I am honored to welcome Benjamin Hale today, the day of publication for his fantastic debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. I was lucky to be among the early readers of this book, and I have to say that it’s one of the best pieces of literature I’ve read in a while. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to aspiring writers who want to be inspired by someone who has put in the time to hone his craft, and whose book, for that time and arduous effort, is now on bookshelves throughout the world. I’ll include some more information about the book at the end of the post, but I sincerely hope you’ll buy a copy. Not only will you be supporting the work of a very talented fellow writer, but you’ll have an extremely entertaining story in which to immerse yourself. And now I’ll turn it over to Ben…
My friend Chris Kepner asked me to write a guest post on this blog. He said this blog is read by a lot of writers looking for representation, so something about my experience with publishing would be apropos.
So I figure I’ll just share my personal story with publishing. First of all, my novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, comes out from Twelve today, and before reading another sentence of this you should probably go pre-order a copy of the book, plus five or six back-up copies in case you lose it. That said, here’s my story.
When I was in my first couple years of college I decided I wanted to write fiction. I took some writing workshops, but I realized that nothing will improve one’s writing more than obsessive, single-minded, devotional practice. Ninety-nine percent of learning to write comes from writing and reading. (And reading in a certain way, too… To read as a writer, in one sense you always have to be on the lookout for things to steal. If you like what you’re reading, a part of you ought to be thinking as you read, “How is this working? What is going on with the handling of time, pacing, point of view, scene, narrative, etc.” If you don’t like what you’re reading, that can be useful, too—if you’re thinking, “What exactly is it about this crap that I hate so much, and how can I avoid doing this myself?”) So, to the great distress of my parents and against the good advice of pretty much everyone I knew, I took a leave of absence from school. When a college sophomore takes a “leave of absence” it usually means he’s dropping out. I worked for a summer editing technical documents at an aerospace company, a decent but mind-numbingly boring job that I quit in order to move into a gross little apartment with a great friend of mine, an alcoholic poet who was working at a pool cleaning company. (This friend died a few years ago, and I dedicated my book to him.) So, I said to myself, you left school to write fiction. So let’s do it. Here we go. Write.
First I wrote a novella about a theater director who visits a passion play in rural Mexico. When I was done with that, I’d run out of the money I’d saved from the aerospace job, and out of dire financial desperation got another job baking bagels in the middle of the night. I would wake up at two in the morning and get to work at three, bake bagels until ten o’clock, then go home, set up shop with notebook and pen at the card table in our disgusting apartment and write until exhaustion came over me like a dark mist. (I’ve always written my first drafts old-school, with a pen and paper, and I strongly recommend it. It may just be superstition, but I think I write better when I write longhand. The icy, anxious flicker of a computer screen has a way of stanching the creative juices, but real ink on real paper just flows and flows…) That year I finished the novella, and another novel—a big one that weighed in at around 500 pages. Set in the early 60s, it was about an imagined friendship between characters based on Sun Ra and a young Alan Greenspan. That year I was dead-broke all the time, and at the end of it I was ill and noticeably skinnier. Also, I had grown long hair and a giant, bushy beard, an effect that in concert with my scrawniness made me look like I should have been standing barefoot on a milk crate at a busy intersection warning people of the apocalypse. But my writing had vastly improved. I fought with the Balrog that year, and when I returned from the edges of the earth, I was newly dressed in gleaming white robes, and more powerful than ever. Nothing I’ve ever done has helped my writing as much as that year.
