As part of celebrating the 2009 Leacock Medal presentation later this week, I wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail on what a wild ride the last year has been. It appeared today in the Globe’s great online book section. You can read it at the Globe Books site or to make it even easier, I’ve reproduced it below. I’ll be in Orillia tomorrow for the Leacock Luncheon where the winner is announced. It will be wonderful to be there again without the butterflies from one year ago.
Leacock shock, 12 months later (Globe Books online April 29, 2009)
There was no phone call or e-mail. I read it first on the Orillia Packet and Times website. It was March 27, 2008. The day before, I’d been living the glamorous high life of the self-published author, schlepping my first novel around in the trunk of my car, and pleading with independent bookstores to take a few copies on consignment. Then the news broke that my book had somehow been short-listed for the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. In that instant, my life as a weekend writer changed. In the next instant, I was curled in the fetal position, hyperventilating into a paper bag.
When I finished writing The Best Laid Plans, I honestly had no real expectations that it would ever be published. Hopes and dreams? Sure. Expectations? Not so much. Would I really have written a satirical novel of Canadian politics if I’d wanted to be published? It started out strictly as a personal challenge. Could I string 100,000 words together in a way that somehow approached coherence. After I’d finished the manuscript, I still didn’t know. I’d lost all perspective on it. So, based on what I’d learned on the Internet (about publishing, I mean), I sent out dozens of query letters and plot synopses to literary agents. The year-long silence that followed was deafening and discouraging. Undeterred (I didn’t know enough to be deterred), I podcast my novel, one chapter at a time, and made it available for free on iTunes and at www.terryfallis.com. Then I did what is unthinkable to many writers. I self-published The Best Laid Plans. It wasn’t my first choice. Self-publishing is seldom an aspiring writer’s first choice.
When I finally held it in my hands in September 2007, it looked and felt like a real book. I was thrilled. A launch was organized at my alma mater and both people who came bought books. Online sales to family and friends trickled in. Then, on a lark, I sent the ten author copies I still had gathering dust in my office up to the Leacock Association in Orillia. Appearing on the short-list was the surprise of my life. Within a week, I signed with a literary agent, the wonderful and respected Beverley Slopen. We met for drinks at the Toronto Four Seasons and though calm on the outside, I was a quivering mass of excitement inside. The turning point in our conversation came when she took my hands in hers and said “Terry, you are not going to win the Leacock Medal, so we have 30 days to find you a publisher.”
By April 30th, the day the Leacock Medal winner was to be announced, we’d had a few nibbles, several rejections, but nothing definitive (okay, the rejections were definitive). So my wife Nancy and I drove up to Orillia for the Leacock Luncheon. I had just barely begun to recuperate from the shock of being short-listed a month earlier, so hearing my name announced from the podium as the winner set back my recovery considerably. I was floored.
I stumbled to my feet in a daze and barely survived my impromptu acceptance speech. To see my name on a list of Leacock winners alongside Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Paul Quarrington, and W.O. Mitchell, literally left my knees weak and wobbly (and still does). On the drive home, Nancy turned to me and said, “This will be noted in your obituary.” I slowed down immediately.
Then the surreal circus came to town. It was truly bizarre to see my face in the Globe the next day. The Best Laid Plans podcast went to number one on the iTunes charts (at least for an hour or so). The Globe reviewed it. And best of all, Beverley Slopen’s phone started to ring. Within a week of my Leacock shock, we signed with McClelland & Stewart, with the revered Douglas Gibson as my editor and publisher. In September 2008, the M&S edition was released, and I hit the speaking circuit.
There was a Harbourfront Reading. I flew to Montreal for a day of media interviews. I soloed at the wonderful Canadian Authors Reading Series in Port Colborne. I shared the stage with Giller winner Joseph Boyden at the Headwaters Arts Festival. I read at Toronto’s Word on the Street and the Ottawa International Writers Festival. And a few weeks ago, I appeared with Paul Quarrington at the Grimsby Authors Series. Paul and I drove down together for the event. Like an unhinged author stalker, I slid into the back seat clutching my complete collection of Quarrington first editions. He kindly inscribed each one. My dance card is full well into the fall with readings and speaking gigs at book clubs, libraries, dinners, and various other gatherings. What amazing literary company I’m suddenly keeping. At 49 years old, I’ve been blessed with an entirely new side to my life.
I know there are countless worthy writers with four and five unpublished manuscripts in their desk drawers, who deserve to break through. It’s as if published authors are sequestered in a well-defended castle, while the hordes of struggling writers amass beyond the moat, desperate for a way in. I feel like the guy who delivered a pizza to the castle’s service entrance, slipped off his fluorescent orange delivery vest, and stayed.
And now that a year has passed and the 2009 Leacock winner is soon to be announced, I still pinch myself every day. In this past, charmed year, I have surely exhausted my lifetime allocation of good fortune. I keep expecting to fall off the stage at my next reading and break both my legs. I still have my day job, but on weekends, I’m banging out the sequel to The Best Laid Plans. It’s different this time around. I feel more than the weight of the words I still must write. I now shoulder expectations, mine, and those of others. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. One year later, I still feel like the luckiest rookie writer in the world.