Several years ago, I met a man in West Philadelphia who was flashy, self-confident, extraordinarily friendly, and wildly eccentric. He got stuck in my mind and a few weeks later I wrote a parody of him into the opening paragraph of what would eventually become No Place to Pray. I named him LeRoy. Over the months and years that followed, the novel changed in every way a story can possibly change: plot, setting, point of view, structure, language, tone. Everything except LeRoy, the one constant. But even he underwent a transformation as the story let me know it wanted to be tragedy, not pastiche.
No Place to Pray is the story of two friends, one biracial and the other white, who share a self-destructive alcohol addiction. Over the twenty years of their friendship they lose everything except each other. It’s also a commentary on the failure of social and religious institutions to provide a lifeline in times of despair, leaving the book’s denizens with no place to pray.
No Place to Pray’s first chapter ends with this line: “They stood up from the steps, some of them swaying, and got in the cars and went off in a line toward town, their glowing taillights like a string of beckoning lanterns guiding all prodigal wayfarers home.” My hope is that readers leave the book asking, "Is there more that I can do to lighten the prodigal’s burden and welcome them back?"
Begin early to establish a network. Find people who will support you and that you in turn can support. Build friendships around writing and reading. You’ll need favors as you go, people to critique your writing, give advice about publishers and agents, and to help you with the mechanics of submission. But it won’t work if you see the network as only sustaining you. Give back. For every favor you ask, grant two. Every time someone in your network reads one of your works, read someone else’s. Be gracious and generous with your time. Be genuinely curious about what others are doing. As you buoy each other up, you’ll all become better and more successful writers.
Would anyone have guessed fifteen years ago when the Kindle hadn’t yet been invented that eBooks would comprise 20 percent of today’s market? What about the growing legitimacy of self-publishing, once derided as the vanity press? Web site publishing? On demand publishing? What these practices have in common is that they were unforeseen and profoundly disruptive. In the same way, I don’t think we can predict what comes next and what comes after that, other than to say that whatever it is, it will be even more disruptive than what we see now. All of us, wherever in writing and publishing we stand, are in for a bumpy ride.
No Place to Pray has three plot lines (four, if we count LeRoy’s adventures) occurring in three time periods and two settings. All of them intersect each other. My most difficult problem lay in how to structure these interwoven parts in a way that wouldn’t bewilder the reader and to make the text flow as naturally as possible. Over the five years it took me to write the book, I tried a number of approaches before settling on the annunciative technique I finally used. Originally, I organized the book into five parts, one for each of the threerealistic lines, one for LeRoy’s stories, and a fifth for a series of letters Edna wrote to her daughter. The result was a mess. Nothing melded smoothly into anything else, incidents that logically led to others were so far removed from each other spatially that the connection wasn’t at all obvious, and the book was just too long. Eventually I dropped Edna’s letters altogether (anexperience much like going through the passing of a dear friend), interlacedwhat remained, and finally set the chapter tags.
It shouldn’t be mine. Every reader has a list of books they’ve been meaning to get to for a long time and just haven’t been able to. Something they wish they’d read to fill a gap in their reading experience or that one book by a beloved author that they missed or a book a close friend recommended months ago and they promised to read. If you can buy only one book this month, indulge yourself and choose one from that list. No Place to Pray will still be here next month.