Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
Returning, to Write My Novel
What has been my experience on the road to becoming a published author? Not an easy question for me or, I assume, for any author to answer. The first step in my journey was to get my story down on paper, which surprisingly took me the better part of my adult life. My reluctance happened for a very good reason—something most young authors never realize until they have reached old age. In order to assimilate the truth behind many experiences, I believe it is necessary to view those experiences from the perspective of old age, unless of course you are born gifted. William Wordsworth captured this very human revelation in his poem Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood . . .
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
My understanding of what happened to me in the summer of 1967 was truly enhanced only after reflecting upon those recollections from my past through the eyes of an older and perhaps wiser version of myself.
Nevertheless, I first started writing about my adventure on Mount McKinley in the fall of 1967, about a month after I had returned to the east coast from what many have described as North American mountaineering’s worst climbing disaster, a tragedy that took the lives of seven young men.
The Joseph Wilcox disaster was front-page news not only in Alaska and the Lower-48, but also in many newspapers around the world. I still have a collection of clippings stashed in a manila folder in one of my desk drawers.
When I got back to Connecticut in the fall of 1967, I received a phone call from the sports editor of the New Haven Register. He wanted to interview one of the survivors, who was also a member of the rescue team that found three frozen corpses up around the 19,000-foot level on the icy slopes of Denali.
Mount McKinley was renamed after our 25th President in 1878 by prospector William Dickey; the massive mountain with two distinct peaks was originally called Denali by the Dena’ina Athabascan people who inhabited the land surrounding the great mountain long before the encroachment of the civilized world. Denali means The High One. In 1967, fewer than two hundred people had ever been to the top of Mount McKinley. Our expedition was the 53rd attempt. As of today, more than 32,000 people have attempted to climb McKinley; a little more than half have reached the top.
Upon returning to my home in Connecticut after the tragedy, New England’s autumn leaves were showing their full blaze of vibrant colors. By the time they had faded a month and a half later, I had returned to Nasson College in Springvale, Maine to start my sophomore year. The landscape had turned a barren gray by Thanksgiving holiday, yet I still remember my excitement when I discovered a complete set of slides from our Denali climb had arrived in the mail from my brother in Anchorage.
Before our first snowfall, the vivid memories of what I endured on Denali were once again alive in my mind. As a chilly afternoon wind scattered leaves across our backyard, I sat upstairs in my bedroom and carefully assembled each slide into one of the carousels from our family’s Kodak slide projector. These tangible images triggered a myriad of reflections in my mind. Later that evening after dinner I began relating my adventure to my mother and my older brother Reggie as the larger images clicked across a barren wall in our living room. This was the first of hundreds of presentations I would make over the next several years. With each retelling, I found myself refining the details, which I felt would make my story more unique. What I had endured on the icy slopes of Denali was truly extraordinary and most people were virtually blown away as my story reached its climax. My adventure on Denali became a crowd pleaser, and I knew one day I would write a book about coming face to face with the Grim Reaper.
In the years that followed I attempted many times to pen the adventure of my life, but I was always disappointed with the end product. After college I became employed as a sophomore English teacher at Fitch Senior High School in Groton, Connecticut. A teacher down the hall offered to help me write my “novel.” In fact, he wanted to pen the story himself, with the details provided by me. Frank Smith was already a published author, and writing an entire book seemed to me overwhelming and well beyond my level of skill as a writer. Yet, after a few months it soon became clear to me if anyone was going to write my tale of “Death on Denali,” it would have to be me.
After a year of teaching on the east coast, a new development slowly began to creep into my life, almost as if I was starting my climb up Denali all over again. I felt as though something was missing—my life seemed pointless, as though I was just spinning my wheels, without any real sense of purpose. I was restless, unhappy, even disillusioned with the way things were going for me, so I decided to pack up my 1967 Pontiac station wagon with all my belongings and say goodbye to my home in Connecticut. Like Percival searching for the Holy Grail, I began my second great quest traveling alone across the states and up into the Canada; finally I forged my way up the Alcan Highway all the way to Anchorage. Clearly my adventure on the Last Frontier four years earlier was beckoning me to return to the place where my sense of manhood had been tested and the so-called bridge between adolescence and adulthood had been successfully crossed, or at least so I thought.
The years passed quickly—after a variety of jobs, new friends and relationships, and the furthering of my education—I became a special-education elementary school teacher. Along the way I had honed my skills as a mountaineer and had become an assistant outdoor education instructor in Anchorage Community College’s mountaineering program.
Admittedly a late bloomer, I eventually fell in love and within a few years I was married and a father of two children. Then around year seven, the terrible reality of divorce came into my experience—a story not unique to me, and perhaps similar to many. Yet, in spite of this great sadness, my desire to write slowly began to emerge from the recesses of my mind.
As it turned out my divorce proved to be one of those mixed blessings that open the door to a whole new dimension. While my children lived with their mother during the school year, I discovered time to reflect upon the past several years of my life. What had happened to me? Why was my world falling apart just when I thought everything was going my way?
The proverbial self-help therapies of the ‘70s and ‘80s became my lifeline. And yes, I tried everything from psychotherapy and working with a Jungian analyst to many of the other “new age” approaches, which promised to help me help myself—an Elizabeth Kubler-Ross externalization workshop, weekly meetings of the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) group, M. Scott Peck and his Road Less Traveled book series, which culminated in my attendance at one of his Community Building workshops, Leonard Orr’s and Sondra Ray’s “rebirthing-breathwork” techniques aimed at helping me to experience and heal suppressed emotions from my birth, and finally the eastern practice of daily meditation.
