James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

My Writing Journey — Part 5

When we left off with this autobiographical series of posts (three months ago—really?), I’d chronicled my various stages of influence and activity up to what we may consider the modern era of my creative efforts, that is, the period of the preceding twelve and a half years since I took the plunge and began treading the path to becoming a published novelist.  Here’s a look at this rewarding and remarkable period of my life, and the context out of which my writing career as described and archived here at Edgewater County Confidential began to grow. Here’s an introduction and an essay designed to bring us through the fruitful years leading up to my current level of accomplishment.

Despite some obvious, wretchedly and clearly immature behavior on my part through the decades, I’ve always felt older inside than I was in actual years. Thoughtful, reticent to engage, a curmudgeon before his time, yes, but externally mature—at sixteen I could buy beer without getting carded, and so on. With this idea in mind, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that I experienced a mid-life crisis a touch early by most people’s standards, at the tender of age of only thirty-five.

Did it help matters that this occurred in the storied and numerically powerful transition year of 2000? Perhaps—we novelists toil in symbol, do we not? Of course the fact that a millennium of human history was about to turn over led me to a place of self reflection about my own complicated history, and the state of my desires regarding whom and where I wished to be at that age, and at the milestone ages to come. I’d been taught to plan ahead; if I had arrived somewhere at thirty-five, I thought—and I had—what did it mean, how would, or should it be sustained, and where else did I wish to go.

Certainly by then life for me had settled into a distinct, interesting, and prosperous stage. As proprietors of a Deadhead-themed retail store in the college district near the University of South Carolina, I’d managed to carve out a new life from myself that held much more daily excitement than my first career as a motion picture archivist had. The icing on the cake was that I also managed to stay immersed in the world of the Grateful Dead and their successor ‘jam bands,’ a personal hobby for both my spouse and I that we had, and have, managed to turn into a vocation and a modest living for most of two decades now.

All good—the very next year, we’d expand in our market, and for a time feel like a mini-chain, riding the wave of interest in retro fashion and increasingly popular bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, and the String Cheese Incident. The original owners of Loose Lucy’s, our little hippie store, expanded to include additional sub-owners like us, become a growing regional and iconic brand. On the business horizon, we talked about opening in other markets as well.

Was any of this mine, though? Was this my life’s work?

As much fun as it was and has been, around the time of my birthday and the opening of the Loose Lucy’s Savannah location, owned by my friend Stephanie (Pickard) Zerweiss, I became terribly depressed and downhearted. I was by any account a success, but I wasn’t following any particular personal dream that I’d ever had, other than being my own boss, which in itself was enough of a triumph to make me feel that I was at least mostly in the right place and the right time. My melancholy came not from being a failure at anything, but at still not defining for myself what it was that I needed to be doing, that I had a particular talent for doing, and that, for the sake of the balance of my own spirit and that of the universe itself, I ought to be doing. It was October 1, 2000; I came home that night and begin typing up notes for a Grateful Dead-themed literary novel, taking the first small steps on a journey that’s ongoing to this very minute.

From this point, however, it’s easier, perhaps, to offer the story as told, (and published, in Muddy Ford Press’s anthology The Limelight), with this essay about my career seen through the lens of the contribution of a primary and crucial mentor, the novelist and publisher Robert Lamb, who made such a difference in my life and writing journey.

COURAGE (BOB LAMB TRIBUTE as submitted to MFP, August, 2012)

Fear.

Like most people who survive into their late 20s and beyond, by that age I’d experienced the emotion in any number of terrible forms, but nothing like what I was about to endure, a new kind of terror like out of a bad dream: the idea of exposing myself before a room full of strangers.

No, not like when one dreams about showing up late for class wearing only skivvies—or worse, the birthday suit—but close enough: I had to face a classroom of fellow aspiring writers, all of whom I suspected of being far beyond my abilities, and none more than the instructor: a mature, gentle Southern novelist and former Georgia newspaperman named Robert Lamb. The class was called Fiction Workshop. He’d told us to call him Bob, and taught us that literature wasn’t a static object frozen in amber to be studied, it was an art form that lived and breathed in all of us.