To my parents’ pleasant surprise, I went back to school, where I funneled the lion’s share of my energy into writing fiction. I shelved the novels I’d written and started another, finished it and threw it away. That one was probably my next-best one. It was about a militant feminist anthropologist, a 400-year old man and a swingers’ resort on a fictional Caribbean island. I was also working on stories. My writing got better with every sentence I wrote. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, got in, and spent the next three years in Iowa City. I worked on stories off and on, but I mostly worked on my fourth novel, which eventually became by “first” novel. After the two-year MFA I got a godsend of a fellowship, which allowed me to live a third year in Iowa City, rent-free with a stipend and minimal teaching duties. I knew I was going to be broke when I finished the year-long fellowship, which meant that I would have to get a job, which would mean that after that year I would have far less time to write; therefore, I had to try like hell to finish the novel that year. By this point my novel had become an addiction, an obsession, something that was never absent from my waking consciousness and often invaded my dreams. So from August to August of 2008-9, I lived with two other writers in a nearly empty, drafty, bat-infested Tudor Colonial in Iowa City, locked in my office in the attic like a Victorian hysteria case, feverishly working on a 600-page novel about a talking chimp, distantly aware that in the world outside the global economy was collapsing or something.
And it worked. I finished it.
I had been in contact with a few agents who had visited Iowa over the course of the last few years, and I sent my novel to them first. The first few rejections trickled in, and I expanded my search. I was only sending my book to agents I’d met or had heard of, or who represented writers I knew. I didn’t keep count, but I’d say I was rejected by about twenty agents. There was one agent in particular that I was really hoping for. This guy is a dream agent, with an all-star client list and a golden reputation. I thought I had an in with him, because we had a friend in common, who passed my manuscript along to him with a good word. In his rejection email, he told me that my book is “hard to categorize, and as you know, publishers like categories.” When this “I’m sorry but I have to pass on this” email popped up in my inbox, I got frustrated, threw up my arms in despair and went back to what we at Iowa called the Big Blue Book of False Hopes—The Writers’ Market—and put out the dragnet for literary agents. I picked out about fifty agents and fired off a blitzkrieg of email queries. My query was only a few sentences long. It went like this:
Dear [name of agent],
I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a year ago and received a post-grad writing fellowship at the University of Iowa, which has given me the time I needed to finish a novel. The novel, titled “Bruno Littlemore,” recently received a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award.
It is a comic novel narrated by a chimpanzee. Please let me know if you would like to take a look at it.
That was all. I’d say over half of them wrote me back and asked to read it. Within about three weeks I had several offers.
Since then I’ve been a bewildered tourist cautiously exploring the confusing foreign country of my life, pointing at random items on menus and repeating the three or four words of the language I know.
I thought very carefully and considered the offers from some really fantastic agents, and chose one. I worked with my agent, Brian DeFiore, on polishing up another draft of the book, and in October of 2009 he sent it off to publishers. At the time I had just moved to New York from a lack of any other ideas (where else does a writer go?). I was subletting an apartment in Brooklyn from a friend of mine who was away on business for a few months, and working at a wine store in Astoria. Now, everything about the whole process of writing books, in what was then my experience, I knew to take a long fucking time. It took me about six years of writing novels and trashing them before I was good enough to write a novel that didn’t need to be trashed, three very concentrated years to write that novel, months and months to find an agent, another couple of months to work through edits with that agent. So I didn’t expect the publishing industry to have the swiftest of feet. I figured the process of selling the book would take months as well. There I was wrong. My agent sent the book to publishers on a Tuesday, and the first editor to make an offer—Cary Goldstein at Twelve—spent Tuesday night and all of Wednesday reading it and made an offer on Thursday morning. I was shocked. (This illustrates how unexpected this was to me: the previous day I had absentmindedly left my phone sitting on the counter of the wine store. I’d realized this when I got home, and thought, “Eh, whatever, I’ll get it tomorrow.” I opened the store at noon. So my phone spent that morning uselessly ringing in a locked wine shop in Astoria as my agent was frantically trying to call me to tell me we had an offer.) Twelve’s offer opened the gates, and over the course of the next week or two four more publishers threw their hats in the ring: Random House, Grove, Algonquin, and Free Press (an imprint of Simon and Schuster). I also met with people at Harper Collins, but they didn’t bid on it for some reason. There was an auction for the book, with the last men standing being Grove, Random House and Twelve. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the end I went with Twelve, who had been the first to bid, and they’ve done a fantastic job with my book. I’ve spent the last year waiting, mostly, and writing another book. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was released today. And that is the story of my experience with publishing, so far.
