I did have a book published. I’d like to talk a bit about it, how it came about, what the result was and so on.
It’s obviously no secret that I have considerable reverence for the natural world, and to me water, in all its forms, perhaps best symbolizes the value, the variety, the universality of Nature. I’d seen the terrible waste of water; I’d seen it dirtied, drained, taken for granted. For me the turning point came when I observed my neighbor in Los Angeles, a smart lawyer and decent guy, wash his Beemer by spraying it with a hose, dropping the hose to the ground while the water was still running (he hadn’t bothered with a nozzle), soaping a section of the car, rinsing it, dropping the hose again and so on for about a quarter of an hour.
How many countless gallons had gone down the drain! And just the day before, I’d read in the L.A. Times that residents in Northern California were asked to conserve water because of drought conditions and were complaining that too much of their precious liquid was being sent via the California Aqueduct to Los Angeles for watering all the extravagant shrubbery and for the ubiquitous swimming pools. So when I saw my neighbor’s shocking negligence, and he such an intelligent and conscientious person, something in me clicked. No, more than clicked—practically detonated. I’d have to write a book about water.
What can you say about water? Not much, right? Wrong. I intriguingly described its centrality to our lives—cleansing, recreation, transportation, spiritual purification, drinking, cooling, inspiration for art, you name it—set off by humorous stick drawings (that I made for suggestion only, until my eventual publisher said they were “folk art” and should be printed as is). And included throughout the book were funny stories, literary anecdotes, little-known facts, and two series of short stories—one about a Native American woman who had the power to control water, and the other describing various dramatic situations where “someone doesn’t save water but is saved by water.”
In the meantime my wife and I moved to Seattle, where I finally finished the book. I’d met a literary agent in L.A. who I admired, and sent it to her. She loved it. We signed a contract and she started sending it to all the editors she knew (in New York) who might be interested. This was 1992 so it was done by mail. The typical response she got: who cares about water? Those who replied to her by mail rather than phone sometimes wrote the stupidest things (she sent the letters to me and I saved them—they’re in my cardboard box) and as we talked by phone, she expressed her surprise and frustration. She really pushed that book, but in the end, couldn’t find anyone who saw it as she did. She wished me luck and said, “Don’t give up.” I was on my own now. Up in Seattle, far from the madding crowd.
I sent letters with samples to almost a hundred publishers—that’s a lot of copies to make, envelopes to stuff, address and lick—and finally I got a call from Boston. The editor/publisher of Branden Books was interested, and after some negotiation, agreed to publish it. Could I come to Boston to take part in the editing? Of course I could. I would’ve gone to Timbuktu! (After all, I’d been there already on my trek across Africa!)
We worked on it day after day, removing some things and adding others, and faster than you can say fantasmic plasmic transmogrification, it was ready to go. I returned to Seattle. Soon the annual ABA (American Booksellers Association) convention was on in Miami and the publisher asked me if I wanted to go. Keiko and I flew down (at our expense), stayed at a motel, and helped out at Branden’s booth each day. Thus I could talk about The Water Book, as I called it, to bookstore buyers from all over the country.
Because the book is both serious and funny and contains fiction and non-fiction, I spent most of my time at the convention trying to explain what genre it was—in other words, buyers were perplexed with the question of which section of the bookstore the book could be placed in. That that point alone could do so much to help kill a book is a puzzle to me, even now. If a book has something important to say, who cares which section it’s sold in? If you can’t figure it out, put it in a cardboard rack at the end of an aisle—it’s often done!
Among the books published that same year by Branden, one was selling like hotcakes—I won’t mention the name but simply say that it was an exceedingly drab and tediously technical account of the career moves and album sales of a well-known pop star. Everyone was coming to our booth to check it out. After each large order by a buyer, the publisher would look at me with a wry “Life’s surely unfair!” look. “Your book’s so much better,” he said.
