Whenever someone asks me: How did you get published? I always answer: My father. Not that he published me --- though I’m sure he’d have loved to, if he could --- but because he was the first person in my life who believed my writing could be published.
Most writers, if asked, will tell you that we’ve been writing since we were old enough to hold a pen. Most of us can’t stop. We’re more than obsessed: we are addicted. But few of us start out thinking: “One day, I’ll be published.” I never believed publication was even a possibility. Since I was a boy, I’d written stories. During high school and in college, I continued to write. But my career choices didn’t involve writing. It just never occurred to me that I might earn a living with my words.
I’d always loved historical fiction, as my father knew. Every year on my birthday, he’d give me a historical novel. He wasn’t a historical fiction kind of guy; he liked spy thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum. But he’d always take the time to find a book he thought I’d like and thus he introduced me to some of my favorite historical novelists. His gifts also inspired me to start writing what turned out to be my first historical novel.
I wrote every night after work, on loose sheets of paper. The personal computer market was still in its infancy and I wasn’t much of a typist, though we had computers at work. My father, however, was an internationally renowned architect, so he had a dual passion for science and art, and he was fascinated by computers. One day he showed up at my apartment with a heavy plastic case that looked like a sewing machine. “I know you write long-hand,” he said, glancing at my desk, where papers and a small pyramid of empty white-out bottles were piled up. “I think you need a better system.” Turns out, that plastic box was a personal computer he’d rigged up for me; by turning it on its side, you could pop out the bottom and it was the keyboard. The screen was built in. It used big floppy disks. The text was glowing green. My father said, “Now you can put your work somewhere it won’t get lost. And maybe, when you’re done, you’ll let me read it.”
I took to the machine quickly, though to this day I still type with one hand. No more finger-cramps, ink stains or massive expenditure on correction fluid. I could arrange and edit my words at will. I wrote like a madman. Then I printed out the pages and fell in love with how all those words looked, lined up in precise paragraphs.
My father kept asking about the book. Finally, I gave him the manuscript. I was very nervous. He took the pages home with him and an entire week went by before he called and said, “I couldn’t stop reading. And I don’t even like this stuff. This is your talent. You should find an agent so you can get published.” Of course, I didn’t know the first thing about finding an agent, but because of his encouragement I set out to learn. Nearly fourteen years would pass until, after much trial and error, two of my historical novels sold at auction to Random House.
My father never saw my first published book. He designed beautiful buildings and a park in San Francisco before he died unexpectedly after my twenty-ninth birthday. But he is the reason my books exist. Without him, I might never have had the courage to pursue being an author. He changed the course of my life.
On this Father’s Day, I wish to salute my dad, Willis Always Gortner II. I miss him every day.