Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
–from “Happiness,” by Raymond Carver
Summer. 2009. I was working as a tutor to make up for the fact that I wasn’t teaching that term, and money was really tight. We were on food stamps, living in a low-rent apartment near campus, and our kids were very young: Lily was three and Levi was just under a year old. We had one car, so my wife had to drop me off at work, which was at the far north end of campus. It was probably just over a mile. A couple of times, I rode my bike there, but my bike was stolen by one of our neighbors and it was far too hot for me to walk. I never did get that. The bike had a child’s seat on the back and everything, and still the guy stole it. Sold it, I’m guessing, since I never saw it again. I confronted him about it, but in his drug-addled way, he denied it. I let it go. It wasn’t worth it.
Anyway, tutoring was often slow. While the students were required to see me each day at a scheduled time, most of them never showed up. I had my own little office with a computer and a small table and white board. I met some really nice kids that summer, but like I said, the majority of the time was slow time. I spent a lot of that time reading books. I read Sylvia Nasar’s great biography on the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind. I might’ve read All the King’s Men, too. I don’t remember. I admit I wasted a fair amount of that time surfing the Internet. But one day, out of pure boredom and frustration, I opened a blank Word document on that computer and typed the words “It was dark” at the top of the page. I didn’t realize then that that line would be the first words of my second novel, Harlow.
You see, I had recently finished my first book, The Pugilist’s Wife, and it was in the hands of various agents and small presses, but I didn’t have high hopes it would find a home. After all, I had published a handful of short stories in small journals, but I didn’t have a very good track record at the time so it was easy to be discouraged. And those rejections came in, let me tell you, trickling in my mailbox or in my email like a leak in a roof that gets more and more depressing as the leak grows in size, spreading into a big coffee-colored stain across the ceiling. And you know there’s nothing you can do about it to fix the damn thing. You just have to let it rot.
But despite all that, this new novel started to grow pretty rapidly from just that one line, this one image, and each day I would write more of it, sitting in that small office, the fluorescent light overhead and lack of any window in there often causing me to go home with migraines, but I kept working. It gave me a sense of purpose and hope. I was telling my own story, in a way, and I didn’t care if anyone ever read it or not. I was just writing a story about a boy looking for his father. It was that simple.
Harlow took me two and a half years to finish. I finished writing it on Valentine’s Day of 2012. During that interval, my daughter survived a brain tumor and surgery, my mother tried to commit suicide, was hospitalized for several months, my first novel was accepted for publication by Texas Review Press, my wife and I were officially married by a Justice of the Peace–our neighbor and kids the only witnesses, we bought a house. It was a fair mixture of both good and bad things, the things that make up life.
My first novel didn’t sell too wonderfully, and though I did a handful of readings and book signings in support of it, I just couldn’t get it off the ground. So I was surprised that my editor, Paul Ruffin, was willing to publish my second book when I was done with it. And here is what I never imagined happening: while Harlow has been far from a best seller, the reaction and response I have received from readers all over the country has been nothing short of moving. I have had people cry while talking to me after a reading, telling me of their own experiences with their absent fathers, I have had strangers come up to me and give me great bear hugs after hearing my story and learning of what I had overcome.
The book has been out for a little over a year now and I still get emails from readers telling me what it has meant to them. I have gotten to meet some wonderful authors whose work I have long admired. I have gotten to travel and take my family along with me to some pretty damn amazing places. I have seen the inside of William Faulkner’s kitchen, touched the phone he must’ve answered when he got the call saying he won the Nobel Prize. And I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m saying it because I’m amazed that those words, “It was dark,” and the feeling that accompanied them when I first wrote them have changed my life in ways I never thought possible. And they still mean the same thing to me, but in a more literal sense than ever, because it is no longer quite so dark. It was, as that sentence says, but now there’s a lot more light.