September 7, 2014
No matter what life awaited me in Iceland, I knew before I left Wyoming that I was dead-set on completing my novel. The idea (an alternate-history western) came to me while I was living in the bustle of Chicago. So far from the vast plains and towering mountains of my home state, I felt suffocated by the city, and found respite when I started re-reading Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces,” which, in my opinion, is the best book about Wyoming that has ever been written. I wanted to somehow tap back into the beauty Ehrlich wrote about, and while I was experimenting with my own descriptions and recollections, a character emerged; not just that character, but a team of ramshackle, hard-skinned Wyomingites that knew how to maneuver the rough-n-tumble Wild West where I had grown up.
It’s important to mention that I am no cowboy. While I do know how to stick a saddle on a horse and remove a bridle and bit without flinching, my only experience cutting cattle or sheep involves me at age ten riding a stick horse as a man working at a clothing store called Corral West walked back and forth wearing a barrel around his waist with a plastic cow head attached to it. This role-play took place during Old West Days in Jackson, WY, and the half-hearted simulation was meant to let us youngins experience the thrill and pressure of corralling livestock. So the man would walk to his right, then feign left to see if I could stay in front of him. All the while I would have a stick horse between my legs in the pouring morning rain. It would always rain so much on Old West Days that the locals started calling the event Old Wet Days. Looking back, I wish I could find that poor barrel-clad bastard and buy him a beer.
I’ve had my fair share of horseback day trips, hunting camps, shotgun-blasting afternoons and chiseler sniping with a .22, but I have never truly understood the hardships of working on a ranch or the skill required to train and care for horses. So when I was writing my story and my character, Leyton Thacker, emerged, he was undoubtedly an incarnation of myself, but completely equipped to hold his own as a teenage horse rancher living in 19th Century alterna-Wyoming. The second main character to emerge was this boy’s estranged father, the “super cowboy” Leyton dreamed of becoming: an impossibly talented horseman and someone who was loved by just about everyone who’d met him. Since I had always been an outsider (the only gay, overweight son of a pair of Austrian immigrants), I wanted Leyton to be the ultimate outsider, and after writing an extensive outline, I wrote the rough draft of “Blade of the Outlaw” in three weeks, finishing on August 17th, 2012.
It was a huge turning point in my life as a writer. Not counting the massive amount of short stories I’d written, I’d finished two full books prior to writing “Blade”, but never felt a real connection to either. After finishing them, years later, I command-saved and stuffed them somewhere in the My Documents folder, not opening them since. With “Blade” I really felt like a writer. It hit so close to home and I knew this was the story that I would have wanted to read as a teenager. I was so focused on polishing the book and finishing it, not just for myself, but for my mother who always told me that I had to “finish something“. My mind has a mad habit of wandering, unrestrained by any sort of moral lasso, and my interests are constantly dancing around and cracking like firecrackers on the asphalt. Anytime I had a good story idea, my imagination would spasm and, inspired by everything, I’d start writing something new.
Since I finished the rough draft, I’ve managed to push away any other ideas (saving them for an Old Wet Day) and focus solely on this novel. I’d rewritten the book three times in total before putting a final period down this summer. When dig up a pebble of an idea and start to build on it, say, slowly wrapping rubber bands around it, there’s nothing more exciting than feeling its weight after two years of work. Of course, even now, every time I read through the novel, there’s another error, another word or phrase that needs replacing, and even a couple character choices that I’d like to revert. But, ultimately, when I see the story now, when I read through the novel from beginning to end, I’m so proud of myself and what I managed to accomplish. My mom’s advice to finish something was never unwarranted; I have commitment issues and there’s always a fear that I’ll get stuck. (If I write one successful western does that mean I can ONLY write westerns for the rest of my life?!) Mom has never been much of a reader, despite my numerous attempts to buy her books for Christmas, but having her read chapters of the book and enjoy them means so much to me.
So. Now that it’s done, what’s the next step? I’ve been having some really wonderful success hearing back from the literary agents I’ve been querying. Having a professional read your work and say “Yes, there’s something here…” is so incredible, and (I don’t say this lightly) a dream come true. There’s no knowing if I’ll truly tickle enough interest out of one of the agents to sign with them, but my fingers are crossed. I’ve never been much for collaboration, but to get someone to read your book and help you mold it into something readable, fantastic and (hopefully) marketable, is so thrilling to me. But right now it’s a waiting game. I don’t know if any of the agents will swallow what they bite, and there’s always the chance that none of them may like the book and I’ll have to move on to my next project (Already working on it. Hint: Iceland).
Iceland has provided an incredible place for me to write and focus on my book. Far away from Wyoming, but still surrounded by natural beauty, I’m able to enjoy the outdoors while feeling homesick. Ultimately, regardless if I get published, writing this book has been an amazing journey, and truly taught me that finishing something is more important than starting something. No matter what life throws in your path, you always have to stay in front of that man-cow, in the pouring rain, with a stick horse between your legs.