It was a few years ago that I became aware of Grant Jerkins. First came the murmurs about a new trade paperback crime novel called A Very Simple Crime—a title that grabbed me firmly by the throat. Early reviews were promising; I was definitely feeling a good buzz about the book. Then came my trip to the local Barnes & Noble, where I found the novel on the New Releases table. Its stark white cover and stately sans-serif lettering made it stand out from the rest of the books on the table. Its cover summary and blurbs hooked me. I picked it up and never hesitated: For God’s sake, take my money!
I read the book quickly, finding it to be a terrific, disturbing story. The tale of Adam Lee, on trial for murdering his depressed wife, Rachel, is full of juicy plot twists and corkscrew legal turns. It’s a fun piece of neo noir told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator—always a favorite perspective in crime fiction. It’s also a dark study of abnormal psychology. A great package, all around. Certainly one of the finer, more assured debut crime novels I’d ever read.
After the critical success of A Very Simple Crime, Jerkins came up with At the End of the Road, a southern gothic novel that (Jerkins admits) is filled with autobiographical elements, taking place in 1970s Georgia. After that came The Ninth Step, a dark and unlikely love story filled to brimming with psychological suspense. All three novels are strikingly produced trade paperbacks from the Berkley Prime Crime imprint, and all three are very much worth your time.
What I was surprised to learn—much later, upon having the chance to talk at length with Grant about his writing life—is that it took him 25 years to actually get that first book published. And after A Very Simple Crime finally did hit the market, to much acclaim and buzz, not everything was wine and roses with what appeared (from this reader’s perspective) to be a skyrocketing career. Today, two years since the publication of The Ninth Step, Grant is in a temporary state of publishing limbo, his days at Berkley at an end but the future bright, as renowned publisher Thomas Dunne Books will be bringing his fourth novel, Done In One—a thriller about a sniper—into the world in early 2015.
Over a period of a few months, Grant and I enjoyed a far-ranging conversation about his history and aspirations in publishing. Here’s our conversation.
Jason Bovberg: So let’s hear a bit about your history as a writer. Is it something you always aspired to be?
Grant Jerkins: All my life, I knew I wanted to be a writer. All through my childhood and young adulthood, I had that certainty. I never wrote anything, though. I figured that as I got older, I would store up experiences (like working at a psychiatric hospital, reading every book I could get my hands on, drinking to excess, and smoking lots of cigarettes), and once I had accumulated sufficient credentials, I would sit down and write. Turns out that was a shitty plan—a curriculum vitae that qualified me to be a well-read alcoholic and not much more. When I finally did sit down to write, I found I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had always assumed I’d be brilliant, that I would churn out a critically acclaimed, instant bestseller my first time at bat, but that wasn’t the case at all. And on top of that, it was hard work. I’d never counted on that aspect of it, either.
Jason Bovberg: Writing is certainly hard work. What kept you going? What were the early days like?
Grant Jerkins: I put in the hours. I wrote a ton. Sent short stories (accompanied by the obligatory SASE) to every horror/sci-fi/fantasy magazine in Writer’s Market. I still have a stack of rejection letters as thick as a phone book. (We’ll probably need a glossary at the end of this interview. First entries will be SASE and phone book.) I had a play produced at one point. Wrote a handful of screenplays. I just kept trying to make something happen. Even after A Very Simple Crime was written, it took 10-plus years to find a publisher for it. The book was rejected innumerable times. (I often wonder how my little career would be different if I had come of age after the digital publishing revolution, rather than before it. I think there’s a good chance I would have self-published.)
Jason Bovberg: We should compare our phone-book-sized rejection-letter binders! So, what about those 10 years? Did you write other books during that time? Did you have an agent who kept sending out A Very Simple Crime, and finally it clicked?
Grant Jerkins: I didn’t write any other novels in that time. But I wrote about four screenplays. The novel got rejections from about three-quarters of the New York houses. Then we put it aside to wait and see if a film deal would come to fruition. It never did, and I parted ways with that agent. Then a friend recommended me to my current agent, who sold the book on the third submission. Easy.
Jason Bovberg: All that time, did you feel A Very Simple Crime was something special? As in, “THIS is my breakthrough book”?
Grant Jerkins: Did I think the book was special? Hell yes, I did. I thought it would ride the bestseller lists for months on end and then be tried in Boston for obscenity. I figured Oprah would revive her book club and A Very Simple Crime would be her first pick. Intellectually, I knew Oprah would never pick a book like mine for her club. But some little part of me believed that my book was so special, she would be compelled to select it.
