Saramago

     In this column I will tell you what I know about how to get a book published.
     I don’t know anyone important and I have no contacts in the industry, but my fourth book was just published anyway. All four were plucked from the famous “slush pile.”
     I planned to make this a shameless plug for “Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge” (Scarecrow Press / Rowman & Littlefield – Buy it!) but Death derailed my plans. Death decided She couldn’t live without José Saramago, so she took him away.
     Saramago’s life holds a lesson for writers – though whether learning one’s lessons helps one become a writer is debatable. Probably not.
     I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 10. I learned the lesson when I was 21. I was living in a little house on 94th Street in Portland, Oregon, during a cold rainy winter. One day under the endless drizzle I typed up a page on my Hermes typewriter, then pulled it out and read it.
     An old cracked mirror hung on a wall by the little table where I sat. I remember reading the page and then looking into the mirror. “You change your point of view every paragraph,” I thought. “You don’t know what you think.”
     I was not interested, then or now, in seeing a guy learn how to write. I want to read a guy who knows how to write. But I didn’t know enough about the world yet. Oh, I kept writing. I knew what the problem was, and I knew that the way to solve it was not to try to solve it, but to do something else.
     The same thing happened to Saramago. His first book, published when he was 23, didn’t make much of an impression. So he quit writing novels for 30 years. He worked as a mechanic, a printer, at a dull government job, as a translator and a journalist. After Portugal overthrew its fascist dictator, Antonio Salazar, in 1974, Saramago could finally write what he thought. Then a right-wing countercoup came along and he was fired – because, as deputy editor of a Lisbon daily, he had written what he thought.
     Saramago called it “the best luck of my life.” He was 52. He knew what he thought by then. Twenty-three years later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, after turning out a string of novels unlike those anyone else had ever written.
     I don’t know what it is about Saramago I find so appealing. The goodness of his slightly sad, perplexed characters? Their peculiarity? In “The Stone Raft,” the Iberian Peninsula separates from Europe and drifts away into the Atlantic, then spins around. That’s about it. “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” which caused a furor in Portugal because Saramago was an atheist and a communist, is a simple and loving retelling of that story. In “Death With Interruptions,” Saramago manages to make us feel a bit sorry for Death.
     The lesson appears to be that you should not worry about writing a book until you know what you want to say.
     Oh, I promised to tell what I know about getting published, didn’t I?
     OK, here it is: Beats the hell out of me.
     Moving along, then …
     It’s true. I don’t have a clue why the books I managed to force into print made it and my other 20 books didn’t. I know a lot of the books gathering dust in my drawer are as good as the four gathering dust on the shelves. But I can’t get a publisher to even look at the damn things.
     The publishing industry is in as bad shape as newspapers, and seems to be about as poorly run. But that’s news for another day.
     For now, all I can say is that a book is a gift. It’s true you have to write it – they don’t write themselves. But a book that hangs together, and that a stranger will want to read, and pass along to a friend, is a gift. And when you get a gift, you don’t say, “Where’s my reward?” You don’t get a reward for getting a gift. You get the gift.
     And if no one will publish it, or even read it, well, what I do is feel bad and grouse for a while, and when I can’t stand that anymore I start another one.
     Most writers of fiction – every one that I’ve known – are pretty miserable bastards: unhappy at heart, and often unkind. I’m not as unkind as I used to be, but I don’t know what to do about the other part. I’m less unhappy when I’m writing a book. At least there’s that.

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