent the next year and a half or so sending Alexander’s Song off to agents and editors, each time sure that this time would be the charm.
Time after time, again and again, it wasn’t.
The verdict of my friend’s agent – it’s good, but I don’t know how to sell it – echoed back to me over and over from the corridors of publishing. I never heard a bad word about the novel itself, not from anyone. The story was described as “interesting” or “intriguing.” It was deemed to be “well-written,” my writing itself called “strong” and even “powerful.” But every agent, every editor, declared the book to be unsellable, unmarketable.
Part of the problem, I gathered, was that I was still mostly an unknown. That’s a hard thing to accept when you’ve been toiling for a decade to build a small name for yourself, but in the wider world beyond the horror genre, I was, quite frankly, nobody. Also, Alexander’s Song was a long book. A very long book. That meant it would be expensive to publish, difficult to pitch to booksellers, and hard to convince readers to buy, since the price tag would have to be at the far upper end of the acceptable range.
Reading between the lines, I also gleaned another problem, perhaps a bigger problem. Alexander’s Song was a book without a genre. That was a serious handicap back in the days when every book had the category printed right on the spine, telling booksellers where to shelve it and letting fans of the various genres know it was safe to purchase. What one-word description could go on the spine of Alexander’s Song? It had the feel of a horror novel, but was most definitely not horror. It involved a mystery, but didn’t follow most of the conventions of the mystery genre. It had elements of suspense and thriller, but again, few of the things that readers of those sorts of books looked for when they went shopping for something new to read. It even flirted a bit at the edges of mainstream or literary fiction, but didn’t come close to earning either of those labels. It was, in short, an in-between sort of book. It resisted categorization. It was perhaps the kind of book that a popular, well-established genre writer might be able to get away with, slipping it into their usual yearly output. The publisher would talk about a “bold new direction,” the critics would declare it a “brave departure,” and the fans would gobble it up, since they gobbled up everything the author wrote. But a complete unknown? Putting out a long book – a long, expensive book – that didn’t fit into any of the usual genre niches? Sorry. Unmarketable.
I would love to tell you that this is one of those inspirational tales about persistence in the face of adversity, that I was one of those authors who accumulated eighty rejections and was at the end of the line, homeless and starving and about to jump off a bridge, when suddenly, like a mystical stroke of fate or divine providence, the eighty-first publisher bought the book. But alas, that was not the case.
What actually happened was that a whole lot of time went by, as it has a nasty habit of doing. The rejections mounted, I felt myself running out of options, and I finally just surrendered and put the tired old manuscript aside. It was time for me to face the truth and deal with more important things, namely, that I was the father of two-year-old twins who liked to eat and needed things like clothes and toys and medicine for their ear infections. I went out and, for the first time in quite a while, got a day job, then another one. That second one became more like a day career and eventually turned into a huge, insatiable monster that swallowed me whole and didn’t disgorge me again for nearly two decades. Alexander’s Song went into that fabled writer’s trunk, where the pages curled and started to turn yellow. I thought about it a lot at first, then less and less as the years went by, and finally hardly at all. When I did think about it, I told myself that the entire publishing industry couldn’t be wrong. They’d told me the book was unmarketable, and obviously they were right. And if it was unmarketable, then clearly it had never been any good to begin with. From time to time I was tempted to drag it out and read it again, but I never quite had the courage. I was afraid of what I might discover.
One day around 2010, I was finally brave enough to retrieve the manuscript from the trunk (actually, just an old cardboard box at the back of the closet) and give it a quick look. An odd thing happened. The book surprised me. I had expected to read it with a sort of permanent cringe, thoroughly embarrassed by what I had written and tried so hard to sell all those years ago. But, wonder of wonders, it didn’t make me cringe at all. Well, maybe once or twice, but they were mostly small cringes, and I only blushed and rolled my eyes once that I recall. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected to find a disheartening relic from the past, something weak and shallow that would confirm once and for all that the novel truly belonged in the box I’d consigned it to, not out in the world where readers could accidentally stumble across it and discover what I fraud I really was. Instead I found a novel that had held up quite well, that was better than I had expected, that was, in fact, almost as good as I’d thought it was while writing it. It was a novel that was sturdy and strong, the characters still interesting and believable, the story still relevant, and best of all, still entertaining.
Things had changed a lot since the early nineties, and I now had options for publishing Alexander’s Song myself. It took two more years, but eventually I was able to sit down and write another draft of the book – polishing it, mostly, fixing things here and there. I did consider updating the whole thing, bringing the story into the 21st century, but that never felt like a viable option. Alexander Bassett would have been a much different writer if rather than being a literary star of the forties and fifties he was writing in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. Andy Gillespie would have been a much different character, too, and the town he arrives in at the start of the novel would have been vastly changed if everything was happening in 2012 instead of 1991 or ’92. Ultimately, I simply felt the book would lose too much if I forced it to fit into the era of smart phones and social media. It needed to remain where it was, where it had always been, safely ensconced in its pre-internet world.
I released Alexander’s Song as a self-published eBook in the spring of 2012, and in the decade since it has been a slow but steady seller. It’s never cracked any top rankings. It certainly hasn’t made me rich. But it sells a few copies most months, and that’s always nice. Even nicer, most of the readers I’ve heard from seem to really love the book. A few years ago, the talented Scott MacDonald recorded the audio version of the novel, and that’s sold some copies too. It’s not what I once envisioned for my so-called breakthrough book, but it’s good – and, to my great surprise, there was still one more chapter yet to come.
One of the people who read Alexander’s Song in its self-published form was an immensely talented writer named Kevin Lucia. He became a fan and went on to be a true champion of the book, saying lovely things about it whenever he had the chance. Flash forward a few years and Kevin became the new paperback/eBook editor at Cemetery Dance Publications. Flash forward a bit farther and we arrive at the winter of 2022, when Kevin got in touch and said he’d like to add Alexander’s Song to CD’s paperback/eBook line. I thought about it for, oh, thirty seconds or so before I said yes. Seriously, the decision was not hard. I love and admire Kevin, and I’d been published by CD twice before – they did the limited edition of my short story collection Whispered Echoes, and I teamed up with Brian James Freeman and CD founder Rich Chizmar to edit the anthology Better Weird – so I was pleased to join their fold again.
One more draft of the book followed – are we up to six now? Seven? I’ve kind of lost count – and that brings us to where we are today. Alexander’s Song will hit the streets on Sept. 30, 2022, in a brand new eBook edition and, best of all for me, its first ever print edition, a beautiful trade paperback with stunning cover art by my favorite artist of all time, Jill Bauman.
It didn’t happen the way I imagined back in that dingy basement office where it all began. The book never turned out to be my breakout novel, the one that forever changed my career. Instead, it was the book that almost ended my career, that sent me off onto other pathways for much longer than I care to think about. But it’s still the novel that I was dreaming about as I tentatively tapped out the first few sentences and started figuring out what came next. It’s still a book that I feel strongly about, that I love, that I’m really quite proud of. And yes, it’s still exactly the kind of book that I like to read.