I was the kind of kid who cared about getting good grades, and I grew up thinking I would be a scientist, like my parents. (My father was a physicist, and my mother had studied to be a chemist before becoming a mother and housewife.) The Lexington MA public schools were very good, and Harvard was easier to get into back then. I applied as a prospective physics major, but in my first semester, having been granted the strange new freedom to choose my own courses, I realized that the subjects I actually liked were literature and history. I ended up majoring in English, trying to catch up with classmates who’d somehow managed to read one or two classics as teenagers while I was reading science fiction. I soldiered on with the getting-good-grades thing until I graduated in 1981, at which point it occurred to me that it would be great if I could arrange my life so that I’d never have to earn a grade again.
At a loss what to substitute for teachers’ approval as a meaning of existence, I counted up money in a Harvard travel grant I’d won, plus more I’d earned as a housepainter and freelance writer for a shifty little comparison-shopper magazine, packed up my bicycle and tent, and flew to England. For two years, my life’s direction was simple: reach the top of the hill to see what was on the other side; find the next tolerably comfortable patch of grass to sleep on. I biked from England to Greece in the first year, then up to the top of Norway and back down to Italy the second year. I had extremely vague ideas about becoming a novelist, but had only written lit-crit papers for school. I kept a journal, thinking that perhaps I could produce a travel book about some fraction of the tour when I got back to the U.S.
Surprisingly, I actually did that, while living at my parents’ house and paying expenses by editing articles for a computer magazine. That book–concentrating on Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary–was Stealing from a Deep Place, which I finished when I was 26. For three years I couldn’t get anyone to publish it (the manuscript was too long, and it was about a nonentity pedaling around Eastern Europe, for chrissake), and in the meantime I got married and wrote my first novel, The Dreamers, while teaching SAT math and beginning German and living for free at a private school where my wife taught English. (She was on the faculty; I was a hanger-on.) Through a fluke of timing, The Dreamers and Stealing each sold to a different publisher within a few weeks of each other, and those two editors (Buzz Wyeth of Harper & Row and Steve Wasserman of Hill & Wang, all hail!) saw their intrepidity rewarded with dismal sales.
In 1987 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, NY, where she enrolled in a PhD program in Education at Cornell University. Over the next three years I made ends meet by occasionally writing for magazines, and also wrote a monster version of the novel that would become The Saskiad (I think the manuscript was over 800 pages). Intelligent people told me it was way too long, but I didn’t have time to cut it down because I’d already contracted with a publisher to write a book about Yugoslavia. I’d originally conceived it as a travel book about Bosnia, centering on a portrait of three ethnically and religiously diverse communities (Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims) which, despite a long difficult history, managed to coexist peacefully. As 1990 became 1991, it started to look like the book would have to be about something else, and if I didn’t get over there soon, there wouldn’t be a Yugoslavia to write about. I went in May 1991, returned in October, and wrote The Impossible Country in 1992.
The contract with the original publisher (who, like Voldemort, shall not be named) fell through and the manuscript languished until Secker & Warburg in the UK and Godine in the U.S. (all hail) picked it up from the ammoniac corner into which I’d petulantly kicked it. They were rewarded for their faith in me by more dismal sales. In the meantime, I’d cut hundreds of pages from the monster manuscript of my second novel, The Saskiad, but I was still having a hell of a time selling it to anyone in the U.S. Then Max Eilenberg (may he live forever) of Secker & Warburg bought it, and his good opinion initiated one of those brief, inexplicable spasms that occasionally seize the publishing industry: for one heady week, the major houses of Europe wanted my book, and I was going to be famous and make myself and everyone else rich, and I’d be plagued by too much fame ever after, and that would probably be a drag, but I imagined I could live with it. The dust settled, buyer’s remorse rose grinning from the grave (I’m guessing here), and all and sundry were rewarded in the fullness of time with dismal sales. Ironically, the one country in which The Saskiad sold moderately well (to the public, I mean) was the U.S., where publishers had been more reluctant to have anything to do with it. (Houghton Mifflin eventually assumed the burden.)
Now I was a father, spending a lot of time with a baby, and also wanting to write another book. My brilliant idea was to write a book about the baby. Years earlier I’d read some Piaget, and I’d liked the way he based his insights about early child development on observations of his own children. I wanted to do a novelist’s version of Piaget, trying to imagine what it might feel like to be an infant and subsequently a toddler: which things are feared, and why; how a sense of identity arises; how a sense of time; how death is first grappled with. In other words, how we piece together—during the one part of our life which we will never remember—what is subsequently called human consciousness. The result was Madeleine’s World, a book (I will admit) I have always been proud of; I bother to mention that only because it broke all my previous records for dismal sales.
But enough of complaining! I finally produced a book which actually sold pretty well. This was a novel about Lewis and Clark, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, which began life as an article about Sacagawea for Travel-Holiday. Through the fortuitousness of my slow writing, a novel I’d hoped to have published in 2000 wasn’t finished until late 2001, and therefore came out right at the beginning of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in early 2003. Paul Slovak was my editor at Viking for that, and if I ever have more children, they will all be named Paul Slovak.
I had enjoyed writing I Should Be, but wanted to do a straight novel next. I had no idea what it would be about, but at least I knew what it would not be about: it would have nothing to do with a historical person. Naturally, I ended up writing a novel about Robert Frost. I had stumbled across an anecdote of his trip to the Soviet Union and his meeting with Khrushchev on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and subsequently I couldn’t get that outlandish and comical scene out of my head. The result was Fall of Frost, which came out in 2008.
As I write this in 2013, I’m about to turn fifty-four. I still live in Ithaca, NY, and would like to do so forever. (Not only because I like Ithaca, but because I like the idea of not dying.) My wife and I separated last year. I live with our daughters, twenty-one and eighteen. Sometimes I teach at Colgate to pay the bills; it’s a two-hour commute over parallel glacial ridges, and in the spring semester it snows way too much. I’m at slow work on a novel. Today is a sultry August day, and the horsechestnut tree outside my window has some kind of rust blight that, as it does every summer, is shriveling the leaves and turning them crispy.