We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.
TBD: What are you reading right now?
MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.
TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?
MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.
TBD: What were some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your first novel?
MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.
Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.
All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.
I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.
TBD: Are you working on a new project?
MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.
TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?
MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?
MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!
It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.
Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.
Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.
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We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?
Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.
After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.
Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!
TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?
VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.
I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.
Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.
Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.
To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.
Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.
TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?
VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.
Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!
The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.
I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.
TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?
VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.
But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.
Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.
With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.
I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.
After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.
Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.
In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.
TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?
VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.
Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.
I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.
But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.
TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?
VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.
Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.
The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.
By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.
And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.
Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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