Sometimes I think that a good metaphor for success at writing would be to imagine a measuring cup that has to be filled up to a certain line, labeled “success.” To fill this cup up to the line, you have three ingredients: talent, hard work and luck. You can mix these things in any combination, but it has to fill the glass up to the line. I know plenty of incredibly talented writers who work really hard but seem to be stuck with the shittiest luck. And I know other writers who aren’t that talented and don’t work that hard but have had incredible luck. But really, the only one of these ingredients that you can control is hard work. Hard work will eventually, usually, create talent. There may be some people who simply hit the floor already loaded with talent, but I’ve honestly never met one. There is no shortcut—the only way to do it is to slowly, doggedly flog yourself forward like an abused horse in a nineteenth century Russian novel.
Usually, speaking in the office of wise-guru-on-the-mountain (right), the “Published Writer” (a mantle I am not yet accustomed to wearing) will tell the “Aspiring (i.e., Unpublished) Writer” that the best thing to do is to write every day. That’s probably good advice, I think, and more or less in line with what I said above. But on the other hand, I once heard Richard Price say something really interesting in an interview, the effect of which was, don’t bother writing every day. What’s more important is finding the story that you want to tell. The story that only you can tell. And when you find that story, you’ll be amazed at how much better your writing is. I found that comforting, in a way. So, I don’t know how much of my “success” was built on top of a mountainous body of practice work—those three other novels I’d written, not to mention the many stories and other, unfinished work—or just that I happened to find the story that I really wanted to tell after all that. What’s probably true, though, is that adage, attributed to some writer whose name I can’t remember, that goes, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
(I just Googled that quote—turns out it was Pablo Picasso who said it. Okay, so it was a painter, not a writer, but whatever, same thing applies to writing.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
by Benjamin Hale
A stunning debut novel, told from the point of view of Bruno Littlemore, the world’s first chimpanzee to develop the power of speech, chronicling the extraordinary events that lead to his imprisonment for murdering a man.
Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno’s developing ability to speak, Lydia removes him from the laboratory into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. Bruno’s untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys — and most affecting love stories — in recent literature.
With THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE, Benjamin Hale has written a relentlessly inventive coming of age story that is by turns comic, violent, heartbreaking, and perverse. Talking animals are as old as storytelling, but Bruno’s fictional memoir stands apart for its brilliant and affecting expression of what it feels like to be human. It is, in the end, a novel about finding one’s own voice, and insisting on it.
“Benjamin Hale is the most talented and intriguing young writer I’ve met in years. I love his prose, his dialogue, and his balls. Not his actual balls, of course, but the balls to write so ecstatically and with such mad conviction. When I first read the wonderfully comedic The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, I was so pleased to have come across a Writer. A writer with a capital W. Someone who clearly loves books and the power of the written word. It was like, “Ok, here’s a guy who’s going to be producing novels for years. This is the real deal.” It was like being a baseball scout in Oklahoma in the late 1940’s and seeing this young kid running around center-field, and you ask the guy next to you, “Who’s that?” And the guy says, “I don’t know, some kid named Mickey Mantle.” Well, that’s how I felt, in a literary way, when I read Benjamin Hale for the first time.”—Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir! and The Extra Man
“The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is an enormous, glorious rattlebag of a book. Benjamin Campbell Hale’s extremely loud debut has echoes of the acerbic musings of Humbert Humbert and the high-pitched shrieking of Oskar Matzerath. Hale’s narrator, Bruno Littlemore, is a loony, yelping, bouncing, pleading, longing, lost, loony, bleeding, pleading, laughing, beseeching wonder. The book is of such enormous originality and vitality; it is the book I feel I have been searching years for but have never yet found, until now.”—Edward Carey, author of Observatory Mansions and Alva & Irva
“Benjamin Hale is a writer of rare and exciting talent. We’ll be reading his books for years. Dive in.”—Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
For more information about Benjamin Hale and The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, visit Benjamin-Hale.com.