Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Late one night

Thirty years ago, in 1980, I was a young(ish) professor, with one kid at university, another about to go, and two more in the pipeline. Basically living from hand to mouth. How would we manage?

One evening in bed I said to my wife, half in jest, "I'm not going to sleep until I figure out a way to make $10,000." Ten thousand dollars seemed like a fortune in those days.

Before I drifted off to slumberland I had the idea for a book called 365 Starry Nights that would have a short astronomy lesson for every night of the year. Illustrated by me.

I got right to it. I sketched out a month's worth of nights and sent it off to half-a-dozen publishers. And didn't hear from anyone, not even the usual postcard dismissal.

Until more than a year later, when out of the depressing silence Mary Kennan at Prentice-Hall wrote me a nice letter and said, "Let's do it."

I quickly sketched out the rest of the year. Mary supplied me with a stack of especially formatted (with camera-shy blue lines) drawing boards, and off we went for our second summer in the cottage here in Ireland, with drawing pens, ink, boards, and youngest child, Tom.

The cottage had cement floors, virtually no furniture except what I had made, no electricity, and a dribbly water supply. And it rained incessantly.

I drew. They called me the Woodpecker because of the sound of my stippling. I was damp. The cardboards were damp. The pens clogged. I stippled, and stippled, and stippled. Maureen typed, on a cheap portable typewriter we had to go a hundred miles to buy. Tom was eleven. He read everything I wrote and gave me lots of good advice. I dedicated the book to him.

The book has now been in print for 28 years and has gone through many printings. It has made much more than the $10,000 I hoped it might. In fact, it has been my most lucrative book, not counting the movie of Dork of Cork.

Alas, in my naivety, I signed a contract that made no provision for a royalty rate that escalated with sales. Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster made out better than I did. It was a costly error no aspiring author should make.