Waiting for the Enemy: a Reflection

This is the original cover.

This is the original cover.

I'm doing some reflecting these days on the path that I traveled to reach this point with The Red Book or Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault, and I'm starting with a book of fiction that was first published by Iron Horse Literary Review back in 2012: my first (and only) chapbook of stories.

When I submitted this collection to the Iron Horse Literary Review single author chapbook competition, I was not in a good spot psychologically. A lot of my colleagues were having publication success, and despite all the time and effort I was putting into my own work, I was not getting published as much as they were. It isn't supposed to be a competition, but the world doesn't teach you as well as it should to value the work itself, and partly that is because writing is very often a job that doesn't pay even when you do get published (or publish yourself), It was frustrating, and for anyone who doesn't already know this,  a large part of being a writer is being frustrated: with your work, with not hearing from agents or magazines, with the unknown. And that's okay by me. I have a lot of other things in my life that make me happy when I am not feeling accomplished as a writer. I know that is a gift, and I am grateful for it. 

I entered the contest thinking that there was no way I would ever win because, you know, what did I have to say that hadn't already been said better by someone smarter or someone who had a harder life than I'd had? All of the stuff in my book was said already in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five and The Red Badge of Courage and The Iliad and The Bible. So sending the book into the contest was just like burning twenty dollars, but it was at least a better investment than a night at Waldo's (the bar I drank at most often in Kalamazoo during grad school.) And maybe the twenty dollars would help to support some brilliant writer's work. Good karma.

I cannot recall exactly how long it took for Waiting for the Enemy to be selected as a finalist or for the book to be chosen by Kelly Cherry as the winner. What I do remember was that when I received notification Waiting for the Enemy had won the contest that Leslie Jill Patterson's email said they were excited to publish my "Book of essays." That was shocking to me because it is a work of fiction; Rake and Vezchek and all the characters in the book are fictional, so I was terrified because I thought that the only reason Kelly Cherry and Iron Horse selected my book was because they thought the stories were factual. 

I called my friend Hugh Martin to tell him this and talk about how I was worried that if I responded to them and told them that the book was fiction that they'd say "never mind" and then they'd choose a different book as the winner. I remember telling him, "I'm not gonna tell them," because I wanted to be published so badly. I was tired of waiting for someone to recognize me and my work, and I wasn't going to hamstring myself. If they thought the book was nonfiction, then that was their fault. I never told them that it was nonfiction. I submitted it as fiction, so that's all that mattered. 

The thought of "cheating" to win in that way wore on me during the course of the day. I sat on the back porch, half-thrilled and half-despondent. The 1000 dollar prize wasn't small change to me at the time (nor should it be to anyone ever); the stipend that WMU paid me to teach was okay, but I still had to take out loans in order to survive ("Had" is strong. I could've worked somewhere in addition to teaching and being a Ph D. student, but had I done that I may still be in the Ph D. program today, and I would not be happy if I were).

After a lot of time tossing the frisbee to my mini Aussie Finny (hard to believe my life was ever without two daughters and two dogs.; I am so grateful to Tina for helping me to see the joy that caring for other living things can bring you), I decided to email Leslie Jill Patterson at Iron Horse Literary Review and tell her the truth about the book. I can remember feeling so sick to my stomach that I could barely stand after hitting send.

The rest of the day I questioned my decision. I'm not sure how long this was after the James Fray incident, but it was on my mind. Of course his book made way more money than my tiny chapbook of stories about soldiers and military brats would or will ever make, but the principle is what mattered, right? Being honest about what I presented was more important than 1000 dollars or feeling accomplished if the accomplishment was the result of a lie, even if it wasn't a lie that I told. Oprah was never going to call me to talk about my book, so it didn't really matter, But at least I had told the truth about it, and that meant I would be able to sleep easy at night once I got over the sadness of having a publication ripped from my hands by my own inability to keep my mouth shut.

Dread crept in eventually. What if I was never published again and the only reason that anyone ever liked anything I had ever done was because they felt sorry for me or because they thought by publishing some "war stories" they would help their magazine gain some exposure and further their ability to share work they really believed in. You know, like how some press might publish a book of poems by James Franco in order to get media attention regardless of how bad the work is (hypothetically: no one with integrity would ever do that, right?).

What happened later though was that Leslie Jill Patterson emailed me back and she said something that I will never forget. My email had said: "I'm sorry if somehow my work mislead you to believe that this book was nonfiction. This book is a collection of stories, and if that means you don't want to publish it anymore, then I understand."

Jill's response regarding the genre of the book was, "We don't care what genre it is; we love the book."

I don't think this is the way it goes for everyone all the time. And I feel extremely lucky that the book was published by Iron Horse Literary Review, and I feel even better that I was honest about what kind of book it was. And when I met Jill at AWP later that year and learned that Waiting for the Enemy had sold out and that they needed to do a second print run, I was ecstatic. 

Later, when the rights were mine again, I submitted the chapbook Kindle Singles. Submitting a book to an ebook only publisher was something was very much foreign to me and to my friends in the academy. I kind of did it and just assumed there was no way that amazon would ever want to publish something of mine because the market for literary fiction is nowhere near as profitable as the market for Romance or Vampires or Zombies or just garbage written by people who are famous merely because they're rich and "beautiful". 

And yet Andrew Eisenman at Kindle Singles told me they wanted the book, and then it was published on Amazon as well, and now it's there for as long as I'd like it to be as an ebook. It's a best-seller, and it was the #1 Free War Book (which is another thing. If I were ever to do so well that money didn't matter to me, I could just give my books away for free in perpetuity; I am not there, but here's hoping). It hasn't made so much money that it pays my mortgage or anything, but it's made more money than it would've earned if it wasn't available at all. These stories weren't written to make money, but a fact I've learned is that if you want people to read your work, then they are more likely to do so if they believe it has value. It's funny to me how people associate money and value, but I guess there's some connection there.

Waiting for the Enemy has been reviewed 8 times on Amazon and some on Goodreads, and I've been lucky enough to get emails from people who've read it to tell me they enjoyed it and so on. I'm sure there'll be some angry reviews or some reviews that don't like the subject matter or the style or whatever as well. But no good or bad reviews would exist if the book wasn't out in the world doing what books do, and I am grateful to Iron Horse Literary Review and Leslie Jill Patterson for telling me that they didn't care if the book was fiction or nonfiction. The genre didn't matter to me when I wrote the stories. I was just trying to tell them honestly, and I did the best that I could at the time. 

If you're interested in reading a sample from Waiting for the Enemy, you can do so by clicking the button below.

If you are interested in buying the book to read on the Kindle App (or a Kindle proper), you can click the button below.