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How Stephen Markley Went from Temp to Published Author

Stephen Markley wrote the forthcoming nonfiction title, Publish This Book. After listening to him read from his work at the In the Flesh reading series, we caught up with him for an interview.

Q: How did you conceive of the idea for Publish This Book?
A: Basically, I was getting tired of trying to break into a career as a writer. I’d written a few practice novels, queried for a few other book ideas and was living in Chicago making $320 a week as a temp and feeling like my life was essentially going nowhere. The book was born of this frustration. It began just as an irreverent idea but grew into a lot of different things as I began to write it.

Q: What pitch did you use to convince your agent to take you on as a client?
A: My pitch letter is included in the book (with the grammatical errors left uncorrected). Basically, I just thought to myself, ‘Catch someone’s–anyone’s–eye.’ And out of 50, approximately 1.5 agents were interested in my idea. I went with the one and not the point-five.

Q: Was it tough getting a deal with Source Books?
A: My agent, Julie Hill, queried a lot of publishers and got very similar responses down the line: We dig this guy’s writing–it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it makes us laugh–but we have no idea based on these two chapters how this will work as a book, and we don’t think he can sustain it. Peter Lynch of Sourcebooks was the one editor who kind of got what I was trying to do, and admittedly he took a chance. One of the best days of my writing career was when he finished reading what I’d sent him. He wrote me an e-mail basically saying it was one of his favorite books he’d ever gotten the chance to work on.

Q: What is the exact date of publication for Publish This Book?
A: It came out on March 9, 2010. For its one-year birthday I’m going to buy it a Pabst.

Q: How do your friends feel about being included in Publish This Book?
A: Most of them enjoy it. Some more than others. There was surprise, for sure, but not really any anger (at least from the people I’ve heard from; they’re are a few I haven’t, like my high school basketball coach and former president George W. Bush). What was important to me was that the people the book is based around–a former Love Interest, my college professor Steven, and my old friend Justin–that they saw it for what I think it is. That is partly to say a testament to my relationships with them, how much they mean to me.

Q: Did you do a lot of research during the writing process?
A: Some chapters are about me drinking, cussing, and fornicating, so I had to do a lot of hands-on research for those. Other chapters required more reading. For instance, when I went to write about the publishing industry, to try to understand and articulate what young writer’s face when they try to publish, I wanted to get as many perspectives as I could. In a way, that kind of research is more fun: attempting to distill a piece of the world into a thoughtful but entertaining little mid-book essay. It’s like fornicating with your mind.

Q: Describe the writing process for Publish This Book?
A: I basically wrote the first two chapters and sent those around to agents. That’s also what Julie and I sent to publishers. I’d written about half of the book (up to the point when I signed with Julie) when the economy collapsed in fall of 2008. At that point, I kind of figured I was SOL, but then Sourcebooks bought it, and I went into a mad four month dash to finish it. I spent those months staying up to 3 a.m. every night, getting by at work with a cup of coffee per hour, developing a permanent sleeping disorder. It was one of the best periods of my life, and I think the second half of the book reads with an urgency and vividness because of it. It was the moment when I thought, “Ok, this is it.” And the result was some of my favorite stuff I’ve ever put on paper–things I wasn’t entirely sure I was capable of when I started.

Q: What is your advice for writers who are looking to get published?
A: This question is tough because there really is no great answer. I’ll say ‘perseverance’ which is true, but I’m also a realist. The easiest way to get published is to know people. Or become famous. If you really want a book contract get on a reality television show and act like an asshole. That’ll get you published. Becoming a writer is a far more complex and troubling endeavor.

Q: What is the ‘One-Beer YouTube Contest’?
A: This was my attempt to start something ‘viral’ on YouTube and it ‘failed’ miserably. The book has developed this small but very passionate cult following, and I wanted to try to tap into some of the creative energy of the people who wrote me, to exploit them like Chinese factory workers, I guess. I said if they put up a video advertisement for Publish This Book and won, I would drive anywhere in North America and buy them a beer, as well as pimp their own creative projects on my Tribune blog. There has not been a single entry, so presumably if someone in the Yukon Territory wanted to throw up a video with just the book’s title just to annoy me, I would have to make the drive.

Q: What’s next for you in terms of future projects and goals?
A: I’ve just finished a really big, really ambitious novel, which I’m going to begin revising. It’s a source of unending anxiety in my life right now because I feel as if it’s pretty goddamn good, but that doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a significant departure from PTB, really, really weird and complicated, and with a pretty epic word count. Then again, it’s exciting to be twenty-seven and have the world out there waiting for you no matter who you are, let alone a writer with one book at his back.

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