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Pulling Weeds

Jan 17, 2012 in Guest Posts, Writing

Grassy Field, Noir et Blanc

People frequently ask how it was that I became a writer. The answer surprises them. “Pulling weeds,” I say, and then watch their face go blank. But it’s true. My love of books developed from an abhorrence of gardening, specifically my mother’s favorite punishment. She’d make my nine brothers and sisters and I pull weeds. So here’s my story.

Chapter One

Pulling Weeds or,

Never Tell a mother of 10 you’re bored.

I’m one of 10 kids. My Irish Catholic mother had a number of sayings. One of her favorites was when we would complain about being cold. She’d say, “Put a sweater on. I’m not heating the neighborhood.”

But the one that hit home for me was if I said, “I’m bored.” With that much on her plate, my mother was not about to stop to entertain me. So she’d say, “You’re bored? Here’s a bag, go pull weeds.” When I objected, she’d respond, “Read a book.” Then she’d hand me one.

At first I thought this as bad as pulling weeds. But one of the first books my mother handed me was The Count of Monte Cristo. I devoured it. By the time I was thirteen I must have been bored a lot because my mother, an English major in college, had handed me some of the classics. The Old Man and The Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, The Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird.

And many more. And that’s when I knew. I wanted to write books.

Chapter Two

Compulsive Over achievers or

Why it sucks to be the middle child in a family of 10.

With my older siblings in medical school or on their way to helping their fellow brethren as doctors, announcing that I intended to move back home with mom and dad to write a novel seemed like an invitation for my brothers to ridicule me mercilessly, as only brothers can. So even though I knew since the seventh grade that I wanted to be a writer and I had majored at Stanford University in journalism and creative writing, there was always this underlying current that when you graduated from college you went to professional school. I did what most who don’t want to be doctors do…I considered law school.

Chapter Three

The UCLA 1L or,

Scott Turow Lied

Right around 1984 a book came out called The Harvard 1L. It was written by a law student, Scot Turow, and not just while attending any law school, but Harvard Law School. I took this as a tacit representation that it was possible to attend law school and write a novel. So off I went to UCLA to study law and write my first novel.

In first year torts I learned that a misrepresentation is the presentation of a fact that the speaker makes knowing said fact to be false, intending that said fact be relied upon by others, that is relied upon by others and that inflicts damage. I memorized this because the first thing I intended to do when I graduated law school and received my law license was to sue Scott Turow. I quickly found that I barely had enough time to study, let alone to write anything even remotely resembling a novel. I briefly considered dropping out, but compulsive overachievers don’t quit and, at worst, I believed that the law would be a great fall back profession if my writing career did not pan out.

 

Chapter Four

The Firm or,

Tom Cruise You’re Not… but Maybe Grisham

 

Upon graduation my mother repeated her offer. I could live at home rent free for a year if I wrote my novel. I was greatly tempted. But you see, this was now 1987 and it was right about this time that a novel came out by a somewhat known author named Scott Turow. The novel was Presumed Innocent.

Try as I might, I could not resist the temptation to read it. What struck me besides the fact that it was brilliant was that Mr. Turow apparently wrote this book while working everyday as a lawyer for the Chicago District Atttorney’s Office. You know how the old saying goes: “Fool me once shame on you, Fool me twice because I’m an idiot.”

I took a job with an up and coming San Francisco law firm and set to work as an associate with the thought that I was now two steps closer to writing my novel. Five years later, working 60 to 70 hour weeks I had written a grand total of 50 completely incomprehensible pages and developed a true dislike for Scott Turow.

In October of my sixth year I attended the firm anniversary party with my then fiancé. This is the party at which associates who have served their seven or eight years are named partners. Except they called my name. I’d been named partner early. In the pictures that night I had one of those smiles my wife says looks like a cross between being constipated and about to throw up. Suddenly I had clients and associates and even greater responsibilities. By 33 I was married and by 36 I had my first child. My dream of becoming a writer had slipped into the dark recesses behind the six figure income, the house, the cars and the strappings that come with success.

But the desire to write would not go away.

Chapter Five

The Epiphany Or,

Can you hear me now?

I awoke one morning in our San Francisco home to sunshine on the patio outside our bedroom windows. I don’t recall that morning being different than any other, but when I pulled back the covers to get up for work and put my feet on the floor it was as if everything had suddenly changed. For no particular reason, I uttered seven words that would change our lives.

“I just can’t do this any more.”

My wife, asleep beside me with our 18 month old son, turned and looked at me. Without any further words spoken between us she said simply, “Then we won’t.”

Chapter Six

The Great Escape Or,

I knew Steve McQueen.

Steve McQueen was a Friend of Mine.

You, sir, are no Steve McQueen.

Telling my wife I wanted to quit the law turned out to be the easy part. Mustering the courage to tell my partners and actually walk away would take me longer than it took Steve McQueen to tunnel his way out of the Nazi prisoner of war camp in the movie, The Great Escape.

