Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Karen Larsen (page 5)
 Talking with
Karen Larsen
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A couple more questions. A lot of RPCVs who want to write read our site, so I have the writers explain how they went about publishing their books. Tell the story of your book with details on how many drafts did it take, did you have an agent, and if not, how did you get it published, how long did it take to find a publisher, was your book rejected by some editors, etc., etc.? Okay?
Such an odd tale. What happened with the development of my book project was like getting hit by lightening. What needs to be said first is that I am not writer. Neither training nor the dedicated attempt at the trade has defined anything of mine has gone into print. I write when an encounter or the possibility of a story intrigues me but the vocation to write, which is both a blessing and a curse, has left me almost completely alone. Sometimes I am grateful for that, other times I wish I had that passion that drives other writers in their three-in-the-morning garret studio efforts.
     In the spring of 2001 I was working at an urban non-profit development organization in Trenton, New Jersey. I was the better part of a year back from my motorcycle trip and had no intention of doing more than typing up the detailed journal that I had kept while on the road. The journal was important to me, although not from a literary perspective, and it was never intended to be the foundation of book. The journal was something that I kept for my family to read. My parents were wildly unenthusiastic about my motorcycle predilections and were understandably concerned about what the meetings with my biological family might mean. I wanted to help them understand what a tremendous experience that summer on the road had been. I wanted to show them what a gorgeous and powerful thing it is to ride a bike for months circling the continent. I wanted to write for them what meeting Dave and Gloria and their respective families had been like. In my parents home, where Scandinavian sensibilities of reserve and restraint are dominant, a transcript of a journal was going to be an easier platform to get those things across than (god forbid) actually having to sit down and have those discussions. I had typed up only a few pages of it, however, when it precipitously became a book project.
     I had a former professor from Princeton — a traveler himself, an old Alaska hand, and a fisherman — with whom I would get together from time to time to have lunch and tell lies about trout. He was the one who suggested that my journal might become a book and that I should consider writing up a proposal and sending it off to a few agents. I was busy with my new job and delayed for a few months, but one week in late spring I decided to stay at work for a few extra evenings and typed up twenty pages. My proposal was basic: a sample chapter, a few excerpts, and a cover letter. I sent it off to seven or eight agents and did not really expect anything other than those slim letters that start with “thank you for your submission, but . . ..” I did in fact get a couple of those letters, but strangely, the rest of the agents called interested in the possibility of representation. They were all in and around the New York, so I took a couple of days and went into the city for interviews.
     Truthfully, this was a blue smoke and banana peel process as I did not really know what agents do, and these interviews were at least as much about me trying to get information without looking like an idiot as they were about me choosing an agent. In the end I settled with Virginia Barber at the William Morris Agency. I chose her in part because she had a reputation for impeccable integrity but mostly because I truly enjoyed her conversation, her intellect, and I thought that we could build a business relationship that also had a base of honesty and open communication. Ms. Barber is retired now but I am eternally grateful to her for taking me on as the last client of her career and for stewarding me through the process that resulted in Breaking the Limit.
     Ms. Barber told me that book can take months to be sold to publishers, and sometimes not get sold at all, so I should be prepared for a long wait at best, utter disappointment at worst. This was fine with me; at the time I was figuring out how to get my boss out of Kosovo and a conference that he was supposed to be attending on international strategy sharing for grass-roots NGOs. Macedonia was in crisis and he would be traveling through the shelling near the border. Literature seemed of rather secondary importance. When Ms. Barber called two weeks after our initial meeting to say that there was interest in my book, I took a half a day off from work, went to the city, had a one-o’clock meeting at one publishing house, a three o’clock at a second publishing house, and had a book contract by four o’clock. Ridiculous and unbelievable as it is, it happened that quickly.
     Having told that tale, I am also cognizant that at that moment in June of 2001, my book project fit a profile that publishers were looking for and I was, frankly, the fortunate recipient of a whole lot of dumb luck.
     Krakauer’s Into Thin Air was huge at the time, as was Junger’s Perfect Storm. The nonfiction market was awash in money generated by male-adventure-tales. People were buying books that listed place to go Before You Die, planning their next adventure to Central America, taking up rock-climbing in urban gyms, and buying books — mostly written by men — to support the same. What was missing? Women on motorcycles, apparently. My project was gobbled up not, I think, for its literary merit, but for a demographic that publishers hoped to tap into.
     This was my first learning experience in the world of publishing. As hopelessly naive as it sounds, I truly believed that book publishing was all about providing people with good (and sometimes great) literature. I have yet to become completely cynical about the business of books, but it is now much more obvious to me that books are in large part just that: a business that the publishing industry hopes to make money from. How shocking!
     This realization became an issue in September of that year. I was most of the way through my first draft, an eight-hundred page jungle of text, when planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania. Among the great tragedies and losses of those terrible days and in the in the carnage and violence that has followed, a minor fatality was the collapse of the adventure-travel market. Who wants to go bungee jumping in Brazil when New York has just been bombed? In those days of suspicion when the Department of Homeland Security was telling us to seal ourselves in our homes with a gallon of water and a roll of duct tape, who wants to go crashing around the countryside on a motorcycle?
     I was fortunate in that I had a consistent and careful editor at Hyperion. She was with me through the duration of my project and I have enormous respect for the care she took in answering my questions, the pruning that she did with my manuscript, and her gentle attempts to coach me through the new directions that Hyperion — given the events of 2001 — hoped I would take my book.
     By early 2002 they made it clear that they would prefer a “deeper” book, something focused much more strongly on family, adoption, and the human saga of my story, as opposed to the travel narrative that they had bought. I was not capable of — nor was I willing — to write-the sort of material, exposing both myself and my family, that would have underpinned the sort of book that they wanted. Those were difficult conversations. It took three drafts and the better part of two years, but I think we ultimately we came to a collective and collaborative understanding that resulted in the book that you now have.
      That’s the story, John, strange as it is.
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