Ken Lewis’ crime fiction thriller “Little Blue Whales” won the Public Safety Writers Association 2010 First Grand Prize for Fiction. His next novel, “The Sparrow’s Blade,” will be published this November by Krill Press. He lives with his wife, JaNell, and their black Lab, Sally, in a small town in Oregon where he is the chief of police. You can read more here - http://www.kennethrlewis.com or find him at Facebook as Crime Fiction Author Kenneth R. Lewis
I Have Seen the Elephant
by Kenneth R. Lewis
In the middle of the 19th century, around the time following the civil war, the popular American phrase, "I have seen the elephant," referred to a person having overcome adversities and hardships in their life, or having experienced something completely extraordinary, and unexpected. It grew out of a country legend about a farmer who heard that the circus was coming to town. He had never seen an elephant and headed to town with his cart, filled to overflowing with produce, to see the elephant. Along the way, he encountered the elephant on the road and unfortunately for the farmer, his horse had never seen an elephant either. The horse spooked, and bolted, upset the cart, and ran off. This destroyed all the farmer's produce; much of his cash crop for the rest of the year. Even so, the farmer declared as he picked himself up from off of the ground, "I don't care, for I have seen the elephant.” This is how I’ve come to think about my writing every time something momentous has happened, good, or bad.
The first time I ever saw the elephant was when I was in the sixth grade. I wrote a story in my English class which I titled “The Forest Ranger.” I don’t remember if I was assigned to write it, but I do remember getting an “A” on it (my first ever in elementary school) so it must have been sanctioned by my teacher. It was about a handsome, brave, and rugged man who wore a green, whipcord uniform, lived in a log cabin in the mountains, and with his trusty Winchester .30-.30, he was the only thing that stood between a marauding mountain lion, and the certain destruction of the people in the small mountain town in the valley below. Today I live in a big house in the mountains, wear a dark blue uniform, and sometimes have mountain lions traverse the pine dotted open field across from my front lawn. Remember Ralphie from /A Christmas Story/? Yeah, I was that kid, growing up.
It was to be a very long time before I saw the elephant again, and this lingering interval would be the start of a pattern in my writing life, the far, and few between sightings of the elephant seeming to grow exponentially with the passing of the years from boyhood, to adolescence, to young manhood. But I still wrote. When I was twenty I sold a short story titled “The Willow Tree” to a magazine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin called Farm Wife News for which I was paid fifty dollars. The fact that anyone had paid me anything, for something I had written, was fantastical in its own right. But the enormity of knowing that I was not a wife, had never lived on a farm, and that “The Willow Tree” was the first professional short story I’d ever tried to write—and first piece of writing I’d ever sent anywhere to try and get published—was enough to bring the elephant looming into view once again. What an amazing sight he was! So, I wasn’t just a moody, angst ridden young man, with a seemingly terminal case of maudlin sensitivity, after all! I was a writer, that’s what I was, and now the entire world belonged to me. All I had to do, was reach out and write it.
Flash forward decades, the period in my life as a writer I used to refer to as “the wasted years.” After all, what had become of my great beginning? My great promise of a meaningful contribution to the world of literature? I had wanted to write about adventure, and danger, about great loves won, and lost, and won back again, and seemingly against all odds. But I didn’t have any reference point from which to start, I had no colored push pin to stick in the map of my life at point “A” in order to chart a course, and then proceed in the direction of “B.” At that time a young man seeking the experience of extreme adventure basically had two choices: a military war, or the war at home in our society. Viet Nam had not long ended, and had ended badly, and even though I knew another war would soon come along, I chose the sure thing; the never ending war within our own often violent culture. I joined the police force.
I didn’t see much of the elephant over the next long stretch of time, and what I did see of him left me wanting, left me feeling a little empty, and a lot disillusioned. Oh, I still wrote, and even sold some of my stuff. A freelance newspaper piece here, an outdoor magazine article there, the terrific short story that was almost...almost...bought by a big New York magazine, but instead was ultimately published by a small literary magazine that paid me in contributor’s copies. These were all sightings of the elephant, to be sure, but in my estimate, he looked a little dusty, a little broken down, and tired now. His swaying stride into the center ring of my life was more forlorn, than it was fabulous, and even though I knew he wished to trumpet proudly the major accomplishment of my life, the great novel I’d started a hundred times on paper, and a thousand times in my mind, he could not, because I hadn’t written it yet. He would make his brief appearance, and then turn his massive back to me and shuffle off, the only sound from him the derisive swishing of his tail.
The years slipped by. I married, and raised a family. My career in law enforcement progressed, my writing did not. It’s funny how you can sometimes cling to a dream for years and years, and then one day suddenly wake up and realize it was never a dream at all. That it was always a part of your reality; just the part you were most frightened of, and for whatever reasons, most ill equipped to face. My long marriage eventually ended, and I divorced, moved away to Oregon. My old life was at an end, as were all of my previous non-writing excuses and procrastinations. I started my novel, and a new life began.