I’d wait outside the building after class to catch the genial professor of literature, bending his ear and talking up my ambition to write, and to be published, and what it all meant. About the books and authors that meant something to me. I was hungry to interact with someone who’d made it—who’d seen his name in print, which hadn’t occurred since the high school newspaper, and on one short story published in a one-shot literary magazine produced on a mimeograph machine in the school secretary’s office, and all of that now ten years in the past.

“It’s a red letter day when you finally get published,” he said, standing in the fading Carolina autumn light, leaves blowing across the paved walkway between the classroom buildings.

“You must feel really accomplished when it happens,” I said.

“Feels pretty good.”

#

Now, though, it was halfway through the semester, and I had to do more than make small talk, more than cut bait—I had to fish.

I had to read.

I stood aquiver behind the lectern in the USC classroom, one of those terraced auditoriums of long tables and fixed, swiveling plastic chairs that can hold a few dozen students comfortably. The room wasn’t full, not by a long shot, but full enough. Thought I’d hurl; as if I hadn’t been anxious enough, I’d had about a quart of coffee, and stomach acid gurgled and roiled in the depths of my body.

Was there depth in my writing, though? I hadn’t a clue.

Sure, in undergrad I’d stood before judges and peers to ‘perform’ scripts I’d written, had taken speech and acting classes, had made a film and suffered through its first (and only) public viewing, but I’d never read fiction aloud. Hell—I’d barely let anyone, my wife included, so much as peek at the work. But here I’d been cajoled by this real writer to reveal myself before him. Before them all.

The guy that’d read the week before, a lawyer in his 40s, had produced engaging and mature-sounding work that read funny and polished to a spit-shine. He’d set the bar, and set it high—his sounded like a mature voice. He did have twenty years on me, but at the moment, all I knew was that he sounded like a real writer, in control of his craft and voice.

Speaking of voices, that afternoon I’d sat at my desk at work, but instead of cataloguing archival newsreel footage backed up on a stack of VHS cassettes, I read one last time through the chapter I’d chosen. As I whispered aloud—quietly, to myself; but how else would one whisper, I can hear Bob the editor’s voice asking in the back of my mind—and compared the work to that of the lawyer, I thought mine sounded clunky and overwritten. Trying too hard. Grim, unfunny, a slog—an inveterate drunk buries his beloved pet dog. Sheesh.

But it was too late. I had to read. Bob Lamb was expecting, if not greatness, then at least courage.

That night as I began to read, my voice echoed strange and strained in the room of expectant faces, Bob’s most of all—I’d talked up my chops. I avoided their eyes, his especially.

I don’t remember every second of that reading, but I do recall taking careful note of which words and sentences sounded right, which ones didn’t, and how I tried hard to invest my narrative with vocal gravitas. The class received this work in silence; afterwards I was told by both students and the instructor that, whatever flaws my work possessed, I’d nonetheless acquitted myself well.

As had become the norm, outside the Humanities building I hung around and made small talk with Bob. I told him I felt lighter of spirit. That I’d passed a certain test—I’d read my work before peers, but hadn’t burst into flames or collapsed and died under the glare of their judgement.

“You should be proud—the pages you read in there tonight were as good as any I’ve heard from the MFA students,” the professor of literature told me.

“Do you really think that?”

His shrug, slight, nonetheless spoke volumes. “Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”

I could have floated all the way home.

But for all sorts of reasons, many I still don’t fully understand, I didn’t keep writing, not through the fruition of that novel, or any other, not for a long time—I hadn’t yet found the thread. Despite Bob’s praise, I didn’t believe in myself, or the work. Not yet.

#

Ten years later my life had changed radically, but I hadn’t become a novelist—I’d left the film archive to become, alongside my wife, a retail business owner. A learning curve, one vastly different from either archiving media, or writing stories and novels. In other words, a path I hadn’t anticipated.

But a good one, an iconoclastic voyage that felt a closer fit with what I’d come to realize were my true goals: rather than as a cog in a machine, I sought an independent, bohemian lifestyle—that’s what I’d wanted out of the writing, wasn’t it? The artist’s life, the creative grind, a different sort of workaday experiential existence?

