July 31, 2018

How I came to write a novel: McSocrates

After the American Century

Once upon a time I was in England for a semester of research, and after several months I had exhausted all the local archival materials. Not that my project was done, but there was nothing more to do there. At first I was bored, but then I decided to try writing a little fiction. I had often thought about writing a novel, but I always seemed too busy. And what kind of a career move was it for a historian to write a novel anyway?

As it happened, not only was I a bit bored but the weather turned inclement. Rain and yet more rain, all spring. And so I started a short story, or so I imagined, one set in a small college in upstate New York. I know quite a bit about small colleges, as my father taught at Trinity College, Hartford, and I went to Amherst College. Later I taught for a few years at Union College, and I have also lectured at quite a few colleges over the years. In the novel I did not model Socrates College on any of these individual places, nor is its faculty like that at any one institution, though a few former colleagues have been gathered together at this new location. In any case, I did not have a plan worked out for a novel, but was just trying to write a short story.

Then something quite unexpected happened. After describing the campus and introducing several characters, a woman suddenly appeared. I had expected the main character to be Al Thayer, a middle-aged historian whose work focused on Renaissance Italy. But I began to make snide remarks about him, and after just a few pages, Michelle Jensen, a young woman drove an old Chevy into the manuscript and just took over as the main character. The book also became more irreverent and satirical. And what had been a short story grew to over 50,000 words. Fortunately, I know several women roughly the same age as Michelle, and they were willing to read the manuscript. To my relief, they found her credible, but they had helpful advice on her clothing and vocabulary.

By the time I had completed the first draft, I was back in Denmark, where full-time teaching and research demanded all my time. I completed the historical study I had begun in England, and it was published by MIT Press. A year after I started my inadvertent novel, it was almost forgotten, and for a year I did not look at it. When I eventually did, I liked it more than expected. I made a few revisions, forgot about it again, and then made further revisions one summer later. I also got feedback from several more readers. At this point, I realized that the little book was done. But I was afraid to publish it. After writing many historical works, conceivably it would tarnish my reputation, to the extent I had one. Nor did I relish the prospect of probable rejection from commercial publishers.

This summer I have screwed up my courage, made a final edit, and put the book out with Amazon. Since it deals with academic life and with the effects of digitization on a college campus, it may be of interest to some.