I got mixed reactions, as you might expect, but most applauded my courage. But it really wasn’t courage that spoke to me that morning. It was fear; the fear of living a life or unfulfilled dreams.

So in the summer of 1998 I drove a u-haul truck across the Oregon-Washington border to live in my wife’s grandmother’s house. And just like that I had become George Constanza from the TV show Seinfeld. “Hi. I’m Bob. I’m unemployed, have no income, and I live with my wife’s grandmother.”

Chapter Seven

The Novelist Or,

Till Death Do us Part

I rented an 8 foot by 8 foot windowless room in downtown Pioneer Square for $130 a month that I called an office and my wife called “the prison cell.” There I began to craft my novels. I created a character named David Sloane, a San Francisco lawyer who, though successful, feels unfulfilled for reasons he can’t explain. I have no idea where I came up with that character. Sloane, however, has this uncanny ability to get juries to do whatever he wants. The plot of what would become, The Jury Master was complicated – a thirty-year government conspiracy to cover up a massacre in a Mexican village and the man who ordered it – at the time the head of the CIA.

I had no idea if it was any good, but I sent the manuscript to five literary agents. Four rejected it. But, amazingly, I got a phone call from the fifth agent, Clyde, who wanted to represent me.

In a movie this would be that moment when the main character suddenly hears music and a bright light shines down from the heavens and angels sing “Hallelujah!” But it is also only about an hour into a two hour movie and experienced moviegoers know that it can’t possibly be the end – and that means something really bad is about to happen.

And they would be right.

Just before Christmas Clyde emailed to advise that he was sending The Jury Master to several publishing houses. I had been gainfully unemployed for 18 months and we now had our second child. I thought a book contract would make a great Christmas present. It didn’t. New Years came and went, as did my wife’s and my birthday in February, and St. Patrick’s Day. Finally, in April, I received a card in the mail from the agency. Looking back now, it was suspiciously small for a book contract but, nevertheless, with great anticipation, I ripped it open finding not a contract, but a 5 x 8 card with a picture of Clyde’s face on the front and below it, the words, “In Celebration.”

Needing no further motivation, I called Mandy, Clyde’s assistant.

“Please tell me that Clyde is having a birthday,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “Clyde died.”

“Was it sudden?” I asked, shocked.

“Yes. About three months ago,” she said. After a bit more discussion she added, “No one here really does the boy books you write any more. Good luck.”

At this point, with a second child and a family depending on me, a completely different fear gripped me…the fear of failure.

Chapter Eight

Is anyone Out There? Or,

If a writer falls in the woods does he make a sound?

I don’t care what your religion. There are moments in our lives when we realize that some things are simply beyond our control. We realize that life isn’t fair. We realize that we are not the axis around which the world spins. We realize that we do not always get what we want when we want it. That time in my life – with no job, no book deal, no agent, no prospects of a book deal and two children and a wife depending on me was one of those moments in my life.

I took a walk in the 500 acre park by our house and along this path I came to a spot where a beam of sunshine had pierced the canopy of trees illuminating a stump. I sat for a moment and I simply asked, “What is it you want from me God? What is it I am supposed to do?”

Not long after that moment, a few days, I received a call from a family friend. Mike Collopy is one of the most successful and well known portrait photographers in the world. But he started at IBM until one day he went to his father and told him he wanted to be an artist. My sister in law had asked Mike to call me with words of encouragement. Mike gave me the same words of advice his father gave to him.

“Follow your dreams and the money will come. Follow the money and you lose your dreams.”

My dream was to be a writer.

Chapter Nine

The Writer’s Life, or

At least it beats Accounting.

The first thing I did was reconfirm my commitment to writing. Then I acknowledged I simply wasn’t good enough. I’d written all my life. I’d written for the Los Angeles Times. No one had ever said, “Son, you suck. Have you ever thought of accounting?”

What I came to realize is that I didn’t know how to write a novel. And I had been both uneducated and arrogant – a very bad combination.

Here’s the thing: If someone walked up to you and handed you a violin and said play, you’d likely say – but I don’t play the violin. No one would ever say, “That’s okay, just play from the heart.”

But people seem to believe writers can, “Just write from the heart.”

Sure, but writing is a craft. And that’s the good news. The techniques to writing a novel can be taught and learned. I made a decision to do whatever it took to learn the craft of writing novels. I made a commitment to the writing. I studied the craft, and attended writer’s conferences and when someone recommended a book I bought it and I studied it until the pages were triple dog–eared and falling out of the spines. And then I went to work again and again and again.

After revising The Jury Master, I sent it out to more agents and started to write the next novel, Damage Control. And I didn’t let anything deter me, not even the steady stream of rejection letters that began to come and which I dutifully checked off on my list.

Chapter Ten

Rejection or,

If at first you don’t succeed,

build a Brick Patio

I diligently sent out query letters to agents that I kept on a list in my office. I sent them out five at a time. Then I waited. When I received a response to a query, I checked it off. When they rejected the first fifty pages or the manuscript, I checked that off also. Until one day, a Friday before Memorial Day, I checked off another rejection, looked at my list and saw no blank boxes.

