Holding DOC in my hands

In her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes the undramatic way that a new book comes into the world. When her first book was published, she recalls, she expected her publisher to arrange for a Blue Angels fly-by over her house, or at least some kind of literary débutante ball with champagne and caviar and reporters, like in the movies.

Very little about writing is like in the movies. Maybe in the 1920s, writers sat and smoked while staring at a blank piece of paper in in their typewriters. Maybe they really did try a few lines only to rip the paper out, crumple it up furiously and toss it into a wire wastebasket. Personally, I suspect that movie wastebaskets filled with crumpled sheets of 20-pound bond are as unrealistic as the spinning newspapers that movies always use to signal “Time passes.”

I work on computer. I back up early and often. Once, we had a power-outage during a thunderstorm, and I lost a single paragraph that I still mourn for. It was brilliant. It is gone. (It probably seemed brilliant because it was gone, but that’s another story about writerly self-delusion…) At the end of each day, I email copies of my drafts to my husband’s computer at work, so I have off-site storage of the latest version. There are always earlier drafts to go back to, just in case I ruin a passage by tinkering with it too much. Even in the 1920s,  I bet writers kept those failed attempts in a nice safe pile on the floor in the corner of the room, uncrumpled and available for reference, in case a paragraph or a sentence or even a felicitous phrase could be salvaged later.

Motherhood metaphors for a new book come easily. Sometimes the idea of a book is conceived by accident, in a single moment of inspiration; often it takes many months of “trying” before the idea really takes hold and begins to grow. Some writers (like the insufferable Frederick Forsyth) need only 45 days to gestate a novel; others require years before a manuscript is both complete and finished.

After the quiet, solitary gestation comes the labor of pushing that book into the world, and suddenly a whole team of people are involved: agents, publishers, editors, book designers, dust jacket designers, marketing departments, publicity teams. The writer is not passive in all this effort. Long ago, I learned that nobody cares as intensely as I do about the book I’ve written. Even when the agents and the publishers declare with convincing sincerity, “I love this book!” they don’t love it the way its mother does. Like a good obstetrical team, they care about each book they deliver to the marketplace. The author loves this one.

At this very moment, sitting on my desk, just to my left, there is an unopened Fed Ex package containing a copy of Doc, almost warm from the printing press. I’ve worked hard on all my novels, but I have not loved a book so much since The Sparrow. I have not loved a character so much since Emilio Sandoz. If anything, I love John Henry Holliday more.

In a recent interview, John Connelly remarked, “Obviously it is different to write about, say, the real Doc Holliday than about an imaginary Jesuit in space like Emilio Sandoz. How does writing about a historical figure compare to writing about a fictional one?”

“Well,” I answered, “as terribly as I treated Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow, I was able to bring his crisis of faith to some resolution. At the end of Children of God, Emilio has gotten past his anger and bitterness. He has learned to put his pain to work on behalf of others. He has discovered a daughter he didn’t know he had, and she has an infant son for him to love. I could leave him with the prospect of a contented and useful old age.

“John Henry Holliday spent 15 years – his entire adult life – dying of a debilitating and painful disease. Nothing I wrote could change that.

“It comes down to this: John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. I couldn’t give him a better life or a longer one. So I’ve told the story of a single season of happiness – the summer of 1878 – when he felt well enough to resume the practice of a profession that gave him great satisfaction in a place where he made a few good friends. I have tried to win him the compassion and respect I think he deserves.”

There. The cord is cut. I just took the book out of the package and held Doc in my hands for the first time. Beautiful. Bigger than I expected! Not perfect, of course, and soon reviewers and readers will be searching for flaws, pointing out weaknesses, quibbling over decisions the author made about how to tell this story. At some point, children go off on their own into the world to be teased and tested and judged. In a few weeks, Doc will be getting comments on Amazon, the way seventh graders get snarky remarks on Facebook. Even so, like any fond mother, I dare to hope that my child will find others in the world who will love him almost as much as I do.

