In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, writer Augustus Rose answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published piece was called “Clyde and I,” and it was an excerpt from my then novel-in-progress, now very-deep-in-the-drawer first novel.
Who published it? Are they still around?
It was published in 1993, in an anthology out of Prague (where I was living at the time) and it was an act of pure nepotism, from friends who were part of “Beef Stew,” the reading series I frequented. The publisher was called Modrá Músa, and I believe it was their first publication. They’re defunct now, but they subsequently put out a respected literary journal called Trafika for a while in the nineties.
Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.
I was 24. I’d been writing fiction about three years and it was my first submission. It was solicited, so the piece had never been rejected; only wildly applauded in the echo-chamber that was Beef Stew. My next published story was a piece of flash fiction published in 1996. It won a “sudden fiction” contest in the Berkeley Fiction Review, and I didn’t know anyone at the journal, so that one felt pretty good. It also gave me an idea of just how easy it was going to be to get published.
I didn’t publish another piece of fiction until my debut novel The Readymade Thief, in August 2017, though I’ve been writing the whole time. So yeah, it was pretty much smooth sailing the whole way.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I didn’t take it very seriously, because it didn’t feel earned, it felt handed to me. But affirmation is affirmation and when I finished the novel I remember being so proud of it, thinking it was going to blow the literary world wide open and launch my career as the iconoclastic, slightly dangerous literary powerhouse I thought I was. I went to the only person I knew who’d published a book (the uncle of a good friend) and handed him the manuscript. “Howard, I finished my novel,” I told him proudly, expecting him to rush it straight to his editor. He just put aside gently and told me, “That’s great, Gus. Now go and write another.” I was crestfallen, but it remains one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received as a young writer.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
Oh, God no. I just now picked it up out of curiosity and literally couldn’t make it past the first sentence. It’s that bad. I mean seriously, who wrote that?
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
All of the above may sound flippant and even cynical, but I promise it’s not. I’m extremely proud of my debut novel, and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the three previous novels (and many short pieces) I failed to publish. I’m actually happy that this novel is my introduction to readers, because it’s just so much better than any of the others. Plus, I think (only half-jokingly) that if I had published a novel as a younger man it would have gone to my head and I would have become a real asshole. But countless rejections have beaten a sense of humility into me, and now I feel no arrogance or entitlement, only gratitude and good fortune.
So my advice to young me would be something like this: “Keep writing, stay curious, never stop learning, and persevere through the nonsense, both your own and that thrown at you by others. Do that and you’ll be fine.”
Augustus Rose is a novelist and screenwriter. He was born in the northern California coastal town of Bolinas, and grew up there and in San Francisco. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the novelist Nami Mun, and their son. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Chicago. The Readymade Thief (Viking 2017) is his debut novel.