The late Joe Fox was my editor at Random House and my mentor and friend. A
Harvard patrician from Pennsylvania, he was a fine man who believed in treating his
authors like family. I once drove up to Sault Ste Marie to pick him up at the Chippewa
County International Airport (formerly Kincheloe AFB) and we commenced a several-day
tour of the Upper Peninsula, settling quickly into a routine. He sat in my Bronco scratching
on manuscripts while I waded. Every afternoon we drank scotch in tin cups, chilled in the
nearest spring-fed stream.
Fishing the Fox River north of Seney, we saw a red fox cross the two-track
above us. After some days we headed over to Mackinac Island where I had
rooms reserved and a few surprises in store for Joe. Neither of us was prepared
for the faux neufy air of the Grand Hotel. We had ratty sport coats and stained
ties, and only technically adhered to the dining rules. At dinner, which was coincidentally
Joe's birthday, I presented him with a fur cap made by a trapper from a fox pelt.
My kids and I had picked up the hat at a trappers' rendevous that spring. Joe and
I had Dom Perignon and I presented the hat in a plain brown paper bag. I said,
"This is a fox hat for my friend Joe Fox on his birthday, the same day we saw a fox
and fished the Fox River where another writer wandered in his youth. A Four-Fox Day."
He choked up and put the hat on and sat there defiantly among the swells with a dead
Fox perched on his head while Jamaican waiters and other patrons looked askance.
Another time he came to Portage and stayed at the house, announcing at the airport
that he wanted to find some stuffed fish for his place on Long Island, so we commenced
a search of local taxidermists and found several specimens, including a huge king salmon
some angler had ordered and reneged on payment. I remember Fox clambering aboard
a Blue Goose, clutching his treasures. My daughter remembers him as having a ratty old
satin bathrobe and every morning coming downstairs to the living room to drink coffee
and smoke and edit a manuscript while he muttered to himself.
Maybe this is what people mean by the writing life, but I doubt it.
Working in a corporation while writing fiction created some interesting dynamics. More than
once I was told in the best conspiratorial "I'm-your-pal-old-boy" tones by executives
that there was concern "above" that if I was promoted that I might opt out of the corporation
to write full time. I once asked the late Ted Cooper, an M.D. and our CEO, if he had a
problem with my writing and he said, "Hell no, I don't care what your hobby is. All I care
is that you do this job when you're here."
I said, "Like you doctoring while you're the CEO?" His answer was a sheepish grin.
The preceeding is a chapter from Joseph's latest book in process - he would
welcome feedback on any of his writing here.
Ironically, when I finally announced I was leaving, those same helpful exec types acted
surprised and asked what I was going to do. "Write," I said. "The concerns about me
were right all along."
I confess that I sometimes attended meetings where my mind was off with characters in a
novel I was working on. It didn't hurt anything, least of all the meetings, which rarely had
a point. A hell of a lot of meetings get called in corporations and academe that have
absolutely no purpose other than to let some people micturate on their invisible and
self-proclaimed property lines.
Having been published, a lot of people have asked me how one becomes a novelist.
This seems like a straightforward, simple question, but there is not yet a Fiction Writing
for Dummies in print, no guaranteed formulae, no algorithms. It's pretty much trial-and-error
and good old OJT. Basically you have to write something and then see how or if it will fly.
If you take rejection too personally, novelizing may turn out to be a poor career choice.
Getting published, of course, is a laudable goal and probably shared by all writers, but
it seems to me that just finishing a novel in manuscript form is a major accomplishment
that most people never get close to. Getting published is akin to trout fishing, and that is,
catching trout is gravy.
To become a novelist, the desire to write is not an adequate motivator. It is more like you
intensely feeling that can't not write. You need to love to read and be proficient at it; you
need your health and stamina, curiosity, oil in your feathers, sticktoitiveness, patience,
a caring agent, a great editor who believes in your book and, above all other things, luck.
In fact, this aspect of getting published is often overlooked in its importance. As much as
rational man wants to believe in skill over chance, how do we explain From Here To Eternity
getting something like three dozen rejections before getting a publisher's nod?
At its most elemental level, writing is an antisocial activity: that is, you can't do it well in
groups or by committees (though group-write has been tried and is, in fact, a primary
technique in many corporations). I have had two different friends express interest in
co-writing novels, but I can't see in my mind how this would work because the work
itself, like the reading of the work ultimately, works best in isolation and there is no
Global Positioning System to provide literographic fixes; what GPS there is, has to
exist in your own head. Mostly you are on your own from start to finish.
