One of Sancho Panza's beloved aphorisms went something like, "The man whom God helps does better than the man who gets up early," and one thing that strikes you as you watch your novel take the frequently quixotic journey from your imagination through a publisher and into bookstores is how much luck plays a role in your success or lack of it. This is probably true no matter what your business is, but it seems especially acute after you've spent perhaps two years writing a novel, another year shopping it, and a year and a half waiting for it to be published only to watch its fate hinge on a long list of unknowns and variables. You might work extremely hard as a writer, but everyone can use a little mysterious help.
I did a panel with Audrey Niffenegger last year and she was telling the story of how The Time Traveler's Wife became a bestseller. The short version is that Scott Turow's wife was taking Audrey's bookbinding class at Columbia College. Mrs. Turow brought The Time Traveler's Wife home and convinced her husband to read it. A few weeks later the Today Show asked Turow to recommend a novel for its book club.
That's some good luck.
Of course, you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written, which Audrey certainly did. But the point is that in order to sell that many books you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written AND ALSO have Scott Turow's wife in your bookbinding class. Or the karmic equivalent.
A few months before Cast of Shadows was published I got a call at home from Rick Kogan. I had never met Rick before, but anyone who's remotely media savvy in Chicago knows who he is. He's been a newspaperman and columnist in this city since he was 16 years old. He's written or edited for practically every department of both big papers in town. He's host of a Sunday morning radio show on WGN which, besides baseball, is about the only thing that gets me to turn the channel from NPR. He's authored books on everything from Ann Landers (whom he edited for five years) to the Billy Goat Tavern (an infamous newspaper bar with historical ties to both the Cubs curse and John Belushi). Actually those are just his last two.
So the way Rick tells it is he was sitting around the Trib offices and came across a pile of Advance Reader Editions, which had been sent by various publishers to the Books editor, and he idly picked Cast of Shadows out of the stack. When he turned it over and saw that I was from Chicago he decided to take the book home and read it. The next morning he gives me a call, says many generous things about the book and then tells me he wants to write a feature about it for the Tribune Sunday Magazine. With an excerpt.
Um, wow. Sure.
It's the kind of prominent, outside-the-book-section coverage you kill for, especially as a first-time novelist. And like every nervous author I immediately wanted to know how it might be replicated. Every time Rick and I would meet for an interview I'd ask him exactly what it was that made him pick up my book in the first place. And every time he'd say he wasn't sure. He didn't know. He couldn't remember.
One day we were at Tribune Tower and Rick said he wanted to give me a copy of a book he had co-written with his colleague Maurice Possley, a true crime classic that came out a few years back called Everybody Pays. He dug through some piles on his desk, pulled out a paperback and handed it to me. Right away I had my answer.
The image on the cover was practically identical to the image on the advance copy of Cast of Shadows.
Those many weeks ago, sifting through the pile, Rick had recognized the cover of my book the way a tigress recognizes her cub.
I couldn't guess how many copies of Cast of Shadows were sold by that article. Area bookstores featured the book more prominently. Many ordered extra copies in advance. It also led to speaking engagements and untold book club selections (I know I've personally appeared at more than 40 reading groups) and who knows how much word-of-mouth. I like to think Cast of Shadows is an engaging novel that's compellingly written but I can't deny the other half of it.
Blind, stinking luck.
Now, I tell that story for the purpose of full disclosure because when Libby first approached me about a blog that would discuss good writing, Chicago, and crime stories, Everybody Pays was the first thing that popped into my head. It's the true tale of a twenty-something west side auto mechanic who, in 1972, witnessed a murder by one of the most prolific and notorious hit men ever employed by the Chicago mob (known locally as The Outfit, of course). What happened to that mechanic over the next twenty years makes one of the most riveting and shocking true crime stories I've ever read. If you're familiar with the authors then I don't need to tell you that Everybody Pays is well-written and meticulously reported. And it's heartbreaking, too. Plus if you're a mystery novelist there's loads of good cribbing material about both the Chicago courts and witness protection.
I'm not just saying this because I owe Rick Kogan. In fact, I think Everybody Pays might be out of print, an injustice that means you'll probably have to go online and find a used copy somewhere. If you do it will be well worth the effort. It's an absolute true crime must read and an important piece of Chicago lore.
I do owe Rick Kogan, of course, but let karma know that I'm paying him back in installments of Scotch.