Jason Bovberg: Man, I love that confidence. I’m on the brink of publication for Blood Red, and although Oprah would never have picked up a splatter novel, it’s nice to imagine that episode of her show!
Grant Jerkins: I think any writer who completes a novel and puts in those long hours should believe in his or her heart that their book is special. That against all reason, Oprah will pick that motherfucker for her book club.
Jason Bovberg: Damn right! So, I’m curious if A Very Simple Crime was the title from the start?
Grant Jerkins: Not the same title from the start. Dark Crimes, I think, was my working title. Then, at some point, I had a sort-of mystical vision. I was in what Poe called a hypnogogic state, and I saw a book suspended in the air in front of me. The book revolved to expose the front cover, which bore the title, An American Crime. So that’s what I named the book. And that remained the title for most of those 10 years. A Very Simple Crime was the title that Nicholas Kazan and Terry Curtis Fox gave to their (unproduced) screenplay adaptation of the novel. They couldn’t call it An American Crime because another film was coming out with that title. I never really cared for the Simple Crime title, but it was their script and not my place to criticize. Once Berkley accepted the manuscript, I started a www.grantjerkins.com website. Getting ready to pimp myself. The only problem was that I didn’t have any actual content to post on the site. One thing I did to create content was to make up a little poll for people to vote and give the book a title. The choices were Dark Crimes, An American Crime, A Very Simple Crime, and one other that I’ve since forgotten. But really, the whole point was just to have something on the website, so it wouldn’t just be a blank page. I think three people voted—me and two friends I asked to go vote. I never had any intention of changing the title. It was just filler. Anyway, one day I get a forwarded email from my agent, and it was from the publisher. It was from their first production meeting on the book. And it said, “Tell Grant that we looked at his website and we like the title A Very Simple Crime. Please have Grant take down that poll.” So I screwed myself into giving the book a title I never really liked. I mean, I put it right out there on the Internet, that any of those titles were fine by me, and I was letting the public choose. What could I say?
Jason Bovberg: That’s heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time, but right, what are you gonna do? As a reader, though, I must say I do like the title quite a bit. It’s one of the things that drew me powerfully to the book in the first place.
Grant Jerkins: I have to say that now, I do like the Simple Crime title. It took a while, but I like it very much and think it has served the book well. When you live with a project for multiple years, it’s just very difficult to realign your mind to think of it by a new name. And also, if the film version ever does get made, I like it that the titles will match up.
Jason Bovberg: Let’s talk about the early days of this first book coming together. The excitement of the critical buzz. (I felt it about Crime, so I wonder what that was like from your perspective.) What was the build-up like? The feeling of getting your first novel published?
Grant Jerkins: Thinking about the build-up to A Very Simple Crime being released is a little bit like looking back on my childhood, because I now see how naive I was. And what a charmed existence I was living, without even knowing it. I had no sense of a buzz building around the book. I really was incredibly naive. I think for me, the most jolting realization that the book was getting attention was when it was reviewed in the Washington Post. That was incredibly exciting. I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t quite realize what long odds I had beat when that happened. It was a thoughtful, critical, insightful review. Then a couple weeks later, it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Again, that was a huge milestone. There were book club editions published, a starred Library Journal review, a large-print edition. Lots of great stuff happened, and I truly enjoyed the experience, but I didn’t realize how lucky I was.
Jason Bovberg: Why do you think Crime got so much attention?
Grant Jerkins: I don’t know, but I do know that first novels typically do get more notice. It’s for that very reason that an agent can sell a first novel a lot easier than a second or third. Also, the book had a nice “years of perseverance paid off” story behind it. And it was a decent book. Flawed, but pretty good.
Jason Bovberg: Oh, it’s much more than that. And now I get another opportunity to plug it! (Buy A Very Simple Crime here.) So, what about the experience of Berkley? How was that experience, overall? And after all that buzz for Crime, were they talking to you early on about the next book?
Grant Jerkins: I’ll always be grateful to Berkley, and my editor there, for giving me my break. However, it slowly dawned on me that Berkley Prime Crime was the publishing equivalent of a factory assembly line. They churned out X number of books every month, and just never looked back. Or forward. I thought I was hot shit because my books weren’t edited. I figured my books didn’t need editing. We didn’t have story conferences. Calls and emails were not exchanged. I didn’t have a relationship with my editor where she challenged me or inspired me to make the books better. I never had a conversation with her. The novels were simply copy-edited, then a cog turned, the conveyor belt lurched forward, and a cover was slapped on.
