James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series


So you’ve completed and revised a manuscript that’s a thriller, that’s a character study, that’s suspenseful and literary and exciting . . . an easy sell, right? Right.

What if it’s set in a milieu that could be seen as distasteful or icky, however . . . like the brutal blood-sport of dogfighting?

While my novel DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW has found representation in the capable and enthusiastic hands of Michelle L. Johnson of The Corvisiero Agency, and is right now making the rounds on the high mountain of publisher’s row (after getting a pass at Simon & Schuster, it’s currently at Penguin), my earliest ‘encouraging rejections’ from agents, in 2008 and 2009, came back focused less on the writing than the subject matter.

As in, one rep wrote back to say, ‘I like the concept, and the writing could be better, but overall I will tell you that with dogfighting as a central element, this is a tough tough sell.’

All right . . . I could stand to hear that the writing wasn’t there. Every writer needs to hear that, and keep hearing it—if it’s true, anyway, and in my case at the time, it was.
What troubled me more, however, was the notion that I had a difficult book to sell because of what one other agent said would be a potential ‘squeamish’ reaction by potential readers once they saw that animals were involved. ‘People are funny about animals,’ she wrote, identifying herself as dog owner and lover.

All right, all right . . . but these agents had only read a chapter or two or three. Whatever they thought about the writing (it needed much more polish at the time), they hadn’t known what I’d already decided: that because of the very issue they cited, in designing the story I knew we wouldn’t spend undue time on the suffering of the titular dogs—this writer is an animal lover himself, and I don’t want to dwell on the pain of abused fighting dogs any more than any other person with a sympathetic heart to the plight of our friends in the animal kingdom.

Furthermore, an old adage that can apply in many life situations serves us well in trying to write suspense, or simply to write well in any genre or form: less is more. With a narrative including what could charitably called horror elements, a suggestion of depravity rather than a detailed depiction of the various distasteful acts involved in this ‘game’ that human beings play with these poor dogs would go a long way, I hoped, toward painting the picture of the people my protagonist faces off against.

As such, Randi only sees bits and pieces of the reality the dogs face—her research into these activities fills in the necessary details for her. What more does she need to know than these animals are treated as though they don’t suffer pain and fear? Their owners are the real animals, she decides. Dangerous, predatory animals. If the dogs of Parsons Hollow are to survive and thrive, Randi comes to believe, an invasive species called the Macon brothers will have to be removed from the environment.

And what of my protagonist, the grieving Randi Margrave, exiling herself to the ridge in Edgewater County and discovering a fresh hell like she couldn’t have imagined? If the reader doesn’t fully ‘go there’ in terms of being placed in the midst of a vicious and violent dog fight, or in the terrible conditioning that goes hand in paw with the training of sport dogs, would Randi herself?

The full answer I will leave for future readers to anticipate, but let it be said here that Randi’s journey is about at least two other threads in her character’s life other than what’s happening down the mysterious Edgewater County ridge from her new home, while the dogs, along with their cruel owner Esau Macon, provide a necessary external conflict and set of perilous circumstances through a damaged heroine may seek personal and narrative redemption.

So, because this is Randi’s story and not a documentary about dogfighting, the potentially squeamish, animal-loving reader may rest easy that DOGS does not revel in the ugly details of the milieu through which my character, and the reader, will make their way in the course of enjoying this harrowing journey of horror and enlightenment for a bereaved mother seeking only to better understand the seeming cruelty of an indifferent world. Animal lovers aside, the emotional turmoil and violence of the world of DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW will likely resonate with readers of all types—whatever your personal tragedies, it is at times a terribly cruel world, for people and animals alike, but this story argues that healing and reason are two ideas worth fighting for.

And as for the ultimate marketability of the book, once the Michael Vick scandal forever raised the public profile of dogfighting and the criminals who perpetuate the activity, DOPH acquired the ability to invoke a shorthand, shock of recognition for many people who might never had known that such a subculture exists in our country. This broad level of awareness and sympathy about the horrors suffered by these animals lends a strong marketing hook for potential readers of DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW.

As for ‘squeamish,’ the agent who did ultimately sign me for this book had this to say: “Are [those other agents] kidding? People love squeamish—it’s what they’re looking for.”

Updates on the publication of this manuscript will be posted as events warrant.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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