On a recent vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho, I stumbled upon Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, in a local bookstore, Iconoclast, read the first page and fell in love. This is going to be great, I said. This guy knows what he’s doing. The previous summer, I taught a class at Stanford, Making the Great Debut, and wish I could have taught this book as an example of how great a debut novel should be: composed of an engaging world, compelling characters and stunning writing. Not easy, folks. This writer is a gifted artist.
I read the book in two days (it’s like a Camus-esque Catcher in the Rye meets “Dead Poets Society,” and I apologize if the hybridization offends the author or others, but I mean it as the highest compliment). The writing is exquisite and minimalist. The tension acute. You can’t help but fly through the book then want to read it again; that is if you can appreciate the author’s courage to explore some risqué territory. Some reviews have scoffed at this blend, deeming the plot derivative; but it’s hard work to make any character multi-dimensional—and memorable, long after the story ends. In this case, the author excels at telling the same story through three distinct and compelling view points, a teacher, his lover and his student.
I had the fortuitous experience of meeting the author at a reading in the public library later that week. I can tell you Alexander Maksik is a man blessed with eloquence on and off the page. He’s one of the rare authors who can read with the panache of an actor. He’s charming, self-effacing, and will make you laugh. But what I love most? Maksik is as real and authentic in person as the stories he writes. We can admire this debut novelist for his courage to stay true to himself and his work.
Maksik’s candid talk in Ketchum could inspire many writers to keep going despite the often harrowing road to publishing. His personal story around his first novel is one that reminds us that getting our books out there requires as much pavement pounding as it does faith. You have to believe in your work, despite the rejections.
Maksik was unavailable for a Q&A so I am cobbling together the story here with only the recollection of what he said at the Sun Valley library the evening of August 25, 2011. I will paraphrase and summarize to the best of my ability, and apologize to my readers for not having direct quotes. To read formal press coverage, click here.
Want to get published? Persevere.
Maksik, 38, the recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching/Writing fellowship from the Iowa Writers Workshop, clearly knows that the path to publishing takes perseverance. He mentioned enduring seventy-something rejections while he searched for an agent and a publisher. Most people would have given up much earlier. I don’t know what kept him going, but I suspect Maksik draws from some deep reservoir of faith in his work and refuses to allow the word ‘submission’ to have too much power over his process or his psyche.
Rejection after rejection, he continued to submit the manuscript, then just when he was riding a wave of depression, he received an email at the 11th hour. The kind of email that makes you blink and rub your eyes. Eric Simonoff, the highly respected literary agent with Pulitzer Prize winning clients, wanted to represent him.
He recalled the excitement and sheer disbelief of reading Simonoff’s offer. After all those rejections, he lands one of the most legendary agents in the industry. That was a good day. “I thought I was going to be the next Jonathan Franzen,” he said to an audience of adoring fans in his native Sun Valley, many of whom were friends with his parents, the co-founders of the annual Sun Valley Writers Conference. He then went on to joke how he imagined “buying an apartment in Paris” with the publishing advance; however, the advance did not come quickly. Maksik endured yet another round of rejections until he was discovered by Europa editions.
Unlike the fictional Parisian apartment depicted in his novel, he might just have the real deal some day. Last week, his book was favorably reviewed in the New York Times (9/13). A herculean feat for a debut novel first released in paperback. His publisher Tonga Books, curated by Alice Sebold, is part of Europa editions and what appears to be a wise team who are changing the game in publishing. Europa clearly made a wise decision to release this in paperback—no way around it, it’s a book club book and most book clubs don’t purchase hardcover books. Even more are buying e-books, which makes Maksik’s first book, as a paperback, the new norm.
It’s exciting. I wish I had been able to hear more about working with an author-curated publisher. Maksik did say, and has said in other interviews, how much he appreciated Alice Sebold’s (author of The Lovely Bones) encouragement. Apparently, she was adamant about keeping the ending of You Deserve Nothing. It’s not happy. It’s not sad. It’s the rare, real bittersweet ending that is so reflective of every day life. Even though the story is considered morally ambiguous by some critics, Maksik deftly manages to answer the bigger narrative questions he raises about the fate of each character. Each has a full and complete arc, which is perhaps more satisfying to most readers than pronouncing a judgement on the characters’ actions and behavior.
The book is about many things, but shaped around depression. Maksik remarked how he, too, suffered a bout of depression while he was immersed in the world of his novel and writing it in Paris. I wanted to ask him if he believed writing was a way to heal, but I don’t have to ask. He manages to weave a narrative of three separate view points, all of which allude to varying degrees of depression, or simply the disappointments with what is expected and what is found in life. You can’t do that without understanding those disappointments first-hand. They are not imagined. They are deeply felt and the emotional intensity he creates is one of the experiences I loved about the book.
I wasn’t just reading internal monologues. I could feel the pain and longing of each character, which I imagine springs, in part, from the author’s own experience and keen observations about the human condition. Maksik has made it his business to expose the light and the dark. The good and bad. The complexities of being human and the consequence of power. He has a wonderful gift to share with us. May there be more. Much more, Mr. Maksik. And may it stay edgy and honest and beautiful.
Perhaps in the end, the teacher character, Will, would have responded less to Camus and more to Rumi who said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” For any writer who’s been in the trenches of publishing a first novel, I hope you recall Alexander Maksik’s story and remember that like him, if you stay true to your story, and true to yourself, you deserve everything that comes to support you.