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“For every Jonathan Safran Foer, who published at 19, there’s a Ben Fountain, who published his brilliant debut, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, at the age of 48,” Jack Wang writes. Photo: Courtesy of Jack Wang
> Writer's Room
Jack Wang on publishing his first book, We Two Alone, at 48
The Canadian author thought he would set the literary world on fire in his twenties. Here's what it took to get his first book published. / BY Jack Wang / December 11th, 2020
When I was a young aspiring writer, I came across an anthology of best new young writers entitled 20 Under 35. I remember thinking, 35? That’s not young – that’s old! I was quite certain that by the decrepit age of 35, I would have long since set the literary world ablaze.
“Genius, in the popular conception,” says Malcolm Gladwell, “is inextricably tied up with precocity.” No doubt I was possessed of this idea. After all, Zadie Smith was only 25 when she published White Teeth, Mary Shelley only 23 when she wrote Frankenstein.
At the age of 22, I left Canada for Arizona to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing. At the time, my MFA program lived in the burgeoning shadow of David Foster Wallace, who had written his first novel as an undergraduate and had actively published stories as an MFA student in said program. Talk about precocious.
But unlike Wallace, I didn’t produce much in the way of art as a master’s student. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but there were two things I didn’t know: what to say and how to say it. The stories I wrote received a few flattering rejections from literary journals, but in the end they were simply shelved with all the other bound theses, to gather dust in perpetuity. I shudder to think that Wang might be right next to Wallace.
Doubt in my own precocity was growing, but now I took solace in the long yardstick of 35: I still had a decade to be a young writer. After receiving my MFA, I moved to a small town in Minnesota. For the next four years, I taught writing and English and worked on a novel. Once again, I received flattering rejections, this time from publishers, back when one could still submit to many without an agent. In time, though, my hopes for that novel winked out, and I put it in a drawer.
At 30, with my window closing, I moved to Florida to pursue a PhD in English. Four years later, I had a doctorate, a marriage, a teaching job in New York State, and a draft of a new novel. I hammered away at that novel for another four or five years, desperate for the finish line. After a long search, I coaxed an agent to take me on. The novel made the rounds, and for a minute there was hope. But once again, no takers.
One day, I told my wife that if I had just one more summer, I could get that novel into fighting shape. But she said no. We had two young children, other priorities. No sense sinking more time into something that had already stolen so many countless hours. Deep down, I knew she was right. But that didn’t make the deathblow any less painful.
By this point, 35 had come and gone. I was now in my late thirties – middle-aged, old –with nothing to show for myself.
It was around this time that I came across Gladwell’s essay. Though he talks about precocity, his real subject is late bloomers. There’s no proof, he argues, that “genius” is the province of the young. For every Picasso, who did his best work in his twenties, there’s a Cézanne, who did his best work in his sixties. And for every Jonathan Safran Foer, who published at 19, there’s a Ben Fountain, who published his brilliant debut, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, at the age of 48.
Quietly, I settled on a new plan, the Ben Fountain Plan, and the rope I thought I had come to the end of suddenly let out.
But this meant starting over. Trying yet again. Less from courage or faith than the blinkered obduracy of a mill-horse, who goes round and round because it knows nothing else. I went back to trying my hand at short stories. The first one I wrote was rejected over 20 times before it was finally published. Still, progress! Then a story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, another longlisted for the Journey Prize. At last, it seemed, I was getting somewhere.
Describing the many years of his own apprenticeship, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen says, “I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer.” Little did I know that during all those years of struggle, blindness, wanderlust, and failure, plagued by doubt and even despair, I too was becoming a writer, learning not just discipline and perseverance but the two things I hadn’t known as a master’s student, which no one could teach me but myself: what to say and how to say it.
Eventually I wrote enough stories and enough of a new novel to submit to agents. This time, someone took me on right away. The day I learned that both my collection and novel-in-progress had sold, it felt like hewing to a magic number had finally worked – and not a moment too soon. My collection We Two Alone appeared in Canada in September. I was 48.
This is what I would say now to my 20-year-old self: if you reach the ripe old age of 35 without having achieved what you’d hoped for as a writer, beware the four year olds publishing poetry and heed instead the immortal Flaubert, who said, “Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” For you, like many, are simply a late bloomer, and you still have time.
Jack Wang is the author of We Two Alone, published by House of Anansi Press in Canada and forthcoming from HarperVia in the US, UK, and Australia on June 1, 2021. He teaches writing at Ithaca College.