Rick Treon is the author of four novels, including the award-winning thriller Deep Background and Let the Guilty Pay, which was nominated for the 2021 Silver Falchion Award for Best Suspense Novel. He lives and writes in Texas. To learn more, visit ricktreon.com
My name is Rick, and I’m 35. My third and fourth novels were released earlier this year by small, traditional presses. My second novel, released during the hellscape that was 2020, was named a finalist for the highly regarded Silver Falchion Award last month. And all of this comes after my debut thriller won a small-press award back in 2019.
By almost anyone’s metric, these facts translate to success in publishing.
And yet, as I type this, I have no fixed address.
That’s not to say I’m homeless. I am, however, writing under a roof for which I pay neither a mortgage nor rent. The internet I used to upload this post is financed not by my own labor, and the phone I’ll use to respond to the social media comments about this post was supplied by one of the many people in my life who support me. I have small mail sent to my parents’ house an hour away and larger parcels shipped to my sister across town.
Before I go any further, let me be unequivocal: This is not a woe-is-me post.
If anything, I’m writing from a position of extreme privilege. The aforementioned roof and internet? Provided gratis by my employer as part of a “house-sitting” gig because my position doesn’t currently pay enough to cover my monthly expenses and rent (I did just pay off my car note, which helps, but not enough). The cellphone comes courtesy of my parents, who encouraged me when I decided to leave a career in newspapers after achieving the highest-possible position in two newsrooms, then housed and fed me during the pandemic.
Before 2020, I was making enough money to service my debt by helping my friend at his job. My position was called welder’s helper — no joke — and I was literally helping my friend out on oil pipeline jobs in Oklahoma and West Texas. I then worked for the Census (possibly the subject of my next post), perhaps one of two or three jobs I’ve ever gotten without knowing a manager with hiring authority.
And when this house-sitting job is up? I have a sister, a friend, and a mentor who’ve all offered up rooms or full condos for me to annex until my minimum payments are low enough to afford rent and still pay down my debt, most of which is rolled up in student loans and long-ago medical bills — plus the credit cards I used to buy groceries between jobs.
Now, I could have stayed out on the pipeline (though at 35 I’m already a little long in the tooth for the non-skilled labor jobs on those sites) or found a job at Whataburger that could land me financial independence. But I’d rather write and edit all day, and I have loved ones who allowed me to make that a life choice.
But my various benefactors — including my boss at the day job — believe in me and my writing, and they want me to go as far as I can in this industry. Some think I’ll be the next Grisham. Those in the industry have more achievable, low-six-figure goals.
And they’re willing to compensate for the low four-figures I currently generate while I ride book publishing until it bucks me.
My story is far from unique. Nearly every author whose novels you’ve consumed have had people come to their aid and allow them the time and financial freedom to write fiction (non-fiction is a whole different financial game). We often read about the notable exceptions, such as S.A. Cosby or Georgina Cross (if you don’t know her, you will soon). Those authors worked hard and wrote on the side until they caught their breaks.
More exemplary of the book publishing industry is Adrian McKinty, the award-winning novelist who’d left the business to support his family until fellow author Don Winslow and his agent teamed up as White Knight investors in McKinty’s dream to write the book of his dreams, The Chain.
Still, even that is on the extremes of the author bell curve. Most are like me, with family or spouses who are willing to defray the cost of living while they chase their literary version of Alan Jackson’s honky tonk dream. Or they’ve retired from jobs that provided adequate 401(k) plans.
Most of my friends romanticize this journey I’m on. To them, I’m either famous (I’m not) or I’m a starving artist. Also not true. I could either be starving or an artist, but certainly not both at the same time.
They have these images because popular media never spotlights us. They also see me this way because authors rarely talk about the gifts we receive in pursuit of our version of the American Dream, which doesn’t remotely resemble those of my parents or most of my friends.
Some will call me a mooch, while others may choose deadbeat or societal leech.
I call it achieving my goals by any means necessary.
And I’m finally OK with that.