For a long time, I didn’t want to add historical context to the memoir, because I thought it would turn into a history book. But I kept thinking of a favorite professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who published memoir and narrative nonfiction books, one of them a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. He encouraged writers to set stories in context, but I resisted until a scholarly travel writer shared his opinion that the Gulf War was a “piss in the bucket” and that Saddam Hussein never had chemical weapons.
I knew then that I had to explain the larger narrative of history and the slim slice that I’d witnessed. I had published op-eds and travel essays about my adventures in South America and Israel during the first intifada and the Gulf War in the Stamford Advocate, my hometown newspaper in Connecticut. So I already knew that moment of history intimately. But I went on a rigorous fact-finding mission, reading dozens of books and articles and documents, fleshing out context spanning World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was hard reading. Memories bubbling up in uncomfortable ways. But it was necessary for the book and, ultimately, healing for me, as I wrestled with the ghosts of my past.
I thought I was done with the book by the time I found my new agent. She told me that she didn’t want a little book deal. She wanted a Big Book Deal. So she made me write rewrite the synopsis, hoping that I could capture the essence of my story and style in 15-20 pages. I’d send her a new draft of the synopsis every few months, wait for her comments, then go back to the drawing board. She wanted more reflection. Dig, really dig.
After a year and a half of this, I asked if I was the slowest writer she’d ever worked with. She told me that she’d made an award-winning journalist work on a proposal for four years before she sold the book. I had done two Ironman triathlons, but somehow this seemed far more demanding of my endurance. And my mother’s. She asked if she could try to submit the book to independent and university presses. I wrote to the agent who said she hoped I’d find a home for the book. My mother became my agent.
She is a techie who could have been a cyber-detective, because she can dig up about anything on the internet. She put together a list of presses that publish memoir and mailed the proposal, using only a short synopsis similar to the one that appears on the published book instead of the opus I’d worked on for so long. Within three weeks, the editor-in-chief at the University of Nebraska Press read the proposal and asked for the whole memoir. She wrote a few weeks later to say that she enjoyed the book and wanted to send it out for peer review.
Both reviews asked for more reflection. I wrote a long response about how too much reflection could slow the pace and darken the tone. My editor suggested that I write a short letter, explaining how I could deepen the narrative. You want to make sure it comes through to the reader, she said. So I wrote a brief note about how I could revise the book. The editorial board approved it unanimously. I was encouraged. And terrified.
By now, I knew what the story meant, but how could I force the reader to agree, after hearing so many takes on the root of our troubles, and how could I do it without making it a heart-wrenching tale? It was delicate work, inserting a line here and a paragraph there, adding a chapter toward the beginning and expanding another at the end. The revisions were a success. The press officially accepted the book for publication, and later selected it as a promotional giveaway at BookExpo America this spring.
Black Elephants, already a bestselling title for my publisher, came out in October through the paperback imprint, Bison Books. Kirkus Reviews said it is “poetic,” “filled with idealism and adventure,” “a memorable read.” The Christian Science Monitor ran a reader recommendation in its print edition, calling the memoir “moving and thought-provoking.” Poets & Writers selected it as a New and Noteworthy Book. I signed books at my launch party at Idlewild Books and more after a talk the New York University Bookstore. Then I visited the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia to talk about Black Elephants with the Women of the World Book Club. A psychologist, who spent 18 months in Iraq helping soldiers, identified with my experiences and endorsed my approach to healing. Write, Pray, Swim, Bike, Run.
A friend met an aspiring agent who had worked in publishing and recommended me to her. She submitted the manuscript to an editor who handled first books with film potential. We waited and waited. Word never came. She wondered if I had any suggestions about where to send the book. I didn’t. Not even a clue. She soon bagged the agenting business and went to graduate school. I saw her a few years later, and she said she often thought of a line in my memoir when she runs. “Never quit on a hill.”
She wasn’t the first agent to see the book. A friend from the University of Pennsylvania had become a screenwriter with a strong review of his satirical film in The New York Times. He wrote novels, too, and kept trying to find an agent without success. Nobody reads books anymore, he said, so stop fussing over the manuscript and send it out. He suggested that I send it to a classmate who worked for a book packaging agency. I left my baby in her sister’s lobby and hoped.
Within days, she left a beautiful message about how she loved the story but had never sold anything like it before. The everyman, woman, and child memoir was still new, and only select agents took a risk on it. I typed up the message and saved it because her words of encouragement were precious to me. She recommended other agents–good agents, one at a time–but none of them took me on during this time when I was still trying to dig below the surface of the facts, still trying to find my voice as a writer, still waiting for my genre to find its legs. Every no meant that I had to make it better.
I dreamed of a big book advance while I was working long hours as a journalist, but I had no real urgency to publish the memoir until a steady freelance gig dried up just before the Iraq War was about to begin. I mass queried agents listed online at Publisher’s Marketplace and quickly found an agent who represented action and adventure novelists, as well as history and current affairs authors. She wrote two pages of advice about how to edit my memoir, mostly asking me to take out the reflection and stick to the action.
