Krengel & the Krampusz was my first contract, and my first novel sale. That sale represented twenty years of hard work, and the realization of a childhood dream. It was not the first novel I'd ever written. Fourth, actually. But it was the first book that actually sold, and from the moment I typed the words "the end," I knew that it would be.
That's a strange sort of certainty for an author to feel, after twenty years of peddling short stories, honing skills, collecting rejections, fighting your way to the top of -- something, only to find what seemed like an unbreakable layer of ice overhead. But still, I felt it. I knew that Krengel would be the one, so why did I sit on it for six months before submitting it a publisher?
The thing is, I'd reached some sort of threshold of objectivity at that point in my life, where I'd found the strength to step back, look at my work, look at the time I devoted to my work versus the time I devoted to my day job, my family, and I knew that after twenty years of writing, the time had come to face certain realities that there is a fine line somewhere between pursuing a dream (noble), and beating a dead horse (foolish). It's hard, damned hard, to look at your work objectively. We all know good writing when we see it, and we can all identify poor writing when we encounter it, but when it comes to your own stuff it's more difficult to appraise. Great writing may come naturally to a lot of talented people, but it didn't for me. I had to work really hard at refining my craft, and I still do. On one hand, I thought that I was good enough to sell a book, but on the other, there was that lingering doubt that I'd maybe wasted twenty years in the pursuit of an unreachable goal because I was simply being bullheaded, unrealistic, unobjective and foolish.
But that's exactly where I was at, with Krengel finished and in hand, in May of 2013. The fact that I was certain it would sell was tempered by the harsh reality that if it didn't sell, and quickly, then I was going to hang up my dream of becoming a published author for good. There were a lot of negative emotions wrapped up in the looming prospect of marketing that book. On one hand, I had that self-imposed ultimatum hanging over my head, and on the other, I was more than a little distracted because my Grandpa was dying. You'll see his name appearing on the dedication page of the paperback version.
He was one of the best and closest relationships in my life. I was lucky enough to have been able to say all the things that a person wishes that they could say before they lose someone like that, and for that I'm grateful, but his death was anything but quick. During the time that I was writing Krengel, I was making daily phone calls to my Grandma to check on how our favorite patient was doing, and making regular, five-hour, weekend hauls back and forth from Kansas City to my Grandpa's hospice in southern Kansas. In Krengel, the whole scene depicting the death of the father of one of my characters, Hiley, was borrowed heavily from that whole experience.
In late October of 2013, I finally got up the nerve to submit Krengel to Severed Press. A week before Christmas, I received a reply that I'd been waiting twenty years to see. They were offering me a contract. I read the email to my wife, and we both cried.
We drove down to see my grandparents for Christmas. It was the best visit we'd had with my Grandpa in two years. He was lively, alert, cracking jokes, and despite the location, the holiday seemed almost normal. For one day, it almost felt like the way things used to be. I was able to share the news with my Grandpa that I'd finally been published, but I was never able to share the book with him, or share the amazing news that came two weeks later, after he'd passed away. The news was that I landed three more novel contracts in the next thirty days.
Talk about mixed emotions. I was negotiating those contracts while writing the eulogy of one of my best and oldest friends, right smack in the week of his memorial service. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't ignore the coincidence that all of this validation of twenty years of hard work came pouring into my life right as he was slipping out of it. It felt almost as though my old friend had somehow pulled some strings for me. Crazy as it may sound to some, I feel like I owe a big part of the credit to him.
Shortly after the contracts were finalized, the funeral was over, and the dust had all settled, I had an unusual dream. I dreamt that big things were happening, much to do, much to arrange before a big journey of some sort got underway. I was packing, compiling lists, and as I ran up a darkened flight of stairs, I noticed that someone else was passing me, heading down. It was Grandpa. I just about ran right on by him, but I wheeled around and grabbed him by the shoulder before he could step out of reach, and I turned him around to face me.
"Hey," I said.
"Well, howdy," he said, flashing his ornery grin.
"How are you?" I asked, still gripping his shoulder.
"Oh, pretty darned good," he replied. "How about you?"
"Well ... I guess I'm pretty darned good, too."
We shared a chuckle in the middle of that darkened staircase, and then I let go of his shoulder. He went his way, and I went mine.