13 thoughts on “Holding DOC in my hands”

  1. It’s exciting yet somehow daunting to think that I could love Doc Holliday as much as I love Emilio, but I’m anxious to find out! Emilio is up there with Atticus, Heathcliff, Jamie Fraser, and Richard Jury…there’s room, but the others might have to squinch! lol

    Mary, I wish you were coming to New Orleans on the Doc book tour!

  2. My local library system appears to believe that the title of the book is Eight to five, against : a novel. There’s an entry for the audiobook version of DOC (on order), but no corresponding entry for a book. On the other hand, the entry for Eight to five, against has a summary and Publishers’ Weekly review for a book about Doc Holliday.

  3. Morris, the original title for DOC was EIGHT TO FIVE, AGAINST. Those were the odds that Doc Holliday gave that he would die of tuberculosis before he was killed by some disgruntled loser in a poker game: not quite even money. The trouble with the title was that I had to explain it over and over. It was hard to remember. It sounded like maybe eight guys against five guys, or reminded people of the movie “9 to 5.”

    There were six months of discussion of alternate titles, but ultimately the head of Random House, Gina Centrello, said, “Call it DOC.” That sounded way too Loony Tunes to me, and I still expect that lazy headline writers will title any article, “What’s up, DOC?” But everybody at Random House said, “With the right cover art, it will be obvious which Doc we’re talking about.”

    The cover art was another months-long discussion, but we finally got it right, I think. I love the title and the cover now.

  4. I can’t wait to read this book. Emilio Sandoz was my favourite character in The Sparrow (although Ann ran a very, very close second). I can’t imagine loving DOC more than Emilio, but I am willing to keep an open mind 🙂

    Oh, and MDR, you are one of my most favourite writers too!

  5. Oh, Mary!
    There is no way in hell that I will be searching for flaws or pointing out weaknesses, and those who are should instead be focused on your wonderful, creative use of the English language! I am not taking up another book at the moment – just catching up on magazines – because I know that the minute my copy arrives in the mail, I will discard every other thing I have been reading. I have no doubts that it is going to be another masterpiece, and I will be so disappointed when I am finished reading it – disappointed that it’s over!! 🙂
    Can’t wait to get it! Blessings to you and yours!!

  6. Is it really there!? When I found out about DOC last year, it seemed that this day would never come – May 2011 was forever away. In the next few weeks I hope to be holding my own copy and discovering the “real” John Henry Holliday. It trust it will take me back to my roots in the Wild Wild West.

  7. Love Doc Holliday as much as Emilio?! W.O.W. Can’t wrap my brain aroung that since The Sparrow and Children of God still live in my head.
    I, too, am waiting for it to come in the mail and can’t wait to devour it!

  8. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work so hard on something and then read bad press about it…especially from snarky readers. My husband has yet to get a review of any consequence but let me tell you, I probably won’t read it when he does, even if it’s good…I have a hard enough time reading rather neutral reviews of my friends’ work. I haven’t heard anyone say anything negative about my blog or photography (the only “public” work I have out there) and I really hope I can have such an awesome attitude about it when it happens as you have with your critics. As everyone else, I’m looking forward to reading DOC and nagging my friends to buy a copy. 😉

  9. Actually, the early reviews of DOC on Amazon have been lovely, as have the professional pre-publication notices in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review and Booklist. Doc is also #2 on the independent bookseller’s Indie Picks for May.

    All of this is very gratifying, but it can’t last. At some point, the book will get slammed, and that’s the review I’ll remember. A good review is like a bullet that whizzes by. A bad one, especially if it identifies a weakness I was unaware of after years of work, is like a bullet that hits. Believe me: I carry the scars…

  10. Getting a lousy review sounds like getting childbed fever after you’ve delivered a healthy baby. May your guardian angels protect you from that.
    I look forward to reading DOC.

  11. Mary, I cannot wait, having seen DOC in an earlier but still delightful form — and now he’s here, or almost. And I’m still here to read about him — yay!

Leave a Comment