After Miami, Keiko and I were graciously invited to Boston, where we stayed at the publisher’s house for the better part of a week. We talked books, had good food and wine, and enjoyed each others’ company. He knew a woman who had a cable TV show and arranged an interview. That was a lot of fun. Later we all drove up to Gloucester and had some great seafood. This week was the closest I’ve ever come to “living the writer’s life.” Don’t laugh when I say that. Apparently I’m starved for even a taste of it. And to this day, I’m deeply appreciative for having been given that opportunity, brief and modest though it was. To me it was perfect.
Back in Seattle, I sent review copies of the book to just about every influential newspaper book reviewer in the country. I also contacted bookstores in Washington State about doing a reading. The first to respond was Village Books in Bellingham, a hip community up north. The reading there went really well—I mentioned before that I’m completely comfortable (and did I say expressive?) in front of an audience. And something I realized by watching their faces as I read—they were so much more attentive when I was reading the pieces of serious fiction, and less so when I was into the funny stuff. I think long-established independent bookstores, of which this was one, attract serious people, ones who really care about issues. They’re not there to be entertained. If only I could find a way to connect with this kind of audience all across the country! That was my feeling after that reading.
Just as significant would be a reading at Seattle’s revered bookstore, Elliot Bay Book Company, where I’d gone to readings myself and had always left with the impression that, “My books are better than that, and I could do a better reading, too! And someday I will.” And now, finally, was my chance. I’d taken a copy of my book and presented it to the store’s thirty-something book buyer, who was also in charge of scheduling readings, and I went back to see him a couple days later. He didn’t recognize me. I told him I was the author of The Water Book. A condescending look came over his face. “Oh, I remember,” he said; “what was that, a self-published book?” (That’s probably the worst insult you can give a writer.) “No, Branden Books,” I said, suddenly feeling myself getting hot; “it was Faulkner’s first publisher!” (According to what I’d been told.) “Our readings are all booked up for the next couple months,” he said coolly, then turned and walked away. (Keeping the book, of course.) In all my dealings with anyone at all connected with the publishing industry, this was the first son of a bitch I’d encountered. Not because of his lack of interest—although I couldn’t help but feel that he was petulantly standing between me and my goal—but what really got to me was his attitude. I think a better word for him is prick. No, I’m not a well-known author; no, Branden isn’t a big-name New York publisher; yes, I sought him out instead of vice versa—so what?
Well, if I can get over my indignation here for a moment, I’d like to get on with the story. I’d ordered and paid for a hundred books from the publisher—I think I had already been given 10 or 15 gratis—and sold them to anyone who was interested. Mostly work colleagues and friends, though some demurred because of the price, $29.95. That was five or ten dollars more than books were typically selling for at the time. When I’d asked the publisher about this, he said he thought the book would either be a hit or go nowhere, so a high price seemed logical. If the book sold well, we’d make some real money; if it didn’t sell, no loss.
Anyway, I sold, gave away or sent to reviewers about sixty books, and when the time seemed right to return to Asia, I put the remaining books in a box and left them one night at the door of a local bookstore, keeping three or four to take with me. Now, so many years later, the book is forgotten (not by me!), though it can still be ordered on Amazon (under the name D.A. Rain); moreover, I’ve been told that Branden has put it online as an e-book. So at least it’s out there. (And you’re probably going to read this as a pitch.)
How do I feel about this one and only publication? It’s no doubt already clear so I won’t bore you with more details. To me it served as a poignant reminder of how a society elevates some things it considers valuable and lets others lie fallow—a circumstance I’d read about time and time again in history—yet the basis for judgment is not always sound and in too many cases, is terribly wrong. Yet I found little comfort in that!
And there’s something else I took from that experience. If The Water Book didn’t appeal to a lot of people—it’s probably my simplest, funniest, and most accessible book—I’d better not get my hopes up too much for my other work. Not that I ever gave up trying to find publishers for them in the intervening years, but just that I was more realistic about my chances. It would take a miracle, I realized, and not just the normal course of events, to get my books in front of the American audience. I do believe in miracles, but I also know how rarely they happen.