Eddie Renfros, on the brink of failure after his critically acclaimed first book, wants only to publish another novel and hang onto his beautiful wife, Amanda, who has her own literary ambitions and a bit of a roving eye. Among their circle are writers of every stripe-from the Machiavellian Jackson Miller to the 'experimental writer' Henry who lives in squalor while seeking the perfect sentence. Amid an asortment of schemeing agents, editors, and hangers-on, each writer must negotiate the often competing demands of success and integrity, all the while grappling with their inner demons and the stabs of professional and personal jealousy. The question that nags at them is this: What is it to write a novel in the twenty-first century?
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Elise Blackwell is the author of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish and Hunger, chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of 2003. Her stories have appeared in Witness, Seed, Global City Review, Topic, and elsewhere. Originally from southern Louisiana, she teaches at the University of South Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Had Jackson's decision to triumph alone in the world come later than his ninth birthday, he might have chosen a more sensible career. He'd been good at things from the day he learned to walk, and he might have succeeded at any number of them. So he'd been told by his mother and then by the teachers whose thresholds he'd crossed. If Jackson had postponed his decision to rise on his own merits until the age of thirteen or fourteen, he might have made money in law and followed with a political career. He might have battened down and accomplished something in science or medicine. If he'd waited out high school--those were the years that brightened his complexion and delivered his height--he might have had a real shot at the stage or screen.
Timing is decisive, though. On his ninth birthday, Jackson had just read My Side of the Mountain, the first book he'd truly loved. And so as he watched the yacht-cake sag in the summer heat, he decided to succeed as a writer. In the years that followed, he wrote very little. But he read every novel he could grab and studied the biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and later Henry Miller. He practiced his lines on college girlfriends, told his father to go to hell and stay there, and spent a precarious year in France, where he wrote a story a month. Admitted to a good graduate school, he revised those same dozen stories until they were really pretty good. Now, fifteen years after that decisive birthday, his stories had landed Jackson on the patio of the Outlook Bar on the last night of the Blue Ridge Writers Conference. Grasping the rail installed to keep inebriated patrons from slipping down the mountain, he surveyed the view. The sun had just set, and the mountains curved against the pink, darkening sky. Jackson photographed the image with a blink and considered metaphors to capture its essence. He tried to picture whales swimming, but the color of the sky didn't suggest the ocean. He considered elephants, planets in orbit, giant shadows. The only satisfying idea he had was that of ink on paper. That's not bad, he thought: the writer seeing the world as script.
Still, he was certain he would think of something much better when he was not drinking his third gin. He believed what Norman Mailer claimed: the only difference between an experienced writer and an inexperienced one is the ability to work on a bad day. From the father who had cut him off, Jackson inherited confidence as well as the height that had made him sixth man on the only team his college ever sent to the ncaa tournament. He had talent, enough of it, and the impoverished-gentry charm supplied by what remained of his Charleston accent. He would provide the rest himself; he planned to start a writing regimen as soon as he was back in New York. No one was going to write his first book for him.
Exhilarated by altitude, expansive vista, and intended new rigor, he determined that he would return to the Blue Ridge Writers Conference--as paid guest rather than paying participant. He told himself he would arrive as the author of largest reputation and bank account. Five years, he gave himself. He gave himself until his twenty-ninth birthday.
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