And as for the creativity my prior career had lacked, try keeping a customer base satisfied, as well as representing the face of hippie subculture here in Columbia, in an era when the years since Jerry Garcia’s passing quickly began to add up.

The proof was in the profit, however, and the business, by any measure, was a success. I’d merely bought into a successful retail shop, however—I still had much to prove to myself about what and where I was supposed to be in life, and what I could achieve. I had stories to tell.

#

Big news: a new grocery store, a Publix, had opened in Columbia’s downtown Vista district—not all that exciting, no, but it’d be on the way home from Five Points, where our store was, and is, located. The convenience of an upscale grocer into which to duck on the drive home, or on the way in to grab-and-go a tray of sushi for lunch, meant I could save a few minutes out of an average day, which I desperately needed—three years into my new life as a businessman, at the turn of the millennium I’d decided to begin writing again: a dream deferred, but never forgotten.

Since that moment a few years had passed, and I could report that I was no longer a complete neophyte—a short story had won a prize from a respected west coast literary journal, one that’d published writers like Bukowski. Not only that, but I’d finally finished that long-gestating novel, and was well into my second. Despite my progress, I didn’t feel that I was quite ‘there,’ but well on my way.

Not long after my short story triumph, I’m made one of those visits to the new downtown grocer, and who did I find standing in that shiny, bustling new store but my first, and in a way the only true writing mentor I’d ever had: Bob Lamb. He stood by a stack of books—a gritty urban mystery called Atlanta Blues that had come out to good notices—watching shoppers push by with their cartloads of sustenance, seemingly oblivious to the presence in their midst of an accomplished author.

I found the encounter serendipitous, and told him so—I’d at long last finished a draft of the novel I’d begun over a decade before, a sprawling, Conroyesque Southern family epic that had come in at an unwieldy and bloated 1200-page monster of a sloppy first draft.

“You should come talk to my class about your writing,” he said. He explained that he loved having other writers as guest speakers, and as a former student, my recent success, he joked, was testimony to his teaching methods. “They’d love to hear about it. And so would I.”

I flashed back to my first reading—I had a pang of the an old familiar terror. “Well—sure,” I said, feigning courage. “Anytime.”

“How about next week?”

I gulped, said I’d be there.

So, I read, and discussed the work. In my Bob Lamb class, an evening session, there’d been mainly adult continuing ed students, but here I saw young, fresh faces. I read my pages thinking that much time had passed since I was the age of these folks.

The students, and Bob, were receptive to my reading, and the story behind the composition of the long and difficult literary novel I’d produced. One young woman seemed mildly aghast, however, that I’d first tried to write a version of the book so long ago, that its ultimate completion would have bridged the Bush, Clinton, and Bush regimes.

Not Bob—he understood. “These novels,” he said with a familiar shrug, “sometimes take many years to get done right. Or never at all.”

I’d guest lecture in Bob Lamb’s fiction workshop on a number of other occasions, each time with good results—perhaps especially when the work didn’t go over like I’d hoped, which allowed me to discuss it with a room full of instant critics, and learn from my mistakes. I was thickening the skin in a manner necessary to any writer worth his ambition. For this, too, I now had Bob to thank.

#

Two years later, and I’m downtown in Columbia’s lovely convention center, a place that, for this weekend, anyway, is one of books, and authors, and readers.

I’d come to the SC Book Festival to take what they billed as a ‘master class, in this case one in which an editor and an agent would inform a ballroom of would-be scribes what it took to get published in today’s marketplace yadda-yadda, an idea that was never more on my mind than that dreary February afternoon: Now I had three completed manuscripts sitting on the hard drive or in various drafts I’d printed, oftentimes, I thought, merely to remind myself that the work was real, that the pages were accumulating.

Maybe it’s time for an agent, I thought. Maybe I can pitch the one teaching the class; maybe he or she will see the potential and ask for pages. Stranger things, I thought, have surely happened.

But before the class even starts, who do I find in a seat into but Bob Lamb, author of the Pen-Hemingway nominee Striking Out, a book that’d informed my latest novel, and the thriller Atlanta Blues.

Bob, not on the dais, but in the audience. “Why on earth are you taking this class?” I asked. “You’re published!”

He offered me that modest Lamb shrug I’d come to know: “There’s always more to learn.”

