When I left you last week I was on the cusp of literary stardom with my first novel, Bethesda’s Child. I had what I had been assured was a very good story, one of the top literary agents in New York had signed me up as a client, and the timing of the genetic science, which anticipated issues and tensions springing to world consciousness a few years later when Dolly the Sheep was created (invented?) seemed perfect. All the elements had fallen into place for a best seller with one tiny footnote: my agent couldn’t sell it.
Like most writers, I treasure my early rejection letters. They came from the best publishers in the country. My personal favorite was from the editor who admitted the story had great drama but said he had trouble keeping the coasts straight. I wanted to write him back to help him out with that: “California, west coast. Washington, D.C., east coast.” Maybe I was missing something, and of course you never write them back because by then they have no idea who you are if they ever knew. So Julian, my dear agent, told me not to be discouraged, to throw Bethesda’s Child into a drawer and to write another book. When we sell book number 2, the logic went, they will beg for book number 1.
In fact, I already had book 2 in mind, but I had written Bethesda’s Child between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. and I felt I owed it to myself to write that second book on a schedule less hectic. So my wife, Barbara, and I decided to do what any of you would have done under such circumstances: we sold the house and moved to Mexico. By this time, 1993, we had two sons in college, so we enrolled the two younger children in Mexican middle schools. The city we chose was San Miguel de Allende, a lovely hill town in central Mexico that offered a perfect climate, a vast library, and a stimulating cultural experience. It was here, in San Miguel, that I wrote what came to be A Southern Girl.
The four Warleys who shared what turned out to be two years in San Miguel knew we were experiencing a unique chapter in our lives. A non-Warley who appreciated the uniqueness of the passage we were on was Pat Conroy, who had lived in Rome and understood the influence a foreign country could have on a writer. Shortly after we arrived in San Miguel, Pat sent me a huge box of books he knew I would profit by reading; Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Portable Graham Green, The Bluest Eye, and Daniel Martin, among others. His recommendations are always welcome and never disappoint.
So there I was, in central Mexico with time to write, a story in my head screaming to be told, and mariachi music playing just down the street that somehow set the perfect tone. What I did with that silver opportunity is the subject of the next blog.