I shut down my computer, closed the door to my office, and drove home fully intent on signing up for a course to take the Washington Bar Exam. But when I got home to my wife’s grandmother’s home, I went into the backyard and I sat at our patio furniture. Only it wasn’t a patio. It was a patch of lawn. And I remember thinking, why isn’t it a patio? Why is it lawn? It made no sense, the ground was uneven, the chairs tilted and wobbled and I just said enough! Enough of things not making sense!

Over the next three days I tore out that perfectly good patch of lawn in the back yard of my wife’s grandmother’s house and I hauled in truck loads of sand and railroad ties and about a ton of bricks, and I built a damn brick patio.

Because it made sense!

By the end of the third day I was hot, sweaty, dirty, and dead tired. I sat there, barely able to move my limbs, admiring my patio, when my wife came home and advised that I had half an hour to get ready for a party. Now, there was absolutely no way I was going. No way. I put my foot down.

“I’m dead tired,” I said. “And I’m in no mood for a party.”

Then I did what every married man knows I did. I promptly marched up those stairs, took a shower, and went to the party. Which is how I know…

Chapter Eleven

Divine Intervention or,

How I know that God is a Woman.

No sooner did I get to that party I had no intention of going to did I see a man standing in the back of the room looking as miserable as I felt. I immediately thought, “There’s the guy for me.”

Turns out Joe Hilldorfer was an EPA agent in Seattle who had just investigated this unbelievable environmental crime in Soda Springs, Idaho in which a New York conman nearly killed one of his workers by sending him into a tank laced with cyanide, then lied about it while the kid lay dying on the emergency room table. The prosecution and aftermath had national ramifications that nearly took down the EPA.

That story would become the basis for a proposal called, The Cyanide Canary that I sent to 10 literary agents. All of them wanted the book. I had an agent call me as she was boarding a plane in Minneapolis asking me not to sign with anyone before she landed in New York.

That was the agent for me.

I flew to New York and met with Jane Rotrosen of the Jane Rotrosen Agency. Jane gave me a big hug and said, “We’re going to sell a lot of books together, kid.”

The next thing she asked was “What else do you have?”

Chapter Twelve

Meeting Scott Turow or,

It Beats Pulling Weeds

My agents read The Jury Master in a day and told me it was brilliant. Jamie Raab at Warner Books thought so too. She published it in 2006 and it hit the New York Times Bestseller list. The Seattle Times actually wrote, “Move over John Grisham.”

June 7, 2011 Murder One, my fifth novel and sixth book was published to critical acclaim, as were the previous five. Of all the wonderful reviews, however, my favorite has to be the review written about Bodily Harm by the Providence Rhode Island Journal. “Bodily Harm most resembles Word of Honor, still Nelson DeMille’s masterwork. No Turow or Grisham tale ever had this kind of depth, color and breathless plotting, and the result brands Dugoni as the undisputed king of the legal thriller.”

Turow? Really? Had I exacted my revenge for all those years in law school and practicing law?

Not long after that I actually had a chance to hear Scott Turow speak at the South Carolina Festival of books. Then after his speech, there he was in the author’s lounge. I had my chance. I approached him and stuck out my hand which he took with a warm and friendly smile. Wouldn’t you know it, he was a great guy.

“You inspired me to be a writer,” I said, and he thanked me for letting him know.

Scott Turow!

And as I watched him leave the room I thought of my mother, burdened with laundry and housekeeping and more kids than now seems possible for one woman to raise. And I silently thanked her. I thanked her because I never would have become a writer, never would have met Scott Turow, had it not been for her handing me those books, which I only chose because reading seemed better than the alternative – pulling weeds.

Robert Dugoni has practiced as a civil litigator in San Francisco and Seattle for seventeen years. In 1999 he left the full-time practice of law to write, and is a two-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times before obtaining his doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. He lives with his wife and two children in the Pacific Northwest.

4 Responses »

  1. Fantastic story, Robert–I love it! Having arrived at being an author via teaching Spanish, planting trees, slaving for Microsoft, becoming a PI, and rejection-rejection-maybe, well no, on second thought, rejection, I can SO identify!

    The author I love/hate is Nevada Barr. I had to rewrite my first novel because she and I are apparently twins separated at birth (at the time I’d never even heard of her) who not only think alike but also write so similarly that it looked like I was plagiarizing. I cringe every time I see her name in bookstores. And then I buy the book, of course. Thanks for a good laugh and for great books, and I hope our paths cross one of these days so I can meet you in person!

  2. Your story gives many writers hope. I feel about housework the way you feel about weeds. I’ve heard you speak several times at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Summer Conference, so I know you always emphasize the fact that you didn’t just stumble into your success. It’s inspirational (and great fun) to read about the potholes on your road to the NYT Bestseller list. I think _Murder One_ is your best book to date.

    Liz

  3. I will immediately clutch your rss as I can’t in finding your email subscription link or e-newsletter service.
    Do you have any? Please let me realize in order that I could subscribe.
    Thanks.

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