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Richard Rotenberg: From First Book to Second

So I want to talk about what it’s like when you suddenly are a published writer. You know, you spend your whole life wanting to walk into a bookstore and see your book on the shelf but I remember someone saying, here, "Walk into a bookstore, look at the books, think which one are they going to take out and put yours on because they’re not building any more shelves." And it’s true. So what I want to talk about, and I want to be fairly candid, is it’s a complicated thing.

A friend of mine said, "You know, change, even good change, is complex." And I want to say to you maybe thirty times, I’m not complaining, all these things I want to have happen, but it’s a complex thing. One of the books I thought, one of my favourite books, is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and I picked it up a while ago and this is what, I don’t know if anyone of you know who John Le Carré  is, he’d written two books no one had heard of and then this became one of the best selling books of all-time. This is an addition that he wrote and what he writes about is what it’s like to go through this and I thought it really spoke to me:

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, my third book, changed my life and put me on bare-knuckle terms with my abilities. Until its publication, I’d written literally in secret from inside the walls of the secret world under another name and free of serious critical attention. Once this book hit the stands, my time of quiet and gradual development was over for good, however much I tried to recreate it by, for example, fleeing with my family to a remote Greek island.

Then at the end, he says, he talks about the chaos of writing, "I certainly never wrote this way again and, for a while, the smart thing to say of me was that I was a one-book man, that The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was a grand fluke and all the rest was aftercare." The British write so beautifully…. Now, like I said, I’m not complaining but I’ve found, and I thought I’d be very candid, that suddenly, coming from my little private world, to being exposed and being a writer isn’t that big a deal. It isn’t like you’re a rock star. You don’t walk down the street and people know you or anything. But still, all of you, when you write, are going to put something of yourself in and, this is going to sound ridiculous to you, but there’s something wonderfully innocent about the stage you’re all at right now because once that ends, it does end and I found, in many ways, a part of me is really retreated and partly because I had this task. Just to give you an example, this is one of many, many versions of the book and you can just see how much work it is. I’m not complaining about it but what I want you to understand is I think it’s part of the whole process of really digging into yourself and I think why writers find it hard every time is because you have to dig into yourself.

Being a published writer suddenly means there’s also all these lovely and wonderful demands on your time but there are demands on your time. Someone was talking about Twitter and Facebook. For example, putting together a website for me was like putting together a magazine. I had to interview people, I had to write all the copy and, again, I’m extraordinarily particular about all the copy. It’s your setting up a business. There’s taxes, accounting, you get to speak, you get to meet writers you always want to meet, you do some teaching. You know, it’s all great but what you have to always remember is that none of it matters if you don’t produce the next book and it really is just about getting up every day and working line by line, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

A while ago, I read my daughter To Kill A Mockingbird, which, contrary to the love affair you’re seeing in The Globe & Mail and [on] CBC Radio, I actually found quite disappointing the second time I read it and so did she, which was interesting. But what was interesting to me was that [Harper Lee] never wrote another book, and then I found Gone With The Wind–[Margaret Mitchell] she never wrote another book, and [the author of] a great Italian book, The Leopard, never wrote another book. Then, I started reading about people’s second books, who were great failures. There’s a British writer, I won’t tell you who it is, but he was compared to me. I met him in New York, and his first book was fantastic and his second book came out and I could feel that it was pushed and it didn’t do very well. John Grisham, I read an article that he wrote and, a very candid article, he just said, "Throughout the second book, because I knew, no matter what I did, people were going to trash it anyway." And, frankly, I have no idea, but at some point in this long year, I lost perspective and I started to really dislike the book, which was a very scary point because I had been about a year-and-a-half into this and there is contract and all these obligations but, what you guys were saying is true, it’s persistence. Now, I’ve come to the point where I’m very, very happy with the book again but it’s work.

So, finally, at the beginning of June, I was told to have the book ready June 1 and I sent it to my agent, who happens to be a great editor and then we probably had one of those most difficult discussions we’d ever had, she and I, and we’ve had this extraordinary relationship from day one. It was the only time we had really strong conflict. She just thought I wasn’t hearing what she was saying and I thought I was. And, you know, again, I had to sit back and actually think about what she was saying and almost everything she said really did make sense. I’m not Michelangelo but Michelangelo said, "I didn’t do the sculpting, I just took away the stuff that wasn’t there that didn’t need to be there." With Old City Hall, I handed it in and the contract had been for 140,000 words and I’m a lawyer so I handed in 140,000 words and I met with my editor and she said it was great, don’t worry about the length. Then, I got this panicked phone call when I handed the book in after another edit, saying, "We really screwed up. I don’t know how we did this. It’s way too long for this genre. It’s only got to be 100,000 words." This was on a Friday afternoon, when I was coming home from a friend of mine’s mother’s funeral. I remember it very well… I, of course, woke up at five in the morning as I always do and I immediately e-mailed her and said, "Don’t touch it,’ and I cut 16 chapters, 40,000 words of Old City Hall in fifteen minutes. So, when you’re walking out of your class and complaining because Wayson Choy wants you to cut a paragraph, just remember I cut a third of the book out in fifteen minutes. It took me six months to clean it up and this recent book, I cut it down from 107,000 to 94,000 words in two weeks, just by looking at every word and every phrase and saying, ‘Do I really, really, really need that?"

 Look it, there’s something spectacular about walking into a bookstore and seeing you’re book and my brother’s also a writer, so when I see our books together, unfortunately none of our parents are alive so it’s a very emotional thing and I think you caught that from everyone here. The day someone publishes a book, the day you even finish the book, is a really fantastic accomplishment. But the strange things happen, which is that, after a while, I’m embarrassed to say this, but I start going to book store and thinking, "Well, I only have one book," like, "Hey, that guy’s only got one shelf." Some guys have their own stand. You know, now I’ve met quite a lot of famous writers at these writing conferences and, you know, the amazing thing is that we’re all the same. There’s this writer, Jeffrey Deaver, probably one of the top ten best-selling writers in the world, who wrote a very nice thing about Old City Hall, and I met him and he was extremely sincere and I met him again and, anyways, this conference was in New York and I said, "How are you doing?" And this is a guy who’s a multi-millionaire, who’s got TV deals, and this and that, and said, "Oh, I had a great morning! I got, like, 30 pages done!"

So, you know, the reason you guys are here on a sunny day is because you want to do it and I honestly feel that I wouldn’t have regretted any of the time I did and had no idea all this would happen. And if it never happened, I wouldn’t have regretted the time that I did it. I was always determined not to take time away from my law practice or my family and I never did, and I just learned and, to this day, you know, even when I came to Saturday morning at Humber, I would go to a coffee shop and write for an hour and, you know, I really don’t buy that you don’t have time to do it. If you have the compulsion to do it, you really almost have to do it.

You know, my friend Doug said the best thing to me, which was, he said to me, he said, "It’s not a book, it’s a career," and those are words I think of all the time and you have to be willing to let go of things that don’t work and you have to really be able to move on and if you really want to tell stories, you’re going to want to tell a lot of stories. This year, as I’ve been waiting, I’ve started the third book. I started a whole new series. Unfortunately, I’ve sold the TV rights to the book, so I’ve started doing some TV writing, and I’ve come up with this non-fiction idea of things that I want to do. Plus, three kids and my law practice, so there’s really, and I still play hockey with my friends every Monday night. So, I don’t think you have to give up your life to do this but you have to be persistent.