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Alp, my first published novel, was written in Bolinas, California, during the summer of 1968. I had written two previous novels (both unpublished.) A chapter from the first, “Sometimes Horses Don’t Come Back,” appeared in the Random House collection: Prize College Stories, 1963. The second manuscript earned me a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford in 1967. A chapter from it, now called “Last Rites,” was later published in Oui magazine and included in the anthology, Fathers and Sons (Grove Weidenfeld.)
When my fellowship came to an end, I had no money, no job and nineteen New York publishers who rejected my novel. In desperation, I took part-time work as a stock boy in the Bolinas General Store. It felt like I’d wasted my life trying to be a writer. At 27, I was little better than a bum. Still, I’d written all my life and couldn’t stop now. I simply gave up any hope of making it my career. I also gave up all my acquired “writing rules.” (Write about what you know. Writing is serious work. Never write when stoned.) I broke all the rules. From now on, I would write only for my own amusement. It was all about having fun.
I started a comic fantasy set in a make-believe Switzerland and peopled with foolish mountain climbers, trolls, witches, honeymooners; simply making the whole thing up from day to day without a clue what would happen next. I wanted only to surprise myself. Tom McGuane (whom I’d known since 1963, when we were both graduate students at the Yale Drama School) had just had his first novel, The Sporting Club, accepted by Simon & Schuster. I was jealous as hell. In those days, we traded our work back and forth, offering suggestions and helpful criticism. When Tom asked to see what I was working on I held back, my new stuff was just too weird. But, he persisted and I gave him the forty-odd pages I’d finished. He read them over the weekend.
“Quite possibly the finest comic novel written in America,” was Tom’s enthusiastic assessment. I couldn’t believe my ears. He wanted to send the pages on to his editor. I complained that it wasn’t finished, that I had no idea where it was going. Worse, it was a messy first draft, covered with ballpoint corrections and Magic Marker deletions. Tom said it didn’t matter. He would pay for a Xerox copy (25 cents a page in those days) and the postage, important considerations when working for minimum wage. About three weeks later, I got a call from Richard Locke (Tom’s S&S editor) at the grocery store. (I was too poor to afford a phone at home.) He offered a contract and an advance. It felt like I’d been anointed with a magic wand. I finished the weekend shift, quite my drudge job, and started in on the rest of my life as a professional writer.
What can I say? It was the sixties. When my editor at Simon & Schuster asked for a dust jacket shot showing the real me I sent him a full-frontal nude as a gag. His prudish reaction prompted my next choice when I spotted this frame on a contact sheet. A better joke, as the novel was written under the influence. Amazingly, nobody caught it and the photo ran everywhere, including the N. Y. Times.
Tom Goodwin took the picture in Bolinas, California, in 1968.