Yes, I had suppressed many negative emotions and experiences from my childhood. Yet rather than maintain a practice of denial, which most of my family adhered to, I decided to release a few of the skeletons from our family’s closet.
So my climb up Mount McKinley in 1967 became a bit more than your average “Me-and-Joe climbed a mountain” story. Should I Not Return was quickly turning into my autobiography and into the story of two brothers who believed they had escaped to Alaska and left behind the shadows from their past.
In fact, my book is a testament to anyone who has ever dabbled in “life-threatening” activities like mountain climbing—trying to escape those repressed feelings from childhood. Such addictive behaviors akin to drug, alcohol, or substance abuse certainly fall into the same category. Disorders which are sexual in nature, or those triggered by obsessive-compulsive (OCS) impulses in the brain, can also be viewed in the same light. These acting-out behaviors may offer a euphoric sense of pleasure or a feeling of escape from painful associations in the past, yet any psychiatrist will tell you such addictions do nothing to heal the origin of those festering wounds. In the Arthurian myth, these real-life repressions of human angst are commonly referred to as the “Fisher King wound.”
As I began to comprehend and dig into some of these roots from my past, I found myself wanting to somehow put these thoughts into my novel. And my recollection of coming face to face with death on Denali seemed not only a good place to start, it also seemed the most logical. What better place to shed some light on my past than to visit the icy, storm-blasted upper slopes of “The High One,” once again. In my mind it felt like I was coming to terms with God Almighty or Satan himself.
So I again began writing. Over the course of the next several years, I penned three different screenplay versions of the story—Archdeacon’s Tower, was followed by Divine Fate, which was then updated into a version I called Nature’s Edge. Then, for a full year I tried to garner the interest of an agent or manager in Los Angeles, to get my screenplay made into a blockbuster film.
Then, one snowy night I became trapped in the coastal town of Whittier, Alaska. For several days I had been bartering back and forth over the Internet with a Mr. Michael Cushman of Creative Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. I awoke the following morning in my room at the Anchor Inn and discovered Mike was willing to take me on as a client! In his brief return email message, he complimented me on my newly revised synopsis, the “pitch” to my screenplay Archdeacon’s Tower and he wrote: “Send me the spec, Jeff. What you have written is far superior to the other pitches you’ve sent. Let’s see if we can get you a producer.”
Four years went by in a flash with the expected nibbles and bites from various sharks and tadpoles swimming around the LA oceans, yet nothing ever panned out. In the meantime, I was given the name of a book publisher who was based in Anchorage by the name of Evan Swensen. Evan too was intrigued by my story, but he did not work with screenplays, so he encouraged me to transfer the story into a novelized format.
By now, I was approaching retirement from teaching in Alaska, and my wife and I decided to move to Green Valley, Arizona in 2007 to be near her then 92-year-old father in his later years. Although we have resided in Green Valley for nearly five years, I still managed to make at least one trip back to Alaska each year. The most recent journey this past summer was a joy, since it involved book signings and the promotion of my newly published novel, entitled Should I Not Return.
As to be expected, many developments have occurred in our lives during this time—my own health issues came into play, which involved surgery, then came the deaths of friends and relatives, the birth of our first grandchild, and of course the financial ups and downs, which coincided with the downfall of our economy. Throughout our time in Arizona, I wrote the novelized version of my story.
Several months were devoted to rewrites and revisions, during a recovery period from three separate cardiac incidents, and also from a full knee replacement surgery. Evan has been exceedingly helpful with the laborious process of getting my book published.
Yet, after my book was released to the public in April of 2012, I discovered one final step, which is perhaps the hardest part of an author’s journey. Yes, bringing a book into the tangible reality is a difficult and time-consuming struggle, as this brief chapter about my experience certainly implies. Yet, the real struggle, namely the promotion of an author’s book, is perhaps even more challenging. I established my own book’s website address, which can be found at www.shouldinotreturn.com. With Evan’s help we sent out galley copies to prospective reviewers who wrote glowing remarks about my book. I have a You-tube video posted on the Internet: www.youtube.com/watch?v=h71WVl-wo3U. In a similar vein, I visited hundreds of other sites, which offer ways to promote an author’s work. Some of the advice was very helpful, and some not.
Publication Consultants too is doing their best to help authors with this crucial step in the book-publishing game by initiating an author’s group on Google’s website, in order to help his established authors communicate with each other and share their own experiences and ideas. They are also providing authors with opportunities to hear from professionals in the business who are willing to offer their advice via a webinar author’s site sponsored by Publication Consultants.
In conclusion, a novel takes years of effort to complete 70,000 to 140,000 words. If you do decide to invest the necessary time into writing a novel, you will discover the long time it takes will be one of the greatest challenges you will ever face. One adage I’ve run across claims that out of every hundred people who start a novel, only three finish.
If your goal is to see if you can write that book you’ve been dreaming about, then by all means, give it a try. You won’t know how you feel until after you begin to discover the joy of writing. Take it from me, it is not only therapeutic, it may turn into one of the best ways you will ever spend your time. As I have stated at the onset of this chapter, Should I Not Return took me the better part of my adult life to finish. Without a doubt I am very grateful I decided “to return” to the roots of my beginning. Completing my novel has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Just remember, if you are interested in having people buy your book (other than just your friends or relatives), you will be facing another of the greatest challenges of your life—the fine art of promoting your book to the general public.