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Interviews

Bill Peschel, author of Writers Gone Wild

Bill Peschel was born in Ohio and grew up there and in North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism. For The Avalon Hill Game Company in Baltimore, he published a magazine for fantasy role-players and developed computer games. He spent several years as a shipping clerk, bread truck driver and paste-up artist before returning to journalism as a book reviewer, copy editor and page designer. He worked at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg until 2012.

“Writers Gone Wild” (Perigee Books) is his first book. He has also published “The Complete, Annotated Whose Body?” by Dorothy L. Sayers through his Peschel Press imprint.

Where did you get the idea for “Writers Gone Wild”?

“Writers Gone Wild” was 16 years in the making and underwent several major changes. The idea surfaced in 1994 when I read about George Bernard Shaw’s affair with an older woman. He was only a poor, charming Irishman living with his mother in London, and the biographer described the day that he bought condoms in preparation for losing his virginity (they “extraordinarily revolted” him, by the way).

Hmmm, I thought, that seems like a red-letter day in young George’s life, so I wrote it down and thought a collection of days like these would make an amusing book.
At the time, I was thinking about using all kinds of dates: such as when Truman Capote got the idea for “In Cold Blood” from a story in The New York Times, the story behind “Casey at the Bat,” or the night Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. The book would also include authors’ birth and death dates, a telling quotation, maybe even a writing hint.

So over the years, as I came across interesting stories, I would save them. The process was really slow, and I would forgot about it for a time and go off and do something else, like write a novel or get married or change jobs or get divorced.

Then the Internet came along and I started reading The New York Times, the Washington Post and the British newspapers that were intensely interested in its literary figures. People were putting up all these neat webpages, like material about Allen Ginsburg bragging that he was linked by a chain of buggeries to Walt Whitman, or contemporary reports about the death hoax Jonathan Swift pulled on an astrologer. Someone put up a scholarly paper about the day Thoreau burned down a forest, complete with meteorological surveys and great details about the size and extent of the file and what the townspeople thought of him ? they’d hiss “woodsburner” at him on the street; he was considered a loafer during his lifetime.

After a decade or so, I had amassed two file drawers and a couple thousand computer files, but the book was nowhere near completion. The problem with an “On this day this happened” book was that you had to find something interesting for each day. Looking back, it was a ludicrous idea, but I was really married to the idea.

Something had to be done, so two years ago, I decided to write and publish an essay every day and put it on my website at www.planetpeschel.com. This would accomplish several goals: it would motivate me to work through the material, I’d have posts for the website, and I’d see what I’d have at the end. I’d publish a couple times a week, and after six months, I realized I was on my way to a finished book.

The final touch was added by the agents I approached. Several twigged instantly that it would be a good idea to drop the “on this day” idea and just compile the dirty stories. The title “Writers Gone Wild” rose to the top of the list of titles, and after that, the book nearly wrote itself, except for writing and rewriting and polishing the essays.

How did you get the book published?

The same way a lot of authors sold their books. I wrote up a book proposal and sent it to a bunch of agents. Following Miss Snark’s advice, I planned on sending it to 100 agents. It’s a great idea; it gave me a goal to shoot for, and a wide enough survey to give me an idea if the book would sell. If I got 100 automated rejections, I could be pretty sure the project was a fail. Long about agent 32, I was signed by the Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency.

At her suggestion, I rewrote the proposal several times to suit us, then she sent it on to an editor at Penguin’s Perigee Books who bought it.

That’s it. No chance encounters. No friend-of-a-friend. No mentor passing the manuscript to an agent. Sort of like policework: gathering the information, build your case, and wear down a lot of shoe leather (or in my case, my fingertips).

Do you have any advice for writers?

I hope that beginning writers pay attention to what their published brethren say on their websites, because it really is a matter of keep writing, keep reading, and learn from both. There’s no mystery to writing a good sentence. It’s there on the page and nothing hidden. But you have to act like a mechanic and break it down and see how it works. Yes, it dashes the idea of the “writer as mystic,” but what you’re really doing is training your brain so that, when the inspiration is flowing, you can mold it into telling, heartfelt sentences.

Marion Zimmer Bradley would say that, to write a successful book, you had to write a million words of drek first. Don’t let that discourage you, because you’ll learn from those million words what really interests you as a writer, because you’ll return to those themes again and again. You’ll also come up with some inspired ideas that, when you become a good writer, you can revisit and rework. Remember, after Dean Koontz became a best-selling author, he bought the rights to his early work and rewrote and republished them. You can, too.

Most of all, stay focused like a laser on your goal. If you’re goal is to write a book, then write the book. Don’t let yourself get distracted by a neat website, a sunny day or the cries of hunger from your children (that’s what dry cat food is for).

But most of all: don’t fool yourself. If you want to write but aren’t doing it, then consider that you might not be cut out to be a writer. Give up. You’ll do either one of two things: you will agree with yourself and find something more interesting to do, or you’ll tell yourself to shut up and get back to work. How can you lose?