If you’re known for your work in a particular genre, publishing a book that goes in an entirely different direction can be a chore. Here, Tim Wendel offers tips for approaching the challenge.
By Tim Wendel
I knew I had my work cut out for me when I began Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia. First, the book was unlike anything else I had ever written before.
After all, I was known for award-winning sports books, often about baseball, and occasionally historical fiction. Nothing had prepared me for looking through clinical reports and talking about medical procedures with the top doctors and nurses in their fields.
Thankfully, I’ve learned how to talk to people over the years and, more important, to listen to what they have to say. If anything, I’m willing to become captivated by “the mad ones,” as Jack Kerouac once wrote, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time …” In the story of childhood leukemia, this small group of doctors and nurses were the mad ones, the ones who dared to take on a shape-shifter of a disease and somehow carry the day.
“You’re doing it again,” a good friend told me early in the research. “Investigating a group of underdogs and how they came together. How they overcame great odds.”
His comment reassured me that publishing a book on a new topic was the right move early in the Cancer Crossings process. I had been fortunate to write about many memorable teams during my writing career. My first book, “Going for the Gold,” was about the 1980 Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid. I’ve also detailed the accomplishments of the 1968 Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals in the “Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever,” as well as the “worst to first” Minnesota Twins, the rise of Latinos in the national pastime, and the star-crossed tale of the Buffalo Braves, the best team the National Basketball Association let slip away.
I soon discovered none of these teams was as close-knit and as resilient as the doctors and nurses I was now interviewing. For they dared to take on acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cruel disease that once had a life expectancy of 12 to 18 months. In the mid-1960s, when my brother Eric was diagnosed, the pediatric handbook only had a few pages about the disease, advising medical personnel to keep the patient as comfortable as possible because he or she would soon die.
Against such odds, these doctors banded together, deploying a growing array of chemotherapy drugs, building the blood centrifuge machine and solving the riddle of moving medications past the blood-brain barrier. For their efforts, they were criticized early on by their peers in the medical community. Many considered their treatments too hard on their young patients. Killers, poison pushers, misfits and cowboys were just a few of the names directed their way.
Despite such resistance, these doctors and nurses took a disease with a 10 percent survival rate to a 90 percent rate today. In recent years, there’s been talk about the need for “a cancer moonshot.” Actually, we’ve already had one. It occurred a half-century ago and perhaps more forms of cancer can be stymied, if not cured, by studying the so-called cancer cowboys.
OK, that made for a good start, a fine elevator speech. But I soon realized that many thought this project to be too far removed from my previous work. Publishers in New York passed on the initial cancer doctors proposal. Several said to contact them when I had another sports book in mind.
No matter how varied we try to make a career, how much we try to think outside the box, the marketplace will seek to pigeonhole us. Being an award-winning, best-selling author is what we strive for. But every honor and healthy check can result in publishers simply wanting more of the same. I first ran into this roadblock when I tried my hand at fiction almost 20 years ago. I parted ways with a high-powered New York agent over my change in direction and went several years without much to show for the effort. Yet my novel “Castro’s Curveball” was eventually published by Random House and it has been optioned to the movies several times.
Realizing I faced a similar predicament with my cancer project, I turned to a university press. The advances from such houses are low four figures. When discussions began with Cornell University, my agent shifted to an advisory role. She wouldn’t take the customary 15 percent because there wasn’t enough on the table.
The best we can do as writers is to try to find the right fit or home for our books. Early on, I realized that I had fallen with a great group of editors with Cornell. Amazingly, this turned out to be the best place for my book. My new editors raised a lot of issues, made many great suggestions. So many that I did six revisions of “Cancer Crossings” in one summer.
Those discussions and rewrites transformed the book into a memoir, even though none of us realized that was direction we were headed early on. Additions and clarifications were requested throughout the manuscript. Could I add a few more lines or another paragraph about my family, the sailing trips we went on across Lake Ontario or how I felt about being the big brother of six siblings? In doing so, we soon saw that this was becoming more of a memoir than a straight retelling of a medical miracle.
That said, one needs help when shifting gears in writing. It often depends upon the company you keep and how much they’re willing to lend a hand. When I started to write “Castro’s Curveball,” I was advised by such great teachers as Oakley Hall, Carolyn Doty, Alan Cheuse and Nick Delbanco.
This time around, the cancer doctors and nurses, most of whom were now in their late ’80s or early ’90s, couldn’t have more generous with their time. The late James Holland spoke with me at the end of his shift at Mount Sinai and Donald Pinkel, who founded St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, sent along papers about everything from chicken pox to chemotherapy sequencing.
In researching any book, there are moments when the clouds briefly part and we can see our destination in the distance. We gain the insights to see what our story can truly be.
When I was researching “Summer of ’68,” I spoke with Jon Warden, who was a rookie pitcher on the 1968 world champions. He wasn’t one of the stars on that ballclub and I didn’t expect much going into the interview. But when he began to talk about coming to Detroit, seeing a mighty city teetering on the precipice after the destructive riots the summer before, I realized that the book was about much more than baseball.
With “Cancer Crossings,” one of the key epiphanies occurred during one of my lunches with Lucius Sinks, the leading pediatrician at Roswell Park in Buffalo, where my brother was treated. I was struggling with the medical terminology and the myriad of drugs involved – methotrexate, 6-MP, cyclophosphamide, daunomycin, etc.
“I feel like I’m lost in the tall grass with it all,” I told Sinks.
A week later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail from Sinks. At one of our previous meetings, I had given him what I had of Eric’s medical records. Despite huge gaps in the information, Sinks was able to put together a three-page chart detailing all my brother’s medicines and treatments.
I spread the pages out on my desk, seeing the overall progression, the narrative thread, for the first time. How those first dosages of vincristine and prednisone in spring 1966 led to the methotrexate via IV and then the 6-MP and so forth and so on. Sinks brought this all together to form one horizontal line, moving left to right across the page, with vertical lines marking the times when Eric technically fell into remission or relapsed.
I gazed on the pages and began to understand how it could all fit together. For the first time, I felt I could write it.
Tim Wendel is the author of 13 books, including Summer of ’68, Castro’s Curveball and High Heat, which was an Editor’s Choice selection by The New York Times Book Review, and his upcoming memoir CANCER CROSSINGS: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia (Cornell University Press, April 2018). His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Gargoyle, The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. He’s a writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches nonfiction and fiction. For more information, www.timwendel.com
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