In the end, Berkley Prime Crime just wasn’t a good fit for me. They put minimal effort into promoting their books. In fact, on my last book with them, The Ninth Step, I had interviewers, bloggers, even reviewers from major metropolitan newspapers contact me directly to ask why they hadn’t received a review copy. The Atlanta Journal Constitution gave At the End of the Road a full page, glowing review. And Berkley couldn’t be bothered to send them a copy of the follow-up book? It almost felt deliberate. Like sabotage. Then, after constant assurances that they loved my work and wanted to build me as an author, they just dropped me. Very impersonal. But machines are like that. I guess that all sounds a little bitchy, but what I’ve learned (from watching other authors books succeed or fail for reasons other than merit) is that the one thing it takes for a book to do well, is for the publisher to hold that book up and say, “We think this is special. We think this book deserves your attention.” But what Berkley does is pause the assembly line, pick the book up, and say, “Look, another widget!”
Jason Bovberg: These anecdotes are dispiriting, I must say.
Grant Jerkins: Well, you know, here’s the thing, maybe the two subsequent books didn’t do well because they weren’t all that good? Maybe it’s not fair to blame Berkley. Maybe the fault lies with me, the author.
Jason Bovberg: I gather you sometimes suffer from that peculiar and rather specific form of insecurity common among authors. Those books are quite great. I know how you feel, though.
Grant Jerkins: It’s a dangerous game to play with yourself. And those covers they slapped on were damn fine covers. But the quality, the money, that they invested in the graphics, speaks directly to the widget mentality. Berkley wanted complete control over what was on the outside. The art, the title, the cover copy. What was on the inside wasn’t of much concern to them. And I’m afraid that speaks to an even larger truth. That titles and cover art are what sell books. At least for the short term. And they know that. That’s where they focus their energy.
And also, it’s possible I fell victim to the downward sales spiral that so many new authors get caught in. I don’t remember the term for it, but it works like this: If a bookstore orders 10 copies of your first novel and sells 7 of those copies—that’s a huge success. But when your second novel comes out, the store looks at their records and sees they sold 7 copies of your first book, so they order to net—7 copies. If they sell 4 copies of those 7, then they only order 4 of your next one. You’re caught in a downward spiral.
Jason Bovberg: Did you have a three-book contract?
Grant Jerkins: Not a three-book contract. One at a time. Each was submitted and vetted individually.
Grant Jerkins: I would like to believe that what happened with my second and third books for Berkley was a failure of promotion. What I noticed was that both those books got first-rate covers and cover copy, but the publicists assigned to publicize them were progressively less experienced than the one who handled A Very Simple Crime. The second publicist just seemed very by-the-numbers. It was clear that she had her eye on the next book coming down the assembly line and wanted to check mine off her to-do list. The third publicist was just abysmal.
Berkley turned their nose up at little things that would have been easy to do. For instance, when the second book was about to be released, I suggested that we promote it by selling the Kindle version of A Very Simple Crime for 99 cents. Their response was no, and a few weeks later they raised the ebook price from $9.99 to $11.99. Guess what effect that had on sales?
Jason Bovberg: Sigh. So when you perceived that Berkley wouldn’t be giving your subsequent books much marketing attention, was there a growing feeling that you needed to get out there on your own to push your books? How have your own feelings about self-marketing evolved, if at all? Did Berkley arrange any events, or were those set up by you?
Grant Jerkins: As far as setting up promotional events for me, yes, to a degree. I certainly never went “on tour.” Nothing like that, ever. It was more along the lines of setting up an guest post on somebody’s blog. (The most inappropriate of which was when I guest hosted on the “Romance Bandits” community website and answered questions all day. You have to remember, Berkley Prime Crime publishes cozies almost exclusively, so the marketing people didn’t quite know what to do with me.)
With self-marketing, I enjoy doing things like this. Interviews. I have my own website (set up, paid for, and designed by me). And of course, Lord Satan. I get a little boost from him. I’m on Facebook. Twitter. I’m socially awkward, so I don’t do nearly as much as I see others doing. But I try. (I was kidding about Twitter.)
Jason Bovberg: (laughing) Now we come to the brick wall, I guess. I know you had a fourth book written and in house with Berkley.
Grant Jerkins: Right, when I turned in my fourth manuscript, Abnormal Man, I hit a wall. My editor found the book to be “brilliant,” but more importantly, too dark, with no one to root for, and pretty distasteful. The irony was that the ubiquitous comment that accompanied all the rejections of A Very Simple Crime was that it was too dark and there were no rootable characters. And so now, the woman who had accepted and published my too-dark novel, was saying this one was too much, too dark. I’d crossed even her threshold of offense.