By now, with three novels under my belt—my long-gestating literary effort, another ambitious piece that sought to make sense of my Grateful Dead experience, and that latest effort, a coming-of-age saga that in length and scope seemed smaller than my others, so small that I could barely see its 200 pages peeking up over the stacks of drafts of the first two manuscripts—I’d come to believe that I was ready for the next step, which was trying concrete steps toward getting one of them in print.

By the end of the session, however, I didn’t feel very optimistic about my chances of getting an agent, much less getting published—my material wasn’t high concept enough. Didn’t fit into genres, except maybe the coming-of-age saga about loss of innocence, the small fry of my three children. That one, easy enough to describe: a kind of literary American Graffiti, one set in late 70s Myrtle Beach. Drugs. Sex. Intrigue and danger. I never even got a chance to pitch it, but I did get the agent’s card.

Bob, too, seemed disheartened—he might have already been published, and taught a universtiy-level class about writing fiction, but he still harbored ambition to break through on another level.  I understood completely—I wanted that kind of validation as well. What artist worth his efforts doesn’t aim high?

At one time, Bob had had a bigtime agent, Julian Bach, who’d also represented Pat Conroy. But that’d been a long time ago, he said, and hadn’t resulted in much action. “Some writers I know say they wouldn’t have an agent if you paid them to.”

Frustration bubbled over in the lobby—“I’m ready,” I blurted, not really believing it. Mainly because I wasn’t ready, not in the way I thought, but considering about all the work I’d put in, especially on the latest project, which thanks to both its setting and theme I called King’s Highway, a yawning need burned inside to prove to myself that I had written a book good enough to be accepted, published, and read. The rejection slips I’d acquired on my first two books hadn’t been encouraging ones, either—they’d simply been cold rejections, a growing pile, and deep down I knew both manuscripts needed work, perhaps years more. King’s Highway, not so much. It felt complete and whole, only rough around the edges.

“I just need someone to take a chance on me,” I continued to Bob. “On this new novel I’ve written.”

Bob asked me to tell him about it, and on the walk into the exhibit hall, I did.

On the front row of vendors, he led me over to a table—Red Letter Press, an imprint that’d been started here in Columbia by none other than Bob himself. He told me about his plans, how he wanted to make it possible for writers to get published. To enjoy that Red Letter day. It was getting too hard to break through to ‘publisher’s row,’ as the big houses are known. Writers deserved a chance, echoing my own words.

“So, I’d love to read King’s Highway,” he said, taking his place behind the table where he had a few titles for sale, including collections of stories written by former students, and a series of children’s mystery novels by Karen Petit that were attracting a great deal of attention from buyers. “We’re looking for good material to publish.”

I went home as fast as the wind would carry me and printed off a copy, an act as important as any I’d taken in my so-called writing career up to that point: By the end of the summer I’d have my first novel in print, but not until after it’d had some further revision and refinement—working with an editor was nerve-wracking, but useful and edifying.

Especially being that my editor was Bob, who is as genial and kind a collaborator, publisher, and friend as anyone could want. He believed in the work. He believed in me. I may not have been ready, not like I thought, but he could see that I was getting there, and saw value in helping me to achieve my lifelong dream.

What a fine teacher, this—above and beyond the call.

Bob Lamb’s not only one of the best and most humane of literary-minded authors, he’s also a beloved husband and father, a sage and a saint for wanting to show us a vision of the world through his literary lens. Born just across the river in Augusta, Bob has nonetheless earned his place in the pantheon of South Carolina writers, with the worst news being that Columbia has now lost him to life on the balmy coast, where I hope he will produce many more novels and stories. The honor of knowing him remains mine, but his contributions to the canon of Southern literature, whether already published or soon to be written, belong to all of us.

So that’s a mentor’s contribution to this journey, and for all intents and purposes, brings us up to speed—my career from King’s Highway on is fairly self-evident on these pages and elsewhere.

Here are the preceding chapters in this autobiographical series. Thanks so much for your interest in my ongoing writer’s journey to publication and artistic satisfaction.

My Writing Journey Part 1

My Writing Journey Part 2

My Writing Journey Part 3

My Writing Journey Part 4

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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