I spent months stripping away all of the reflective passages and sent back a lean, 175-page book of pure story with only a hint of what the story meant to me at the end. She didn’t take me on, and that summer I fell into deep despair. But by fall, a new strategy had begun. Publishing excerpts in literary magazines. An excerpt ran in the premiere print issue of Epiphany, a literary magazine originally affiliated with New York University, after my longtime mentor asked for a chapter of the memoir.
This seemed like a winning strategy, so I worked with a submission service for writers–I can’t stand paperwork–to send excerpts and poems to literary magazines. Several chapters appeared in Lumina, Permafrost, and North Dakota Quarterly–literary magazines affiliated with Sarah Lawrence College, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and University of North Dakota. Two were selected as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005, guest edited by Christopher Hitchens and Susan Orlean.
I didn’t know about the first honor for almost two years. My mother had encouraged me to write a cover letter to series editor Robert Atwan, and she mailed the brief letter and the Epiphany book with a red tab on my excerpt, “Litmus Test.” I adored The Best American Essays, but I thought it was such a long shot that I didn’t look for my name in the book when it came out that fall. Two years later, I discovered the excerpt on the list of Notable Essays in a Google search. I wrote to Epiphany to tell the founding editor about the honor, and he hired me as the nonfiction editor of the magazine.
I continued to work with the submissions service, giving my mother unopened mail from literary magazines. I asked to see acceptances only. After several essays and poems had been accepted, I applied to a dozen contests, including a few for full-length poetry collections. Months later, my mother opened a letter from Colorado State University. “This is a very nice letter,” she said. “You should read it.” My complete poetry manuscript had been selected as a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007.
By now, I was ready to try for an agent again, so I hired the submissions service to send letters to agents. Within weeks, I had an agent at a boutique firm specializing in nonfiction books about war, politics, the environment. He called the memoir a hybrid–part love story, part travel story, part war story. A challenge to sell because it didn’t fit neatly into marketing categories, but he was enthusiastic. He asked me to put together a proposal for editors, including a bio, a synopsis, a sample chapter, chapter summaries, and a marketing plan. He sent the proposal to a few editors. Silence all summer.
By fall, my mother couldn’t take it any more. Neither could a talented writer who’d read part of my book and thought it was a winner. He had just sold his first book, a travel memoir, and he encouraged me to try his agent. It was a risk, because I had to break my contract with my agent. But his agent was at a big, prestigious agency, and she had sold travel, war, and women’s memoirs. She read the proposal overnight and called in the morning. Passionate, excited, intense. It’s a hybrid, she said, but she liked a challenge.
Karol Nielsen’s memoir, Black Elephants, is now available.
The facts of my story were always clear but the meaning eluded me for years. I took creative writing courses with a gifted, generous man who asked essential questions: Who are the characters? What is the conflict? What are you saying? Now I am a memoir writing instructor at New York University, asking students the same questions. Straightforward but difficult questions when telling a true story.
I finished a draft of Black Elephants a few years after the Gulf War, hoping the story itself would show me the answers, but the facts alone weren’t enough. I had to dig deeper, wading through memory, waiting for hard-earned clarity. Even my own character was a mystery to me, until I understood how I was drawn to adventure like my mother’s father, a storyteller and pilot who flew men and cargo over the Himalayas, the camel’s hump, from India to China during World War II. I wanted big adventure like Bobby, action like a new recruit. A simple line that took almost a decade to articulate.
I don’t know an efficient way to become a writer. I only know that through writing you become a writer. For me, that meant writing nights, weekends, vacations while working full-time as a journalist, and then mornings once I became a freelance writer, editor, and writing instructor. I accumulated drafts of the memoir, rewriting long sections by hand, as well as hand-written drafts of a novel, a play, a screenplay, tiny Moleskine notebooks full of poems, and boxes full of leather and suede journals filled with daily musings. I also read poetry, memoir, and fiction by Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, and others who became exquisite models of storytelling and style.
Along the way, I turned the memoir inside out several times. The first draft was mostly backstory about working as a staff writer for the Buenos Aires Herald in post-“dirty war” Argentina and traveling solo through South America. I showed the manuscript to a mentor who had been in The Best American Short Stories. She said the story began when I met Aviv, an Israeli traveler dreaming about peace on the way to Machu Picchu. The central love story between Aviv and me, moving from Peru to New York to Israel during the Gulf War, was contained in a 70-page nonfiction novella at the end. It was an overwhelming, but accurate observation. So I began again, and again.
I shared the book with mentors, writers, friends, family, and almost anyone who asked, because it was easier to share the manuscript than fumble through words that always seemed to fall short. The book didn’t illuminate my emotional journey, only the surface facts, open for interpretation. There were many. I was better at developing scenes and images than talking about my messy, messy feelings. A terrible struggle, for me, because I was still confused by my own story. How had I gone out for a big adventure and fallen in love only to have everything fall apart during the Gulf War and its aftermath?
Traumatic experiences like war provoke so many emotions–some conscious, many unconscious, pulling at you–that it’s easier to leave them all out than pick the right ones. I couldn’t even sort through these feelings properly with a therapist. How could I do it as a writer? As I searched, my half-baked efforts at reflection only muddied the manuscript.
Karol Nielsen’s story will be continued on Wednesday.