Early in 2012, after Mohamed 2.0 was complete but before it was published, the literary director of my Finnish publisher suggested a new book. It would be another nonfiction book about business.
I was hesitant. Business was the only thing I had ever published professionally and I had been looking forward to something different. But unless you are J.K. Rowling or Michael Chabon and have the clout to dictate to publishers, you don’t say no if they ask you for a book.
We started work on the new book and had meetings with the concerned parties. I began, somewhat reluctantly, to research. Abruptly and unexpectedly, the third party changed their minds and dropped out. The book couldn’t be written without their participation, so the project was off. Immediately my literary director suggested yet another topic for a nonfiction business book. This time, though, I said no.
It wasn’t because my literary director’s new idea was bad. On the contrary: it was and remains an extremely good idea. But I had started to rebel against writing what other people wanted me to write.
Up to that point in my professional writing career, practically the only things I had ever written were what I had been told to write. (An important exception to this is my column in the Helsinki Times newspaper, where the editors always gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted.)
These attempts to control my writing reached a climax with a bizarre email. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently a company conspired with others to place a fake news story. This fake news story would actually be propaganda about how wonderful this company was and how everyone should immediately run out to buy their products and services. Someone, perhaps with a periodical, suggested I could write it. I knew nothing about any of this, by the way.
So out of nowhere I received a rude email informing me of the things I would write in this article I didn’t know anything about. I gave a polite reply saying they must be mistaken and that I wasn’t involved. The next email I received was more insolent and said there had been no mistake. I would interview their sleazy president for the ‘news’ story. I was told what questions to ask and was given advice on how to make the propaganda look like a real news story to trick the unsuspecting readers. I became extremely pissed off, as you might imagine. After my next response, which was much less polite than the first, they left me alone.
This was my state of mind when I turned down my literary director’s idea. At that time my heart hadn’t been in the new project, and I viewed the third party dropping out as a sign that I should do what I wanted to do. And what I wanted to do was to tell a story that had been bouncing around in my head about a few colourful characters during the height of the Roman Empire.
This was my opportunity to finally tell my own story, and not a story from someone else. Liberated, I pounded away on it. The working title was Corruption and I was completely obsessed with it. I turned off my internet and phone while I was working so I couldn’t be disturbed, much to the annoyance of my editors and, occasionally, my wife. I followed Jonathan Franzen’s lead and bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could concentrate. I came to a block which I thought was insurmountable, but a weekend reading Vladimir Nabokov brought the Muses back and I wrote in one of those extremely rare cases of intense lucidity.
This was my book, all mine, but I wasn’t so stupid as to ignore professional help. I got advice from a famous author. I talked to editors and readers and people in the publishing industry. A helpful literary agent gave me detailed and invaluable advice for changes, all of which I followed. I went through twelve full drafts and innumerable rewrites.
During the writing of my book my Finnish literary director got in touch with me periodically to gently persuade me to write his book. I told him I had to create Dead Romans first, which was its name by this point. He understands writers and so understood my need.
He also sympathised with my desire to get a publisher in a larger market, and even offered to talk to his contacts in the wider world to help me find a publisher. Luckily I didn’t need his help, because a fellow named Ken Coffman at an American West Coast publisher, Stairway Press, snapped up Dead Romans right away.
I’ve published stuff in the past. Lots of stuff. You’d think another book would be no big deal. But it is. In some ways, Dead Romans is the first thing I’ve ever published. I’m more excited about this than the very first thing of mine an editor accepted. I am eternally grateful for Ken and Stacey at Stairway for publishing this book, the first thing I can truly call mine. I hope you read it, and I hope you enjoy it.