So they rejected what would have been my fourth novel. And that of course was the beginning of the end. My widget didn’t fit the opening in their assembly line. My widget wasn’t rootable.
Jason Bovberg: And what did you feel in that moment?
Grant Jerkins: Even though I knew they were mishandling the marketing, I wasn’t really looking elsewhere or trying to get out. I mean, the world is teeming with writers. You know that. And most of those writers would change places with me in a heartbeat. Comparatively, I was in an enviable position. After so many years of struggle, I still felt lucky to be where I was. I wasn’t willing to give up my bird in the hand.
Jason Bovberg: You say you weren’t really looking elsewhere or trying to get out of Berkley. So what were your thoughts after three books there, and suddenly you have a book they don’t want to publish? Was your only option to try again with a new manuscript, if you wanted another book with them?
Grant Jerkins: The editor made the objections I mentioned, but instead of simply passing on the book, she suggested I withdraw it from submission. In effect, they never officially rejected it. Kind of like asking for a resignation rather than firing an employee. So, the natural question to that is, why? Why ask me to withdraw it rather than formally rejecting it?
The answer is that each book contract I signed contained a clause that gave Berkley “first look” rights to whatever my next novel might be. In other words, I couldn’t submit a manuscript to any other publishers until after I’d let Berkley look at it first. Exclusively. They could then either make an offer or reject it. So, because they never officially rejected Abnormal Man, I remained obligated to send them my next book. They went on and on about how much they valued me as a writer and wanted to build my career. Okay fine. A year or so later, I turned in Done In One. They rejected it. Flat out. I didn’t even get so much as an “it was nice working with you” email from the editor. So much for building my career. The widget industry can be quite brutal.
Jason Bovberg: Abnormal Man sounds fascinating, by the way. Did you pursue publication of that elsewhere? Are you still shopping it around?
Grant Jerkins: I’ve been trying to place that manuscript for some time. So far, there’ve been no takers. Abnormal Man is about a teenage outcast—a pyrophyliac (gets off on fire)—who befriends a one-legged parolee with an explosive personality disorder. After some pretty bad shit goes down, they run away together and hook up with the pedophile who raised the parolee when he was a boy. The three of them kidnap a little girl. And the whole thing is sort of set up like a 19th century medical textbook on criminality. And it’s written in the second person. So, you can probably see why it’s been a bit of a hard sell. At this point, I would love to find a small publisher who gets it and wants to put it out there.
Jason Bovberg: Sounds excellent. If I was still running Dark Highway Press, I’d jump at it. But this sounds like the right point to talk about Thomas Dunne, which will be publishing your next book, Done In One. Did you show them Abnormal Man?
Grant Jerkins: When Thomas Dunne purchased Done In One, the acquiring editor actually wanted it to be a two-book deal, with the second book being Abnormal Man. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out. But it’s still a possibility.
So far, the folks at Thomas Dunne have been stellar. My editor there is Peter Joseph, and I have to say that he has had wonderful ideas and worked closely with me (and co-writer Jan Thomas) to make Done In One significantly better. I’m truly grateful to be working with him. We’re still many months away from publication, but I feel lucky to be where I am. I have the sense that Thomas Dunne genuinely cares about publishing high-quality books.
Jason Bovberg: When will we be able to read Done In One? And can you talk a little about the co-writing experience?
Grant Jerkins: Done In One will be out early in 2015. It feels like a new beginning because I’m working with the new publisher, a new editor, and also because this is the first novel I’ve written with a co-writer. I wrote it with Jan Thomas. Jan is a screenwriter, and she also happens to be married to a police sniper. Done In One is largely built around idea of what life might look like for someone who kills people for a living. The mental toll of that. What does this person’s life look like? And we’ve got a pretty good thriller plot to showcase that. I don’t think there’s ever been a novel that gets into the grim reality of this specialized aspect of police work, and I was just drawn to the dark psychology of it. I really hope people like it.
Jason Bovberg: Sounds fantastic. Can’t wait. Okay, so any final thoughts? This has been an excellent interview and a candid look at the publishing industry. I’m glad fortunes are turning your way again, and I’m confident about your future success. What else does the future hold?
Grant Jerkins: Well, I’ve rediscovered my passion for short fiction. I’ve really been finding a lot of satisfaction with that form. Freedom to let my mind go in any direction it pleases. So here I am at age 48, and I’ve only just now managed to write publishable short stories. The first of these is a long story called “Eula Shook” that’s available online at the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
Jason Bovberg: Thanks for all your time, Grant! I’ll look forward to Done In One, and whatever else you have in store for us!
Grant Jerkins: Thanks Jason. I’m grateful to you.