Unspeakable Acts (Upstart Press, September), by Walker Meade, explores the darker side of compassion when a small-town doctor makes a grisly and shocking discovery. But it's the doctor's fateful reaction that changes the lives of everyone involved. Meade worked for 10 years as president and editor in chief of Avon Books before retiring in 1985.
Walker Meade sums up his arduous journey to publication quite simply: "It's been a long haul, kid."
And so it has. On Sept. 20—his 71st birthday—Meade's first book, Unspeakable Acts, was published. Though he spent most of his career in publishing—before Avon Books, he worked as the managing editor for Reader's Digest Book Club and later for Cosmopolitan—Meade says the idea of getting his own book published filled him with dread.
"This experience is so full of peril for a writer," he says. "When I was in publishing, there was so much liquidity in staff—people would move so much, and you'd find an editor you really liked, and then you'd lose him or her to another house."
Several years ago, Meade was on the receiving end of this liquidity when an editor with a major house expressed interest in one of the author's four prior novels. Unfortunately, the editor quit before anything was finalized, and the book was never published.
For Unspeakable Acts, however, Meade found the personal attention he wanted in Paul Harris, publisher of the independent Upstart Press.
"Paul's extremely attentive, and he's very energetic," he says. "That's why I'm interested in the smaller publishing houses—they do it out of love, out of a devotion to the book."
It's Meade's innate respect for such devotion that also drives his writing. Even when he doesn't have a story idea, he just writes whatever comes to mind. In fact, it's this seemingly random process that prompted him to start Unspeakable Acts three years ago.
"When I wrote the first sentence, I didn't even know that it was a doctor speaking—I thought it was a reporter," he says. "Very quickly, though, the narrator emerged and one thing led to another. I didn't know where it would end, or even exactly where it began.
"But I think that when you're working on the first draft, the story is buried in the language itself, so one word may lead you to the next thought, and the next thought."
Completing the novel also took a little help from a willing listener. Each evening, Meade read the day's 10 to 15 pages aloud, feeling for the rhythm of his words and taking in suggestions from his friend Michael.
"I'd watch his eyes glaze over sometimes and think, 'Oh God, is it that boring,'" he says. "But I'd read to him because he's a completely fearless critic."
Now close to finishing his next novel, Meade says he draws his dedication from the fabric of his existence.
"In large measure, you do this work because you need to do it ... you're inventing material that makes your experience somehow both accessible to you and reasonable to you so that you understand where you have been in your life."