Pocket Kings by Ted Heller is a dark, but sometimes very funny, story about an author, Frank W. Dixon, who is desperate to be great, truly great, at just one thing. In the midst of being completely ignored by his literary agent and watching less-talented writers achieve undeserved success, he gets lost in the world of online poker, which causes him to lose nearly everything.
Last week, Heller was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about writing and publishing.
Dealing with the publishing world, and all of the soul-crushing rejection that comes with it, nearly destroyed Frank in Pocket Kings. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on handling rejection? Besides punching their literary agents in the face. (That’s my second favorite part in the book by the way. Don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending.)
I would love to know what your FAVORITE part of the book is.
I know I’m supposed to be encouraging and tell people who get rejected to keep at it, don’t give up, never give up, but I don’t even know if that’s practical or even healthy advice. It’s like telling someone they should eat more Twinkies. I’m not sure of the exact numbers but for me, for every book I write that gets published I think I have two or three that did not. That’s not a good batting average when you realize how long it takes to write a book, how deeply you get connected to the book and how much of yourself you put into it, time-wise and emotionally. I’ve never taught a writing class but if I did I’m sure that in the very first class I would tell my students: I hope you’re here not because you want to get published, because you probably won’t be, but you’re here because you love to write and read.
One thing though. Eventually you do get sort of numbed to rejection. I use to spiral into deep, weird, perhaps even overly dramatic depressions when I got rejected. Keep in mind, like Frank, I also tried writing plays and screenplays as well as novels and short stories. Now if I get rejected I merely bum out for a few days or for two weeks and consider never writing again. After I self-published West of Babylon I did not write a word for months. It took a lot out of me, Only now am I writing again and I cannot stop!
You opted to self-publish West of Babylon, your latest book. What was the most successful avenue you used in promoting it?
I can’t say I OPTED to self-publish it. No publisher wanted to publish it, so it was either self-publish or stash it away under my bed with the rest of the books I wrote that won’t ever see the light of day. I thought that since Pocket Kings got great reviews I should NOT forget about West of Babylon. In other words, I had to strike while the iron was lukewarm. I had no idea how to go about the process, none at all, but fortunately for me my agent and his assistant took care of everything. They were new to it too so it was kind of like an experiment. There were all sorts of issues that I’d never thought about —trim size of the pages, margins, measurements of the cover— and they handled that. My wife is a very talented graphic designer so she did the cover. Basically, we put the show on in our barn.
But that’s where the fun ended. Promoting the book, spreading the word, was, to put it mildly, a NIGHTMARE. I spent months out of my life trying to obtain email addresses of newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, etc., and then sending each one an individualized email telling them about the book and attaching the good reviews for my published novels. I’d say that 90% of the time I got no reply. I repeat: no reply. A “We are not interested in you at all,” would have been very welcome at that point. You learn who your friends aren’t very quickly. Some people were no help. However, I did go on Twitter and through Twitter was able to get a few reviews. So that worked out for me. Also Goodreads. I actually sent emails to all the people who’d reviewed Slab Rat, Funnymen, and Pocket Kings and let them know I had a new book out, otherwise they would have no idea. All of this —getting the email addresses, Tweeting, sending out queries, sending the book out via FedEx or email, messages to people on Goodreads— it was an all-day thing and went on for months. I don’t think I would self-publish again. Yet I am midway through a new book and thinking: “Okay, nobody will want to publish this, I will not self-publish ever again…is this just going under the bed with all the rest of them?”
Of your four published novels, do you have a favorite, or is there something special about each?
Hmm. Which is my favorite? As I only have one child I can’t say “that’s like asking me to pick my favorite kid.” Without question, Funnymen is the funniest book I’ve ever written (or that anyone else has either) so I do have a soft spot for that one, plus no faux oral biography had ever been written before (that I’m aware of). I like the plot of Slab Rat, my first novel, and have a soft spot for that one, too, because after years and years of trying to get published, I finally did get published. Pocket Kings I like because it’s the most autobiographical of my books and because it’s a very angry novel, yet also is strangely full of hope. (The narrator never goes give up, even after he gives up.) And I like West of Babylon because it’s about music that I love and was a very sweet book, something I’d never written before.