Selden Edwards

The publication of Selden Edwards' rich, thoughtful and clever novel, "The Little Book," comes very close to fairy tale.

Edwards, now 67, was formerly an English teacher and headmaster at several private schools around the country. He began writing this book in 1974. It's about a rock star named Wheeler Burden, who surprisingly finds himself in Vienna in 1897.

The story weaves back and forth in time as the author adds other characters, including actual historical ones, such as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, composer Gustave Mahler and singer Buddy Holly. Loosely, the story is inspired by Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning as a bug — with no explanation.

Burden finds himself in a strange land that he has studied in school, wearing odd clothes and having no visible means of support. He has to make friends, find a place to stay and figure out how to make a living. It is a huge challenge.

Edwards refers to it as a "Freudian novel," reflecting his own interest in psychology, mythology and psychotherapy. Edwards now happily refers to himself as "a late bloomer" who worked on one novel for 30 years, then finally saw it published to rave reviews by such famed writers as Richard Ford and Pat Conroy.

"I got my first job teaching English in 1963," recalled Edwards during a phone interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., "and five years later I got the bug for writing. I took the pledge in 1968 and started writing pretty regularly during vacations and free time."

He began with short stories, which he sent to prospective publishers who punctured his dreams by rejecting every one. He sent novel proposals, too, and they were also rejected. While a graduate student in education at Stanford University, he sent out more manuscripts, only to see them all summarily rejected.

"When you get rejected, it makes you feel like a manic-depressive. I would get excited about a manuscript and then when it was rejected I would think it was terrible." But he never gave up the original idea for the novel about Wheeler Burden.

"It was on my mind most of the time," said Edwards. "I considered various characters and plot twists over and over. As life intruded on my work, I put in more ideas based on my own life. I think the novel got deeper and richer as time passed. I got no encouragement at all from anyone."

In 1982, he put the manuscript on a personal computer for the first time, making "a huge difference" in his ability to rewrite. Prior to that, he had typed everything over and over on a small typewriter.

In his early 60s, Edwards retired from headmastering and jumped on his novel full time. "I wanted to give it one last shot. I had the novel on three different computers, so I got a huge binder and started putting stuff into it. Then I reread everything I'd written and started whacking away at it. I studied how to market a novel. Then I sent it out again, and it was rejected nine times. Only one time did an agent ask to see the whole thing, and he rejected it without any personal comment at all."

Then something happened. He found a freelance editor in New York who worked with him on the manuscript for a year, editing it and refining it. After that, Edwards met an agent who was interested in the work — and he knew an editor at Dutton. Edwards sent the manuscript to him on a Tuesday and it was accepted for publication on a Friday.

"It was like finally being called up to be shortstop for the Yankees," said Edwards. "I'm very happy right now, because I have my own published novel. I have a great wife and family. I've had a great career. If I had had early success in my writing I might have had a very different career path. But if the manuscript was accepted in the 1970s, there is no way it would have been as compelling and rich as I think it is now. It reads so smoothly now. All the hiccups are gone."

Thirty years of living life and reading numerous books on many subjects has "seasoned" his book, said Edwards. "There is no way I could write the stuff I used to write in my late 20s. Early on, my wife said, 'The gods didn't give it to you until you didn't need it.' You can look at it on many different levels. It's easy to say now, but I'm pretty happy the way it happened."

Edwards concedes that there were many times when his wife found him distracted. That's because he never stopped carrying the plot and characters around in his brain. "But I never took a note during the entire 30 years. I just kept it in my head, but I kept adding to it and refining it, and I knew I wouldn't forget it before I could write it down," said Edwards.

He would develop a "new wrinkle" in his mind, then work and rework it until it was "a part of the fabric of the story." When it occurred to Edwards, for instance, that the woman Burden falls in love with in Vienna in the late 19th century is actually his own grandmother from the 20th century, he knew he had something good.

"By the time I wrote it down, it made perfect sense to me. Fiction has to have the ring of truth, based somehow on the real world. My fantasy life in this case turned into the book. I could do a footnoted version that would be four times as long as the novel itself, and almost all of it comes from some part of my life," said Edwards.

Although some critics have already predicted "The Little Book" will become famous, perhaps even a classic, Edwards remains humble. "My fantasy life has always been grandiose," he said. "I've seen myself getting an Academy Award or a Noble Prize in fantasy, but I really can't get my mind around it now."

Edwards has already gotten a second novel proposal accepted by Dutton — and he is pretty sure this one will not take 30 more years.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com