Learning to Write What Your Know
by Todd Strasser
Between 1973 and 1977, toward the end of my sojourn as a college student, and then while working as a newspaper reporter, I wrote the first draft of a more-than- semi-autobiographical novel that would eventually become my first -- Angel Dust Blues, about a teenager on Long Island who, among other indiscretions, is arrested for selling drugs. Not aware at the time that there existed a genre of literature called Young Adult, I reread what I’d written and found myself concerned that my story about teenagers falling in love and getting in trouble lacked the action, excitement, international scope, and historical perspective necessary to catapult it onto the best seller lists. However, being youthful and resourceful, and naively believing that the answer to this problem could be found on a shelf at the local stationary store, I purchased a copy of Writer’s Digest to see if I could glean any advice as to how to transform my book into something with sales that would rival those of Stephen King and Robin Cook. And thus I learned that at that moment in literary history, at least according to the magazine, the two ingredients every book needed to insure vast commercial success were Nazism and cocaine (I have no idea where they got that idea. I’ve since checked the historical bestseller list and it appears that not a single book in the top 50 that year had anything to do with either).
Nonetheless I got busy creating a new character, a Nazi, who had escaped from Germany in a submarine at the end of World War II and sailed it to Colombia, South America (right? Right?). From there he regularly smuggled cocaine, via his submarine, all the way to the north shore of Long Island, New York. And, to tie it into my story, I made this Nazi the uncle of one of my protagonist’s best friends.
You might ask, why sail his submarine all the way to New York (2,300+ miles) when he could have much more easily traveled to the Florida Keys (1,200 miles) like legions of other drug smugglers? Because my story was set in New York, that’s why. I wish I could say that I’m pulling your leg about this, but I’m not. I was young, guileless, and ignorant.
Thanks to a stroke of luck that will be saved for another blog, I was able to secure the services of a reputable agent who began to submit the manuscript to publishers. Rejections quickly piled up from the first dozen editors who read it. This was a tough time for me. Other than working as a part-time fact checker for Esquire Magazine, I had no income, nor any real reason to believe I could make a career of writing. I’d even given myself a deadline: if I couldn’t publish a book by the time I was 32, I’d chuck the whole deal and start over at something new, even if I couldn’t imagine what that would be.
Then one day my agent called with good news: an editor named Ferdinand Monjo at a publisher called Coward, McCann & Geoghegan wished to have lunch with me. Was I interested? At the time I was so strapped for money that I was eating my way through a case of tuna fish that I’d purchased at a bulk discount. Of course I was interested in having lunch with him. I probably would have gone to lunch with Charles Manson if he’d offered to pay (and promised to come unarmed).
Todd's Favorite writing spot - Ditch Plains Beach in the evening.
And so I went to my first literary lunch, meeting Mr. Monjo and his assistant, Jim Bruce, in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. They were already seated when I arrived. Mr. Monjo was a refined, dapper man dressed in a sport jacket and tie. His wavy silver gray hair was combed back, his wire-rim glasses sparkled, and he smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder. Jim, with his blond hair and light blue crew neck sweater, was the very image of prep.
This was to be an experience unlike any I’d had before. After rising and graciously thanking me for coming to lunch (shouldn’t it have been the other way around?), Mr. Monjo gestured for me to sit at the table set with linens, crystal, and silver. During the conversation that followed, the editor consumed two vodka gimlets while discussing theater, classical music, and opera with Jim (Clearly the least cultured person at the table, I mostly listened and sipped a Coke).
Still, I suspected they were feeling me out, trying to assess my background and how much I knew about culture (not much, although I could sing some of the songs from My Fair Lady). Meanwhile, I nervously, yet hungrily feasted on a hamburger (my first in months!) and fries, and wondered when we’d get around to discussing my book.
It turned out that this would not happen until after Mr. Monjo had consumed a red caviar omelet (I’d never seen one before, nor have I seen one since), as well as a third vodka gimlet. Finally, over coffee and dessert, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would I, he asked, possibly consider rewriting my book? He asked this so apologetically that you would have thought he’d forgotten his wallet and needed me to pay for lunch. Fortunately this was the one question I was prepared for. My agent had already warned me that this query would be at the crux of the lunch, so I had an answer prepared. I would be glad to rewrite it, I said. And did Mr. Monjo have any suggestions as to just how he thought it could be improved?
“Yes,” he replied, appearing pleased and relieved that I had asked. It quickly became obvious that he had prepared a small speech for the occasion. “In this business it is important to write about what you know, Todd. And it is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs.” At this point he paused to clear his throat and take another sip of his vodka gimlet. “However, I hope you will not be offended if I add that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazis, submarines, and cocaine smuggling. The important thing, Todd, is to write about what you know. Focus on the teenagers and make it a story about them.” I suppose all this transpired with a bit of temerity on his part. As genteelly as possible, he’d carefully tossed down the gauntlet without knowing how I’d react. Another author might have insisted that the cocaine smuggling uncle Nazi had to stay. Or, even worse, might have felt insulted that his knowledge of cocaine smuggling and/or Nazis had been challenged.
Even though I already knew what my answer to Mr. Monjo’s request would be, I hesitated -- as if pondering all the ramifications of this suggestion -- when in reality there was only one: either I agreed to rewrite my novel or went looking for another publisher. Like the editors at the publishing houses that had rejected my manuscript, Mr. Monjo had found that the original story I’d created was neither plausible nor interesting. But unlike the others, he (perhaps because he himself was a writer) had detected a potential which, given the opportunity, might eventually develop into something decent.
Today there are still many devoted and erudite editors around, but I wonder how many would be allowed to gamble on a brand new author and an unmarketable manuscript the way Mr. Monjo did.* The impression I have is that nowadays editors are rarely allowed to speculate on what a manuscript might become, and must instead base their decisions on the manuscript they have in hand (provided the marketing and sales departments give them the green light. Many books today are purchased by committee. I cannot imagine any marketing or sales department approving of the manuscript Ferdinand Monjo read).
At lunch that day, I thanked him for his suggestion (and resisted the temptation to ask if I could possibly get yet another hamburger to go). Later, speaking to my agent, I learned that Mr. Monjo had offered a $3,000 advance to see if his hunch was correct. While small by today’s standards, in 1978 this was not an inconsequential amount to pay on an unproven first-time novelist with only the promise of a story. In the months that followed I would take his advice to heart and eventually produce a book that was driven much more by character, and much less by plot.
Mr. Monjo (his full name was Ferdinand Nicolas Monjo III) was born into an old and well-to-do Connecticut fur trading family that, in the 1800s, had had sailing ships plying trade all over the world. In 1974 one of his books won the National Book Award – a tremendous achievement for any writer. Sadly, he died in October of 1979, just a few months before Angel Dust Blues was published, and never got to see the fruits of his sage advice (very good reviews and an auction for the paperback rights). I consider myself very fortunate to have caught the tail end of the era when publishing was called a gentlemen’s occupation. He was certainly a sterling example.
* Among the other YA authors who got their start thanks to Mr. Monjo is Robert Lipsyte, whose wonderful YA novel, The Contender, came about when the editor wrote to him out of the blue and asked if he’d consider writing a novel about a teenage boxer. Before that, Mr. Lipsyte, a sports reporter for the New York Times, had never written fiction.
About NO PLACE:
"Dan's family was middle-class ... until they became homeless." "This compelling social commentary challenges stereotypes about homeless people and offers a look at homelessness from the perspective of a middle-class teen... believable tension, and references to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath fuel Strasser’s well-paced, engaging narrative." -- School Library Journal
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