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It came down to knowing a guy

I’m glad to tell you that I’ve signed a contract for my next book with the working title of Ferment: A Memoir. Skyhorse Publishing, a large, independent press, will publish the book in May 2020. The manuscript needs some final touches but is mostly complete now.

While this is fabulous news, I endorsed the contract with some disappointment. Let me explain:

In summer 2015, I drafted Ferment. I had hoped I could pull off a decent work the first time around. What I found at the end of the summer was an exceedingly bad book, basically a pile of 100,000 words. Somewhere in there lurked a publishable story, but it would take work to ferret it out.

The next school year began and I had to set it aside. Ideas and turns of phrases, the many failings of the manuscript rolled around in my head. Between classes and over winter break, I rewrote the book, getting closer to the story. I had much to learn and even more to write. My readers sent back reports that the book was no good. I had to keep at it until, finally, I had something I thought I could market.

Summer 2016 started with high hopes. I ran the idea by the editors at the University of Nebraska Press, but the story wasn’t in their wheelhouse. I talked to my friend Matt Bokovoy, who also works for Nebraska, and he said the book would need a commercial press. To get into a publisher with a nationwide focus, I would have to get an agent.

So, I set to work with a list of agents on the Poets & Writers website. I put together a good query letter and set to work. Over the course of the summer semester, I queried 120 agents. For all that work, I received only a few written rejections. Most agents didn’t respond to my E-mails.

But I’m well inured to rejection. Rejection just means I’m doing the work. Without work, there is no rejection. With no rejection, there’s no acceptance. I felt the labor had merit. It was a time of great education. I learned how to write a query letter, what agents are looking for, and how to approach them.

I basically left the manuscript alone once school started again. Matt made a few suggestions. He recommended I incorporate my story of alcoholism and mental health into what I thought was going to be a straight travel memoir. Having these in the story would add layers of complexity to the story. It would also stretch me as a writer and a person. I would have to keep the tale together in a way that didn’t lose the reader. I would have to reveal more than was comfortable.

Summer came again (2017). This time, I knew better how to address agents. The Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents is ordered alphabetically. I started with A and contacted agents that did travel writing and memoir. Over the course of three months, I queried 100 agents—made it to the letter P. This time, several asked for manuscript samples. But in the end, no one took me up on my offer.

I thought it was over. Maybe this would be the book that stayed in the computer, the one that would only be published if I attained success with other books or writing. I didn’t give up but thought the book would become relevant at a different time.

Then, I met Jon Arlan, an editor who works freelance for Skyhorse. An author in his own right, we hit it off and met for coffee. He asked what I was working on and told him about the book. It interested him and he asked for me to send him the manuscript.

Jon made some great suggestions after his reading. I rewrote the whole book, cutting almost 15,000 words and tightening up the story. I now had something I could be proud of, something to sell. After reading the manuscript again, Jon sent the idea to his publisher. Almost seven or eight months passed. I figured that, well, it’s done. I’d given it a good try and that was that.

Then, in June, Jon sent me an E-mail. He’d been traveling for six months in Europe. My book stuck with him and he thought about it a lot. He said he wanted to make another run at trying to get it published. We worked up an elevator speech (see below), which was good for me and the direction of the book. It was also good enough to get his publisher to bite. Jon got back with me only a couple of days later and said it was all done. The publisher was formulating a contract and have it to me directly.

I wasn’t overjoyed but incredibly pleased. I could not get passed the way the book made it through to publication. I’d devoted untold hours of work querying 220 agents and 15 publishers. Nothing came of that sweat, doubt, and persistence.

The book’s publication came down to me knowing a guy.

I so wanted the process to work. I wanted to know that if I put my head down and did the work, reward would inevitably come from that process. My disappointment was deep.

Don’t get me wrong I’m very happy to get the book published, regardless of how it came to be. I’m not looking back. As my friend Eddy Harris, the American travel memoirist, said to me. “You had to land the right fly in front of the right trout at the right time. The fly had to be tied and trimmed right.” I did all the work. I’ve slaved over the manuscript. I’ve gotten as naked as I can in the tale. It is a good book.

Ferment: A Memoir (working title)

After Patrick Dobson tries to hang himself, he stumbles into a mental hospital, clueless, reeling from bone-crushing depression and tortuous, racing thoughts. A diagnosis of manic depression offers relief but brings his confused and eventful past into question.

To make sense of his suicide attempt and deal with his past, he returns to Germany where, three decades earlier, he had arrived as twenty-two-year-old—lost, drunk, and in the throes of untreated mental illness—in search of a new life.

There, despite withering depression, manic delusion, and alcoholism, inner resolve drives him to follow his dream of becoming a winemaker. Sublime Mosel vineyards and the ancient city of Trier change his life forever.

Ferment charts his days in Trier’s vineyards and cellars, and the enduring friendships that would define his life. A winemaker and his wife become like parents to him. In their son, he finds a brother, whose death years later sends Dobson into a suicidal tailspin. His friends, once apprentices like himself, become leaders in their fields: an art historian and church-restoration expert, an art- and architectural-glass craftsman, a painter and photographer, and a theologian/journalist. The relationships he builds with them become hallmarks of a life well-lived.

Dobson reconnects with friends who stood by him through his dissolution, mental illness, and recovery. In these relationships, he seeks who he was and how his time in Germany changed him. He peers into memory to understand how manic depression and alcoholism affected who he was and the person he’s become. His friends show him that he—despite intense self-doubt—has been a loyal and big-hearted man who’s influenced the people and world around him for good.

Ferment is the deeply moving account of one man’s attempt to face mental illness and alcoholism in the most formative chapter of his life and its influence. And he examines landscapes and friendships and finds meaning and purpose, and a future worth living for.

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  1. Dear Patrick,
    I’ve been reading your essays for the past several months, but this is the first time I’ve commented here. I became aware of you when I started searching on YouTube about floating the upper Missouri River. “Something” inside we has been curious about doing this. I grew up in the Montana prairies just east of the Rocky Mountains in Sun River Valley, Montana. I am now 61-years old, have been married for 37 years, and have worked at Utah Valley University for the past 26 years.

    I have purchased and read both of your books “Seldom Seen” and “Canoeing the Great Plains”. I liked both books immensely and am so glad you wrote them.

    Thank you for writing this essay “It Came Down to Knowing a Guy”. I appreciate you taking time to share about how this latest book of yours–“Ferment”–came to be. I look forward to purchasing and reading it when it is released next year. Thank you for the example of patience and persistence. Thank you for your vulnerability and the time you have taken to craft your skill as a writer. Perhaps, we will run into each other someday. I’ve been wanting to visit the Tall Grass Prairies of Kansas.


    Keirth Jensen

    • Thanks for reading my books and my essays. I’m glad you like them. I recommend wholeheartedly that you follow that “something” and get on the upper river. The Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River–150 miles of river between Fort Benton and the Malta Bridge and the start of Fort Peck Lake–is now under the aegis of the National Park Service. There are services that will help you with transporting your canoe getting back to your car, and, I think, you can even rent a canoe for the journey. You can go the whole distance or from Fort Benton to Coals Banks Landing or Judith Landing. In any case, you should give yourself that pleasure. The oldest person I know to make the trip the length of the Missouri is Dale Sanders, who canoed from Three Forks to the Gulf of Mexico when he was 80. There’s nothing like a canoe on the river. Keep coming back. I’d love to hear from you again.

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