At some point in every fiction workshop that I teach, I make a point of telling students that most of us are going to need some luck along the way. But it’s important, I always add, to make sure that when fortune casts its gaze in your direction, you’ve got plenty of work to display. Then I tell them this story.
One day in the spring of 1996, I walked into my office at Fresno State, where I taught at the time, and saw my answering machine’s message light flashing. “Steve,” a voice said, “this is Susan Lyne calling from Disney.” I was not in the best of moods. Professionally, things hadn’t been going my way. Though I was tenured and had recently been promoted to full professor on the strength of two short story collections published by university presses, my first novel, finished two and a half years earlier, had chalked up somewhere north of forty rejections, refused by all the big New York publishers, as well as every small press my agent and I could think of. Over the previous year, I’d actually turned to writing non-fiction, publishing a handful of essays. I couldn’t think of any more short stories that begged to be written, and I felt all but certain that I was not a novelist. How could so many publishers be wrong? One rejection, from an editor who has since become a friend, put it this way: “As is true in most of his short stories, Yarbrough just doesn’t quite manage to get to the heart of things in this novel.”
My maiden voyage as a nonfiction writer had been an essay I wrote about Southerners and guns. My dad, like most of the men I’d known growing up in a small Mississippi Delta town, was armed to the teeth. On a recent trip home, I’d discovered that he had recently purchased two M1 carbines that had been modified by the Israeli military, becoming fully automatic. He’d also bought five thousand rounds of .30-caliber ammo. This discovery troubled me, as one might imagine, and when I got back to California I decided to write about it. The essay was snapped up by a literary magazine that paid me ninety dollars, then reprinted by The Utne Reader, for the princely sum of four hundred.
Over the last two decades I have often wondered what course my literary life might have taken if I’d acted on my initial impulse and pressed “delete” after hearing the first sentence of Susan Lyne’s message. The thing was, I assumed the person calling worked for Disneyland, to which we had taken our daughters a few months earlier. They probably wanted to sell us some kind of package: you know, a night in one of those hideous Anaheim hotels filled with truculent kids and their stressed-out parents and X-number of rides that would make me as queasy as I’d been when we hit the water at the foot of Splash Mountain. No thanks. I believe my finger came within an inch of hitting that button. Fortunately, just in time, I heard the word “movie.” The person on the other end was the book scout for Disney’s film division. The rest of the message remains a blur. I’m not even sure I listened to the whole thing before calling back.
When my essay on Southerners and their weaponry appeared in The Utne Reader, it had attracted the attention of Kathleen Kennedy, who was especially interested, Susan said, in the issue of gun control. The name “Kathleen Kennedy” meant nothing to me, which is probably a good thing, since my ignorance protected me, for a time at least, from acting overly impressed. In fact, I had seen numerous films that Kennedy and her husband Frank Marshall produced for Steven Spielburg’s Amblin Entertainment: E. T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun. Kathy, Susan Lyne said, badly wanted to meet me.
She and Frank now had their own production company, Kennedy-Marshall. Over the next couple of weeks, I took part in several conference calls with two production executives, Jonathan Zimbert and Robin Schorr, and then finally Robin called to tell me when the meeting would be held. She said a limo would pick me up and take me to the airport, a distance of no more than three miles from our house. A second limo would collect me at LAX and carry me to Kathy’s home in Brentwood. It turned out she lived next door to O. J. Simpson.
I met with Kathy, Robin and Jonathan for an hour or more, then flew home. I didn’t think the meeting had gone well, as I’d been forced to reveal that I’d never seen a screenplay and also that I didn’t have any good movie ideas. As I was leaving, Kathy asked me if I’d ever written a novel. I had, I admitted, but nobody would publish it. She asked me to have my agent send it to her. I went home and heard no more for several weeks.
Then one day the phone rang. It was Jonathan Zimbert, who told me that they all loved my novel and that Kennedy-Marshall would be in touch with my agent to buy the film rights for The Oxygen Man. “You write great dialogue,” Jonathan said. “Would you be interested in writing the screenplay?”
Oh, hell yes.
He said he would send me nine or ten scripts and some screenwriting software. “You’ll figure out the form,” he said, with confidence that I could not muster.
I did figure the form out, and I came to like it, and the next year they would hire me to write another script. My book, unfortunately, never became a film, though people still inquire about the film rights from time to time. But in failing to become a film, it learned how to become a novel. Or to be more precise, in writing the screenplay, I figured out a couple of things that were not quite right with the book, and when I finished the script, I went back and made some changes. Zimbert put me in touch with a young agent at ICM, Jessica Green, and though Jessica left the agency without selling my book, she handed it off to another agent named Sloan Harris, who called me one day while my family and I were at a ski lodge to say he had fallen in love with my work. In no time, he sold the novel to a relatively new publisher called MacMurray & Beck.
When The Oxygen Man came out, it received numerous positive reviews. TIME magazine compared me favorably to Faulkner. USA Today accorded one half of a page to a certain British novelist named J. K. Rowling and gave the other half to me. The review was headed “Oxygen Resuscitates Southern Fiction.” Some months later, the paperback rights were auctioned off to Scribner, which had been one of the first publishers to turn the book down four years earlier, during the initial round of submissions.
Since then, a great many nice things have happened, and my eighth novel and eleventh book, The Unmade World, is about to be published. Two things, however, have not changed: writing is still difficult, and the work remains its own reward. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
About the Author
Steve Yarbrough is a Professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing, and the author of nine books. His latest novel The Realm of Last Chances was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. His previous novel, Safe from the Neighbors (Knopf), appeared in 2010. His 2006 novel The End of California (Knopf) was a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction and was also published in Polish translation.
His novel Prisoners of War (Knopf, 2004) was a finalist for the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award, and his 1999 novel The Oxygen Man (McMurray & Beck) won the California Book Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, and the Mississippi Authors Award. His other books are the novel Visible Spirits (Knopf, 2001) and the story collections Veneer(University of Missouri Press, 1998), Mississippi History (Missouri, 1994), and Family Men (LSU Press, 1990). His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and has also been published in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Japan and Poland. In 2010, he won the Richard Wright Award.