Sunday, September 20, 2009

Guest Blog: Peter Leonard on Deciding to Write

(I think this is a nice essay, and I'm glad to publish it here on the blog.)

Boy, You're on Your Way
By Peter Leonard

I remember when I was nine years old, going down the stairs to the basement, seeing my dad at his desk, white cinder block wall behind him, concrete floor. He was writing longhand on unlined, 8½ x 11 yellow paper, typewriter on a metal stand next to his chair. Across the room was a red wicker waste basket, balls of yellow paper on the floor around it, scenes that didn't work, pages that didn't make it in the basket. In retrospect, it looked like a prison cell but my father didn't seem conscious of his surroundings, deep in concentration, midway through a western called Hombre that would be made into a movie
starring Paul Newman.

Forty years later I remember visiting my father after work one evening. I was stressed out after presenting a new ad campaign to Volkswagen that got lukewarm reception. Elmore no longer wrote in a
cinder block basement. With forty novels and a dozen scripts to his
credit, he now worked in the living room of his manor home in
Bloomfield Hills, a tiny suburb of Detroit. What struck me was that
his desk looked much the same as it had that day when I was nine. Same
yellow pad, and half a dozen balls of yellow paper next to the waste
basket against the wall, electric typewriter on a metal stand behind
the desk. No computer anywhere in sight. Elmore in Levis and sandals
and a dark blue Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, talking enthusiastically
about the opening scene of his new book called The Hot Kid.

Watching my father, I thought, here's a guy who really loves what he's
doing, and I didn't. Earlier that afternoon, during my presentation,
the VW ad manager had taken my first campaign board and flung it like
a frisbee across the conference room. And I thought that was our best

I don't know if my observations that day were the final motivator, or
if it was my continued disinterest in advertising, but a couple months
later I decided to write a novel. I was forty nine. I remember sitting
on a couch in the family room, writing the opening scene of a book
called Invasion, while two of my kids, Alex and Max, were doing their
homework. I read what I had written and thought: this isn't bad, maybe
I can do it.

The last piece of fiction I had written was in 1974. I had taken a
creative writing class my senior year in college and really enjoyed
it. I never aspired to be a novelist, but after graduating I wrote a
six page short story -- I can't remember the title -- and mailed it to
my father to see what he thought. A few days later I received his
three page critique. One line summed up his point of view. "Your
characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun. They all look
and sound the same." That from a writer who never used similes or

I had not written another word of fiction in twenty five years. But as
I looked back, it had less to do with Elmore's comments and more to do
with getting a job and getting married and raising kids and starting a
business. I may also have been intimidated because my father was so
good. In fact, I remember having dinner with Senator Don Riegel -- he
lived in the neighborhood and our daughters were friends. I told Don I
was writing a book and he said, "You writing a book is like Michael
Jordon's son trying out for the NBA."

I said, "Don, thanks for your support."

He said, "No, I was kidding. I'm sure you'll make it.'"

It took a year and a half to finish Invasion. I didn't want Elmore
involved in any way, so he suggested sending it to Jackie Farber, his
former editor at Delacourt.

He said, "Jackie's good. She'll tell you the truth."

I was excited. I thought it was a good story with good characters. I
mailed the three hundred page manuscript to Jackie and called her a
week later. I said, "What'd you think?"

"You've got a nice facile style," Jackie said. "But I have one
question. Who's your protagonist?"

I knew who the main character was, but if it wasn't obvious, I had a
problem. I was disappointed, but I could understand what Jackie was
saying. I had thirty seven characters, and a murky plot that needed
thinning out. I didn't try to defend the book. I put it aside
remembering the prophetic words of Russell Banks:

"Most novelists have a failed attempt or two, books that didn't work,
didn't make it. Pages in a desk drawer somewhere."

I didn't dwell on the failure of my first novel. I had another idea
and began writing Quiver, a story about a woman whose husband is
killed in a bow hunting accident by her sixteen-year-old son. While
the main character, Kate McCall deals with the loss of her husband and
her son's surly guilt, her ex-con, ex-boyfriend comes back in her life
and sets into motion a series of events culminating in a life or death
confrontation with a gang of killers.

I sent Quiver to my agent, Jeff Posternak at the Wylie Agency. He read
it and said, "I guarantee this is going to sell."

And it did.

I remember when Jeff called with the good news. It was an overcast day
in March. I was in my office, looking out the window, trying to think
of a headline for an ad. The phone rang and I saw the New York caller
ID. I picked it up and said, "hello."

Jeff said, "I've got good news for you. Are you sitting down? You're
going to be published. St. Martin's has made an offer for two books."

I can't tell you how elated I was, finally breaking through after
three and a half years. It's a real kick to hold your first published
book in your hands, and then to see it on a shelf in bookstores. I
don't think that'll ever get old. I called my father and told him.

He said, "Boy, you're on your way."

©2009 Peter Leonard

Peter Leonard, author of Trust Me, lives in Birmingham, Michigan. His
first novel, Quiver, received wide-spread critical acclaim.

For more information please visit


Charles Gramlich said...

Well, if my son decides to be a writer he shouldn't have much trouble topping me.

Very interesting piece.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I went to a reading this summer with both of them. He was one impressive son-setting his father's stories up, deferring to him, being the straight man when it was he who could use exposure. I wish him great success because he was such a lovely man.

Rittster said...

Wow, I can relate to this article in many ways. The main way is that I started writing fiction when I was younger and, due to circumstances beyond my control, was not able to write again for a number of years (about 10); and now that I've been able to write for a few months now, I have my sights set again on being a paid novelist, even at the age of 40.
There are other parts of the article I identify with, but they're too numerous and lengthy to express here.
P.S. I wouldn't mind seeing more articles like these every once in a while. They help remind me about why I love writing in writing in the first place.

Anonymous said...

The hard fact is: Peter is up on the same level as his dad. This is a fine novel, smooth, fast-paced, good characters and a well-plotted novel. No question who the protagonist is here. Looking forward to his next one, and the one set in Italy.