But “Imaginary Friend” is the second novel I’ve written, and this post is actually about the first: “Frightening the Horses.”
I penned a great deal of fiction writing earlier in life, through my teen age years and during college. I came very close to publishing a short story called “The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Axe Murderer,” but at the last minute the magazine deal fell through. Then along came my career in law, and my writings were all of the legal variety until late in the 1980s when I again felt the urge to try fiction. These were the major years of my gay rights activism, so, always the teacher, I decided what was needed was an entertaining way to explain homosexuality to a broad readership and thus lessen the rampant homophobia of the day. The result was “Frightening the Horses.”
The plot took place in 2004, an election year, which seemed impossibly far away in 1987 when I began writing. “Horses” opens in early October 2004, where we learn that the Democratic presidential candidate is ahead in the polls by 70% until it’s suddenly revealed he’s gay, at which point all hell breaks loose. The pivotal question then becomes whether he can hang on for that final month and win the election. The title is taken from a line by Mrs. Patrick Campbell at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895, when she remarked, “I don’t care what people do, as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.” The book was huge fun to write, and I poured all I had to say into it the complex plot, as my protagonist, Senator Howard Austin Ray, battled not only for the election, but also his life. I started writing slowly, but towards the end I was writing as if consumed by fever, pouring out a chapter every day, sleeping little and even then dreaming up new ideas (such as the murder of one of the main characters). One difficulty: I couldn’t decide whether Ray should win or lose, and I wrote both endings before deciding on one. Then, pleased with the manuscript, I sent out a query letter to 125 New York literary agents, explaining the basic plot idea and enclosing a 16 page sample.
To my amazement, thirty agents phoned almost immediately and said they wanted to see the entire ms, which I promptly sent. Five then contacted me and offered their services. The first of these was a woman I shall call Joan Brown, and she was then employed by one of the major literary agencies in New York City. Joan was very enthusiastic about “Horses,” but I confessed to her that she was the first agent I’d heard from and asked if I could wait a bit before deciding. “Of course,” she replied, “but do remember my strong interest in your book.” Other prospective agents called and one of their first questions was if I’d heard from anyone else; when I mentioned Joan Brown’s name, they all deflated instantly. One told me frankly, “Go with her. Joan Brown’s a major player.” So I phoned Joan and accepted her invitation to come to New York and talk about my novel. When I arrived we met at a restaurant, and she had sixteen pages (!) of legal pad size notes for the rewrite she wanted me to do.
“Who buys bestsellers?” she asked me, and before I could reply she answered her own question. “Women do. Oh, men are readers of course, but men primarily drive specialized markets like thrillers and science fiction. Mainstream bestsellers—and I think you have one here—have to appeal to women, and that’s where your book suffers. None of the major characters, excepting the villain, is a woman, and you can’t expect female readers to side with her. BUT,” she added in a big tone, “your vice-presidential candidate is a woman, and you tell us almost nothing about her. Change that and make her story a major part of the novel.”
So I came back to Columbus, threw out about a third of the original, had a great deal of fun developing the vice-presidential candidate (and her out-of-control teenage son) into a mover and shaker, and replaced the discarded part with an even bigger manuscript. Joan was most pleased, telling me it was one of the best rewrites she’d seen. Then she went to work. Joan hand-delivered the ms to her contacts at leading publishers, and pressed them to read it with an eye as to what it might become.
The publishers liked it too; all eight of them turned it down with glowing letters of rejection. “Too gay,” was the typical comment. “Eliminate the homosexuality. Make the candidate straight with some other problem to solve.” Of course, I was unwilling to do that, and Joan, to her credit, didn’t suggest trying. Disheartened, she sent “Frightening the Horses” to gay publishing companies (and there weren’t many in the eighties), only to have it rejected for the opposite reason: not gay enough. Where was the sex?
Dejected, Joan told me to try again. Write a new novel that would be non-controversial, not polemical, and once that book was sold we’d use its success to revive interest in “Horses.” I tried to do as she said, making a couple of feeble attempts, but my heart wasn’t in it. Without a message to convey, I was only going through the motions, and Joan rightly pooh-poohed my efforts as sophomoric. We parted company after a year or two of exchanging Christmas cards.
But when I retired from law teaching in 2004 I decided it was time to try writing a novel again. By this time I’d become concerned about how badly society treats atheists, how discrimination against them is completely non-controversial and can even get ugly. So I wrote “Imaginary Friend.” The story of that effort will be told in a subsequent post.
I dragged out “Frightening the Horses” a year ago and reread it. Parts of it were pleasing to me (it has wildly funny episodes, for example), but other segments I thought crude and badly done. How anyone could ever have admired it escapes me now. It’s certainly so dated that there’s no hope of saving it. Happily, the gay rights movement succeeded so well that the gloom and doom forecasted in “Horses” simply never came to pass.
We’ll have to wait and see if atheists do as well.
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"Jumping the Broom: How 'Married' are Married Gay Couples?" July 17, 2011
"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“Gay Marriage, DOMA, Proposition 8 and the Mysterious Supreme Court,” January 15, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013