Creating a story is the writer's job, but we all need an editor to help make it better and
an agent to sell it. I think of myself as R&D, my agent as marketing - sales and the publisher
as manufacturing. None of the players can do their jobs until I do mine.
Finding an agent is a critical step and like the writing itself, fraught with problems until
you find the right person.
My first agent was recommended by professor friend. The agent was in New York and
seemed normal enough on the phone, but after he agreed to take on my first novel, I would
not hear from him for weeks and then he would call at 4 a.m. to assure me that he
"was close" to a deal. Obviously, he never was. After two years I decided I needed
an agent who would work at least as hard at that job as I did at mine and if my stuff
didn't have what it took, I needed to hear that too. I severed the relationship with
Mister Mysterious and another friend steered me to Betsy Nolan, who got the manuscript
just before Thanksgiving, said she thought she could sell it and called me back just after
Thanksgiving to say we had an offer. That was sixteen years ago and we are still a team.
People ask what it feels like to see your novel on bookstore shelves; I tell them that by then,
I tend to be pretty sick of it and have emotionally moved on to the next thing. I doubt they
believe me, but this really is how it is.
I have had many newspaper and television reviewers call and ask me to summarize one of
my new novels because they have been assigned to review it and haven't had time to read it.
I naturally chuckled and refused. Books may or may not get read, but reviews still get written.
Critics, of course, can rub one wrong. Most have been pretty good to my books, but a few
have written things that left my Irish genes in high dudgeon.
One reviewer wrote, "Heywood is such a good writer that one must wonder why he
can't find more serious subjects worthy of his talents."
I wanted to pose the same question to the reviewer.
There are in my limited experience, a couple of kind of editors.
The first is what Hollywood calls a High Concept Type. This person talks to you like
a producer, using a brush stroke the width of a garage door. The other type is the old
fashioned dinosaur, the line-by-line editor, whose brush is as thin as a scalpel. This
editor reads every word and understands how everything connects and your dealings
with this person are very detailed. This type is becoming rare because their approach
to a book is time-consuming and publishing, like many other industries, is concerned
I also get asked if I have encouraged my kids toward writing careers. I don't think one
can push anyone into a writing career. I think you can encourage reading and, if that takes
effect and if the desire to write is inside them, they will write. A friend of mine once did
an interesting study that showed that people who do not like to write found jobs that did
not require much writing. I felt the same way about math in my undergraduate days and
used the Math building at MSU to save walking outside in the snow.
I think you can help refine a writer's skills, but you can't teach people to write. By this,
I don't mean the technical skills; what I mean is that you can't teach the imagination. It's
there or it's not. You can encourage it, but you cannot install it like a new piece of software.
The writing life, I think, may exist for certain literary lions, those who travel academic circuits,
invited to give lectures or attending conferences, or who go into residence at certain writer
Summer Camps (called refuges or retreats and other things). There are also some enclaves
of writers in various parts of the country where they live close to each other and may even
be friends, but most writers who write, are much too busy with the work to think much about
each other. Visions of the writing life, I believe, grow out of the lives of people like the late
Ernest Hemingway, or Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal in more current times. But there
aren't many writers who live like these people. Most of us don't write as well, make as
much money, or earn such fame or infamy.
I confess to special feelings for Hemingway who was, to put it in Michigan terms, as crazy
as a shithouse rat. A Chicago boy and doctor's son, Ernie spent twenty two summers in
Michigan and if you are a Michigander by birth or choice, it is difficult to ignore the man or
I have always been curious about his life, and of course I have read all he has written,
including those works published after his death. As a graduate student I once did an
independent study and laborious paper on Hemingway's attempt to use word painting
to duplicate the Cubist painting technique called simultaneity. Assuming that is what he
was trying to do, which is far from certain. I have no doubt that he understood painters
and what they were doing and that he wanted to emulate them, but this is as much
conjecture on my part as it was on his. Ernie had a propensity for bullshitting.
Most curious is the huge amount of publicity that followed his life. If you compare this to
the number of actual interviews he granted or public statements he made you begin to
wonder if we have even the slightest inkling of who the man really was. He was a
world-renowned celebrity whose every move was tracked and watched (to the extent
it could be in those days) and in a perpetual gossip spotlight. Say and think what you
want about his work, but the man had a penchant for getting attention, wanted or not…at
least in his early years.
That Ernie committed suicide comes as no surprise when you look at the family tree before
and after his demise. The much ballyhooed Human Genome Project, which is nearing
completion, would do well to look for a DNA trigger that makes people reach for triggers.