For the next seven years, while I worked on, and finally finished “Little Blue Whales,” it was a virtual three ring circus which paraded past me, with many more acts than just the elephant alone. There were enough thrills and chills to give Barnum & Bailey a run for their money. Halfway into the writing of the book, it won an award at a regional writers conference for best fiction work in-progress, and when I was called up from the audience to accept my award, and asked to remain on the stage while a conference official read an excerpt from the manuscript, the audience of word lovers erupted into long, and loud applause. In 2006 I won over another audience, an audience of one, at the biggest yearly writers conference in Oregon, when literary agent Angela Rinaldi, in a mini-bidding war with another agent, signed me as her client. It was an intoxicating day, with the elephant so close by he felt as if he was sitting on my chest, joyously crushing me.
Then came the entire “un-writing” of the book after a favorable nod from St. Martin’s Press, who indicated they were interested in buying it, but it was seventy four thousand words beyond their editorial requirement of a maximum one hundred thousand words for a new, unpublished author. Would the author be willing to edit the book down for length? The author would…and did…in a grueling, eight month ordeal from which emerged, finally, the real “Little Blue Whales.”
I had always wanted to write about adventure, and danger, about great loves won, and lost, and won back again, and seemingly against all odds. And now, I had done exactly that. When Angela, a normally very reserved lady, received the new manuscript, she called me at home and we both jumped for joy over the phone. I’d done it! The book was perfect! She would start sending it out again tomorrow, and we both knew, it was absolutely going to sell. We were, that night, both of us, staring the elephant square in his trunk.
But, like I said, it was thrills, and chills. It was The Fat Lady, The Lion Tamer, The Man On The Flying Trapeze, and the red nosed, flat footed clowns running in one door of their little clown car, and out the other, in an absurd, unbroken circle, all wrapped into one. Now, eight months later, St. Martin’s Press couldn’t buy the book after all. Their list was all filled up, two years out, but please send them the next one. Nine more major New York publishers said much the same thing, all the rejections very positive, but none of them substantive.
I started work on a sequel, “The Sparrow’s Blade,” and in 2008 over lunch with Angela at the same writers conference where we’d previously met for the first time, two years before, we discussed abandoning “Little Blue Whales,” in favor of concentrating on the new book. Instead, I announced to her that I was abandoning the perceived safety and comfort of the huge, ocean going, commercial publishing ship, and planned on putting myself adrift in a tiny lifeboat as an independent author. She was still my agent, if, and when, I might ever need one. But in the meantime, I was taking myself, and my pretty damned good first book, out into the storm. Alone.
I didn’t know if I would ever see my old friend the elephant again. Especially after I had turned down my agent’s gracious offer to submit “The Sparrow’s Blade” once it was ready. It was a tough decision, but I said no. What sense did it make for New York to want the sequel, first, and then the first book, second? What sense does New York publishing make at all these days? I have friends who’ve written really great books, received a modest advance and then waited almost two years for publication, only to watch a precious piece of their soul, their books, fade into obscurity and literally be out of print a few months, or a year later. That’s enough to stampede even the most stalwart herd of elephants, and send them trumpeting away in panic into the black of a jungle night.
So, you might ask. Have I ever seen the elephant again? Yes, as a matter of fact, I have. And recently.
On a hot July day this summer, a day I would normally have been off but had to work because of our town’s annual celebration, I came home for lunch and decided to check my email, something I hadn’t done for a few days…and there he was. He was sitting smack in the middle of an email from an official with the Public Safety Writers Association. “Little Blue Whales” had won a prize in Las Vegas at the association’s annual conference the weekend before, a prize in their annual writing contest, which I had entered in January, and nearly forgotten about. I had to read the email three times, before it all sunk in. “Little Blue Whales” hadn’t just won a prize, it was the First Grand Prize Winner in the competition. The prize of all prizes. I not only saw the elephant that day, he victoriously hoisted me aloft with his mighty trunk, deposited me on his leathery, scrabble board back, and took me for a few floor rumbling, wall shaking celebratory laps around my writing room!
As a writer in today’s world of overwhelming competition, shrinking publishing budgets, and the explosion of digital, small press, and self-publishing ventures, whether you are rich, or poor, famous, or unknown, mainstream, or independent, count yourself as one of the lucky ones, as I do, if you are ever fortunate enough to see the elephant yourself. He doesn’t appear for everyone, and when he does, he can sometimes look like something other than himself. Even so, if you do see him, never doubt him.
They say that an elephant never forgets, and as a writer, once you’ve seen the elephant, neither shall you. After all, when it comes right down to it, that’s the whole purpose of writing, or should be. To see the elephant. And hopefully, more than once.