The Charlatan's Boy was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Before writing this book, I had never experienced writer's block. I didn't, in fact, believe it existed. "Writer's block" conjures up images of the tortured artist, misunderstood by the world. Me, I've always been a plain procrastinator. I thought it would be distinctly unhelpful to dignify my procrastination with the term "writer's block."
But in the writing of The Charlatan's Boy, I experienced something that went beyond procrastination. I don't know any word for it besides writer's block. I had set a task for myself that I wasn't at all sure I could accomplish. I've always been comfortable writing raucous, whoop-it-up stories, but The Charlatan's Boy, for all its robustiousness is really a story about a boy's inner life. It's one thing to write about alligator wrestling; it's quite another to write about a boy's wrestling with his loneliness, his hurt, his ugliness. Writers often talk about how terrifying it is to write; I usually dismissed that as mostly self-indulgence. But I was pretty terrified by the thought of trying to go deeper into a character's inner life. I literally pictured readers saying, "Really? That's what you call insight into the human condition? Why don't you stick to alligator wrestling?"
A certain amount of pressure is motivating, but I had crossed some threshold; the pressure was paralyzing. I fell into an awful cycle of self-absorption and terror. I had come to view my unfinished book mostly as a source of personal misery. Time came to turn in a manuscript and I didn't have a manuscript to turn in. My editors, Shannon Marchese and Jessica Barnes, were very patient and understanding. They gave me an extension. Which I missed. Then I missed another extension, if I remember correctly. Eventually they very sweetly laid down the law and gave me a genuinely hard and immovable deadline.
That sho-nuff deadline was bearing down on me, and all I had was big pile of scenes that didn't yet fit together into a coherent story. They were great scenes; I loved everything I had written. But they were highly episodic, and there weren't nearly enough of them. I was at a critical point; if I hadn't already spent the advance long before that time, I would have just told Waterbrook Press never mind and given them their money back.
It was at that critical moment that I got an email from Sally Apokedak, whose name you will recognize from the comments section of this blog. Sally has been a huge supporter since The Bark of the Bog Owl came out in 2004, but we had lost touch. I hadn't heard from her in a couple of years or more. She had heard that I was working on another book. She scolded me for not telling her and said she wanted to start telling her friends and blog readers about it:
Really, Jonathan, just because you don't know us, you have to realize that your loyal fans feel like they know you after reading and falling in love with your characters and they WANT to know what is going on. You could put out a little newsletter. It wouldn't kill you. It doesn't have to be cheesy and braggy like others we get in our in-boxes. You could do it with humility. We like you and want to know what you're up to.
I wrote Sally back,
Sorry for not telling you, but I've been genuinely worried that the book would be bumped from the fall catalog or worse...this has been the most painful writing experience ever. Which is to say, my lack of communication with readers...has more to do with self-doubt than stuck-upness.
If you don't mind, let's hold off on telling your loyal readers about The Charlatan's Boy until I'm a little more confident that it's going to release in the fall. I'll know in about a month, and then I'd love to shout it from the rooftops.
Meanwhile, would you pray for me, Sally?
Sally did pray for me. She also offered some encouraging words that bordered on flattery, and she offered to read the manuscript. After some dithering, I decided to let her read what I had. She read it (that very day, I think) and told me that she really loved it.
And then something shook loose for me. It wasn't many days later that I was done with the manuscript. In praying for me, Sally turned out to be the answer to her own prayer. I had descended into a closed spiral of self-doubt, self-indulgence, self-flagellation...self, self, self. I had come to think of this book as my personal nemesis. My interaction with Sally reminded me that this wasn't just about me. Other people had a stake in this thing--real people who would read and benefit from my book. The realization jarred me out of my solipsism, and I was surprised by a joy of writing that had long been absent. Sally's willingness to step in kept me going.
So here's to Sally Apokedak.