By Brandon Rucker via Liquid Imagination
In this conclusion of my two-part conversation with author Bob Thurber, we chat more about his debut novel, Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel (which was released May 1st by Casperian Books), its long journey into publication, and what the future holds for the new novelist.
RUCKER: I understand that your debut novel Paperboywas originally “completed” back in 2003 when you first began to shop it. The agent you had at the time suggested changes that would have compromised the overall story, so you stuck to your guns and went with your second and current agent. I imagine there’s a great number of first time novelists who would have folded under such pressure for fear of losing that crucial first opportunity. However, you did not. How did it feel to see the integrity you had in your writing validated?
THURBER: I don’t see it that way. After the manuscript was completed, I never felt any pressure. My first agent was a good man, a former senior editor, and a seasoned professional. He originally took me on as a client believing he could sell a collection of my stories to a major publisher. He had great admiration for my short fiction and he was anxious to have the novel in his hands. After I handed in Paperboy, he admired the writing, but not the subject matter, which he felt was too dark, too harsh. And I had no argument on that point. He knew his stuff, knew the industry, and he wanted a more marketable book, so he made a number of suggestions on how to improve the manuscript and make it more acceptable to publishers. Sound advice, really. But I wasn’t interested in dampening the theme or softening the dysfunctional nature of the book. A number of publishing houses, about a dozen editors who had considered the collection had specifically asked to see the novel when it was ready. Though they were waiting for it, he never sent it to them. He considered it a tough sell because of the controversial subject matter and the fact I was a first time author. Still an unknown. And ultimately he was correct in that assessment. My second and current agent loved the novel, and he submitted it to a good number of publishers. Some held on to it for a long time but ultimately they all passed. So I don’t feel any sense of validation in that respect. The happy news is that we eventually found a publisher willing to move forward. I do think it’s a far better novel now than what I originally turned in, so the long waits, the long process, then the rewriting and editing, all that contributed to the finished product.
RUCKER: Paperboy is inspired by and filled with several autobiographical bits of your life. Fiction is a balance of truths and lies. How difficult was it to balance fiction with reality, considering the subject matter and the stark truth of your life events?
THURBER: Though it is a work of fiction, I drew extensively on childhood memories to create scenes, settings, the feel of that time, those years, the hardships of living in poverty, all that. But the book isn’t close to being a memoir. What truth it contains goes beyond my personal experience and realizations. I was a lost child but it’s not a story about me, more about the human spirit, how lost kids survive or don’t. It’s not for the feint hearted. But it’s as genuine and authentic, and as daring as anything I’ve written.
RUCKER: Can you tell us about your decision to use two different tenses in the narrative for this book? It’s definitely effective and I think it really allows you to keep the voice consistent and transparent.
THURBER: Well, the narrator, Jack Fisher, is just a kid, a 14 year old boy, and like most kids that age he is unable to fully tell his story (just as we are all limited in our abilities to express ourselves fully, wholly, completely, whether we’re writers or not.) So at times Jack tip-toes around certain subjects, certain issues, or he digresses, spilling anecdotes from his family’s past. Throughout, he is sincerely trying to tell his story. He’s trying very hard. One reader remarked that “not since Holden Caulfield have I felt such a kinship with a boy in a book” and I take that has high praise for the genuineness of Jack’s character and the authenticity of his voice.
RUCKER: What was your writing regimen like for this novel, particularly the re-write you did for your current agent, Jack Scovil?
THURBER: No one ever asked for a rewrite. Not my agent, not the publisher. They were satisfied with the manuscript as it was. The rewrite was my decision. After Casperian accepted the book, I reviewed the manuscript. I hadn’t touched it in years. I immediately saw things I didn’t like, scenes that needed flushing out, a few gaps that needed plugging, a couple of story questions that needed to be addressed. And the pacing needed smoothing. So I went to work, revised the entire thing from beginning to end, and ended up adding about 30 thousand words. It was an exhausting process, but I had to do it. I felt, and still feel, an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the lost children the book represents.
RUCKER: I assume you will continue to produce short fiction, but do you have another novel on deck to follow up Paperboy?
THURBER: Yes. That manuscript, titled April Fish, is nearly done. I’m close to putting it in my agent’s hands, so we’ll see if a publisher embraces it. Essentially, for twenty years I concentrated on writing short fiction and a novel is a whole different animal. I’ve had to change some working habits, but in time I’ll get better. The next project after April Fish is a book I’ve been researching and making notes on for decades. I’ve never been in any rush.
You can sample and/or purchase Paperboy at the following links.