Despite the accomplishments of modern medicine and science we have made very little
progress against most mental disorders. More than most people will admit, there is a
sweeping view that people with mental problems should "just get it together" when brain
chemistry goes past simmer to broil. Perhaps Hemingway felt his illusion of control slipping
away. Killing himself represented one final act to demonstrate that he could still do what
he chose to do. We shall never know.
Hemingway's writing remains controversial for reasons beyond mechanics, the writer and his
work being hopelessly confused.
Many fly-fishing afficiandos have confessed to me that the Nick Adams stories made their
fly-fishing dreams soar, but Nick was a purveyor of garden hackle, worms. A scarred soldier,
Nick went north into the Yoop (Michigan's Upper Peninsula) to purge his soul, to refind who
he once was, or might still be. In some ways, fishing still affords such a journey, but the
signposts along the way are rather ambiguous. Part of Hemingway was Nick, just as part
of every writer is part of every character they write. But the fisherman in Hemingway could
not be trusted as it related to his art. You see, Nick fishes the Big Two-Hearted River,
which is a good sixty miles northeast of the Fox River, which is where Hemingway actually
fished. Some scholars insist that he did not like the mundane name of the Fox and fancied
the greater cache of the Two Hearted. I say, Bull. He was trying to hide where his trout
were. Ernie may have appreciated the art of fishing, but it was the catching he lusted for.
That we know.
I didn't exactly stalk his ghost but I did follow some footsteps and I got to think that the
sneaky bastard couldn't help writing about trout, or disguising where they were, keeping
them to himself. The result of this came out as a poem,
Hemingway, You Old Bear
Stubborn blueberries cling wild, low-blue in bushy clumps
Clutching for purchase on hardtack sand along the Fox, which Ernest-
Black-Hearted Hemingway called the Big Two-Hearted
An act of disinformation,
Misdirection under the rubric of art,
So-called poetic license,
I say bull,
His only thought: Himself.
I hear the great ghost grunting in the horsetail ferns
Above the ancient log slide choked with weeds,
Annoyed to find me
Casting in the oxbow of his dearest hoax
Flicking an elk hair caddis
At the same pool Nick Adams
Worked so artificially.
Two hours, thirteen fat fish,
I climbed the bank to find
a huge bear, teddy-sitting
splay-legged in the berries,
his graying snout contorted,
clawing clumps of blue,
a hunched-over curmudgeon
clack-smacking his yellow teeth in warning,
raised a paw,
a salute I recognize.
In Havana long ago,
One of Mary's canasta cronies
Sandal-footed into the black-marble foyer.
Taking her leave slowly,
spied a white-bearded thing in ratty flannel robe, padding
bearfoot from a stucco room,
stop, stare, blink, breathe.
"My friend Julia, said Mary, "on her way out."
It grunts, raises a huge paw
Waddles on, agonizing over
Brook trout far north,
Covered only by legend,
And a flimsy one at that.
You can't fool me, Hem,
Reincarnating your selfish self
In that shaggy black hide, filling
Your selfish mush with huckleberries,
A nasty excuse to guard your secret.
I'm here, you old bastard,
Taking your fish.
Where's your bravado now?
The writer's life? Hell I don't know what it is, but I felt so strongly about Hemingway that
I brought him back to life in The Snowfly to provide a better explanation
of his death. The real writing life is about going where your imagination takes you. ~ Joesph Heywood
"Born in Rhinebeck New York, grew up in a USAF
family, living all over U.S. and in Italy as well. First year of high school
in Norman, Oklahoma and final three in Rudyard, Michigan in the eastern Upper
Peninsula. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1965 with BA in
journalism. There I played lacrosse on the univesity club team and was one of
the tri-captains in my senior year. After five years in the AF where I was a
navigator in a KC-135 tanker. Vietnam vet. After the AF I joined The Upjohn
Company in Kalamazoo in 1970; I retired in 1999 as Vice President of
Worldwide Public Relations. I have fished in Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming, but in none of the hallowed places in those
states. Most of my trouting has been confined to Michigan, where there is
ample opportunity and plenty of stubborn and wily fish. I wrote and published
three novels while working in the corporate world and now write fiction full
time. My fourth novel was published earlier this month by Lyons Press and my
next novel will also be published by Lyons sometime next spring. I am not a
great fisherman, but I continue to learn, which makes it a wonderful passion.
My other passion is ice hockey, namely the Detroit Red Wings."
His latest novel is The Snowfly.
He lives in Portage, Michigan, and claims the Pere Marquette as
his 'home water.' This article is a response to the LadyFisher Column,
It's About Writing.
You may find Joe in our Chat Room as 'Joe' or 'Joe H'.