Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing is a Disease! Part 2

By David A. Kearns

By now, it's late 2003 and I am still not giving up.

But the stress and insanity of writing, and fighting through this process led me to a place where I felt sure I could hear the wants and hopes of the three dead men buried beneath the wing of the George 1. Months this went on, months.

Is anyone coming back for them? Did anyone even care that they were down there?

In dreams I sensed I could hear the catabatic winds; the sandpaper scratching and sizzling snowdrift blasting on metal during the fierce gales. Above that sound, the lamenting call of a lonely man in the wilderness. (George 1 final mission crew below right.)

These strange delusions, you might call them, came to me at night, mostly in the half-waking state, or in REM sleep.

In one of these dreams I am like a ghost following my father, watching him from above. He’s sitting down at a fancy hotel ballroom in New York City talking with his best friend Max Lopez, the navigator who died in the crash. Bill doesn’t know how to explain to Maxwell that he’s dead. Doesn’t know how to ask him to forgive him. The kicker is, Max is also fighting the same impulse. Because in the reality of this dream, Maxwell survived and Bill died. A different universe; slightly different outcomes based on Newtonian and quantum physics; a game of inches and milliseconds leading to alternate realities for both.

A writer shoots up in bed, covered in sweat, clutching his chest.

I think literary agents need to think about moments like these, which for me were common-place, all throughout the process of writing about this horrific plane crash and miraculous rescue, and were compounded by the hell of rejection, the freeze-out of an unsympathetic industry that, over and over, just didn't seem to give a damn. Sometimes it isn’t a game; sometimes the stuff we go through is very real and very scary.

Convinced now, that my mission to publish was sacred, as well as personal, onward I plodded. Completed manuscript in-hand, I started from scratch. But this time, I went directly to the publishers.

I suppose I can’t thank Thomas Dunne’s senior editor Ruth Cavin, enough for breathing new life into this project.

In late 2003 early 2004, she took a chance on a total unknown; a man famous only in his own mind for what he had written. Ruth left word in an author's guide to literary agents, that, 'hey, writer, if you send me a complete manuscript, I will read it,' which sounded like a pretty damned good deal to me. True to her word, she did read it, and she loved it.


I don’t know what behind-the-scenes pressure transpired from those other entities I had, by force, abandoned after the coming-out of the novel was announced in St. Martins brochures, but I suspect there was some sort of "Hey, hold on a minute!"

I do know Charles Spicer, top dog at St. Martins Press, which owns Thomas Dunne Books, had hand-written rejected what had been under my former agent, called Highjump:The Story of the George 1 back in 01/02.

I am sure it must be frustrating to see the very book you pitched rejected, then accepted when the author himself pitches it back to the same house through an imprint. In one of the departing shots my former publisher had quipped something to the affect that he was sure if I went on my own, Simon and Schuster wouldn't be grabbing it up anytime soon. And he was right, it wasn't Simon, it was St. Martins, through Thomas Dunne Books.

I did not want this to happen to this former agent of mine. It has to be embarrassing. I'm sure in some circles, well, this just isn't what one should be permitted to do, or even consider doing to a well-connected agent. Heavens, no! But I was not going to stop fighting for my project for anyone's sake. If I wouldn't stop for my own health, welfare, sanity and bank account, why would I stop for a literary agent, or a former publisher, who both refused to take me seriously?

I do know I signed a contract that exposed myself, and only myself, to liability if anyone came out of the woodwork to call foul because of alleged past, legal entanglements. No one did of course, because they had no case. Consulting a family attorney backstopped everything I came to believe. I owned the project now without having to ask for permission (is it amazing folks they get you thinking like this?) from anyone.

Attempting to scare me with legal threats was an empty bluff. There had been no need for crazy letters back to them for this because apparently, this sort of thing goes on all the time in this lovely industry. Nice.

When the first publisher dropped their end by not sending me the second half of the advance, after they let all deadlines for objection lapse, the contract was dead; and in effect, no sale had been made, which also let me out of my contract with my agent. When I suggested she draft a new contract and she balked and delayed, didn't quite know what to make of a new writer who would actually do this, it was all the more reason to leave. All of which I explained to everyone involved in the dead deal.

A word on New York City: yes, sometimes it is cliche, every cliche you've ever read about the publishing business. Sometimes, if you don't live there, day-in, day-out, they don't think you have the mental snuff required to read a contract written in the English langauge, and understand it. I have had the good fortune of being a reporter covering lame ole city council meetings in Brevard and Indian River counties, of Florida. That's where my bread and butter business lived, in the long, drawn-out clauses of contracts. This gave me a decent bullshit and out-clause detector.

So again, do I have proof that these my former business partners jumped on TD for taking on my book? No and no one ever said a word. But I do know that, curiously, just before the book was set to print, folks at TD wanted me to change the name from Highjump:The Story of the George 1 to Where Hell Freezes Over: A Story of Amazing Bravery and Survival.

They also wanted to put a helicopter on the front of the book.

I didn't like the title at first which I thought cumbersome and potentially offensive to the families of the dead men, but immediately worse to the outcome of the project was this notion of a helicopter on the front cover.

Helicopters had very little to do with the actual rescue of my father and his five shipmates. Back in 46/47 they tried to use them on the rescue, but these aircraft didn’t have the range to actually fly over the continent from the seaplane tender trapped beyond the ice shelf, especially with blade icing, which destroyed at least three helicopters on the mission during rough landings. So a picture of a helicopter over an icy hillside was factually inaccurate. These weren't involved in the rescue other than to scout for cracks in the self ice for the ships.

The planes that found and rescued the men were Martin Mariner PBMs just like the one that crashed. It is a gorgeously ugly aircraft. There has never been anything like it, and there never will be again.

I know my father didn’t object to this helicopter thing on the cover, but I know James Robbins, the other remaining survivor, would have raised not just a little hell with me, for sure. Robbie is a stickler for details. He considers this story personal property, and I understand that.

Angry at my father on some of the specifics of the story, he very nearly refused to cooperate with me at all, but finally, through gentle coaxing, I managed to gain his trust. I swore up and down to he, and my dad, there would be no bullshit in the book. I certainly couldn't put it on the cover.

He did cooperate through phone calls and dozens of emails.Bill and Robbie have not spoken to each other in some time. They are the last living survivors of this crash. I still don’t understand all the animosity that I walked through like a mine field but I try to make sense of it in the book.
So, in interest of pleasing Robbie and mostly Robbie, who could prove my harshest critic, I relented on the title with the publisher, perhaps reducing the publisher’s fear of exposure to liability.

And in trade I pretty much, politely and point-wise (getting better at the game) demanded that the distinct profile of a Martin Mariner PBM seaplane grace the cover.

The book was, I suppose, conveniently placed next to “Hell Freezes Over” the live album by the Eagles on This bothered me, but I was assured the publisher had my best interest in this regard.

One of the keys in securing Thomas Dunne was a renewed interest in the story. The New York Times had done recent features on the story of the George 1 as the Navy was considering a mission to collect the remains of Lopez, Hendersin, and Williams. This was in 2004/05.

But again history stepped in to thwart that. The war in Iraq, which was supposed to be over in one or two years, dragged on, scrapping a recovery effort, and scrapping the free publicity which would have resulted from it.

History, circumstance and Antarctica seem to go together in some strange ways, time and again. They seem to conspire to keep secrets buried there, and hidden forever.

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