Success proves elusive and fame fickle when first-time novelists aspire to THE WRITING LIFE

April 17, 1994|By Tim Warren

Thomas Wolfe had, by any measure, a successful debut novel in "Look Homeward, Angel." It went through six printings in this country and was a finalist for the 1930 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Though some of the reviews in this country were harsh, he got many favorable ones. But when "Angel" was published in England the following year, it received some nasty reviews in newspapers there, and Wolfe was ready to chuck it all.

"Life is not worth the pounding I have taken from private and public sources . . . ." Wolfe complained at the time. According to his biographer, David Herbert Donald, Wolfe "demanded of [editor Max] Perkins an accounting of any royalties due to him and informed Scribners [his publisher]: 'I have stopped writing and do not want ever to write again.' "

Ellicott City writer Mary Cahill didn't react quite as dramatically to reviews of "Carpool," her 1991 first novel. But they did puzzle her.

"My editor would accumulate a bunch of reviews and send them along to me," says Ms. Cahill, 49, her face wrinkling into a smile at the memory. "The first would say, 'The characters were cardboard but the plot was great.' The second would then say, "The plot was ridiculous but I liked the characters." I realized after a while that everybody brings what they bring to a book and you can't do anything about it."

Glen Burnie native Brent Wade, 34, had a similar experience with reviewers of his 1991 first novel, "Company Man." So did A. Gallatin Warfield III, when his Maryland-based thriller, "State v. Justice," was published in December 1992.

"You start wondering: Are these people all reading the same book?' " Mr. Warfield, 47, a former Howard County prosecutor, asks in good-humored exasperation.

The whims and vagaries of reviewers are but a small element of the writing life, these three Marylanders have discovered -- like thousands of first-time novelists before them. There are frustrations, surprises and successes.

Their own successes followed years of plugging along, writing the book without knowing if anyone would buy it, let alone read it. But as they have made the transition from dreamer to aspiring writer to successful first novelist, something else has happened, along with the publicity and the money and the feelings of self-affirmation.

They've entered a far more competitive field than they had imagined -- the world of 1990s publishing, with its ruthless, bottom-line approach.

A TASTE OF TRIUMPH

The first novels of Brent Wade, Gally Warfield and Mary Cahill experienced success far greater than that of most aspiring writers. Many of the hundreds of first novels published each year are seldom reviewed, bought only by family and friends and perhaps several hundred readers of fiction around the country and quickly forgotten. But in a publishing world that grows steadily more difficult for writers to succeed in, these three did.

Ms. Cahill, a former elementary school teacher and free-lance writer, sent "Carpool" out unsolicited to several publishers. An editorial assistant at Random House, one of the giant New York publishing houses, plucked it out of the slush pile, launching one of the literary success stories of 1991. A brightly written comic mystery set in Howard County, "Carpool" sold close to 15,000 copies in hardback and landed Ms. Cahill a slew of publicity, including an appearance on "The Today Show."

Ms. Cahill worked on her book for more than five years, writing portions of "Carpool" on legal pads during free moments while she was on carpool duty for her two children. She readily concedes that many people around her wouldn't take her novel-writing seriously -- but not anymore.

" 'Carpool's' success improved my credibility, especially around my family," says Ms. Cahill, whose husband, Ed, is a pediatrician. They have a son, 22, and a daughter, 18. "Now when I say I have a deadline, they're more likely to respect it." She pauses and closes her eyes for a second. "But they're still not respecting my office supplies."

She plugs along now knowing her first triumph doesn't $l guarantee a second. Already, her editor has left Random House, and though she is under contract there for her second novel, "Alma Mater," she doesn't have a new editor. She's also had to change agents.

Mr. Wade, a computer systems manager for AT&T, wrote a novel about a black Baltimore executive who has trouble dealing with the white corporate world. He would write at night after coming home from work, and Fridays usually meant writing until dawn. When it was published, "Company Man" got Mr. Wade national coverage: He was included in a Newsweek article on new black writers and he appeared on "Good Morning America."

He continues to work full time for AT&T. "When I go to work, I'm Faceless Bureaucrat No. 6536," he says wryly. "But it keeps me humble."

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