Sunday, May 15, 2016

How Writing Found Me: a Fathers and Sons Story

Last evening I delivered a talk to the Upper Hudson Phi Beta Kappa society, a collection of some very talented individuals whose goal, in part, is to support the advancement of college and university-bound students. My talk was originally to be centered around my search for the authentic in many different parts of the world, and then transcribing that authenticity onto the page. But instead, when preparing the talk, I found myself instead drawn to the subject of how I came to be a writer, and how difficult if not impossible it was for me to separate myself from a family business that was supposed to be handed down to me by my father, just like it was handed down to him (in a manner of speaking) by his father.

I'm also considering writing a memoir for writers and would-be writers based in part around the subject of this talk. 

Here's the talk in its entirety (Please excuse any typos or parenthetical interjections):

The old joke goes something like this: Three men are seated at a bar sipping on mugs of beer. Suddenly, just to break the silence, one of the men puts his beer down and says, "I'm a stockbroker. This year I'll bring in around nine hundred thousand dollars." The second guy perks up, says, "I'm a lawyer. I'm gonna make four hundred K this year, easy." But then the third guys nods, drinks some beer, says, "I'm gonna be lucky to scrape together ten thousand bucks." The other two guys immediately turn to him and say in unison, "What kind of stories do you write?" 

So you can imagine the horror that painted my dad's face when, twenty-plus years ago , I told him I was giving everything up to become a writer. The problem and the horror, didn't stem from my choosing a definite direction in life necessarily (because what parent doesn't want their child to have direction?). The problem stemmed from something different. Something very personal and as ingrained as the veins of rusted iron inside a chunk of granite.
By choosing to be a writer, I was not only about to enter into a career that was financially risky at best, but to make matters worse, I was giving up something that other people my age at the time would have killed for: a successful, long established family construction business.

All of my life up until I was 22 years old had been spent more or less in preparation to enter into a business that my grandfather and father built from the ground up (no  pun), beginning in the mid-1940s. Sure, I had other interests like music, and in particular drumming (I'd been in and out of rock bands since I was fifteen). But I also had taken to photography and writing while still in college. As much as I loved these pursuits, however, it was difficult to take them serious on any level. Because always, I understood that without question, my future…my prescribed place in life…would be standing beside my dad inside his business headquarters in Cohoes, NY.  Which for me meant that, while my friends hopped flights to Europe and Asia immediately upon graduation, I was told to report to work ASAP (I was actually given two weeks off, much of which I spent hiking in the Adirondacks). 

Like the good son, I didn’t argue with my father, nor challenge his wishes, nor toss a monkey wrench in what he considered a very deep financial and emotional investment. But that doesn’t mean I was conflicted over my career predicament from the get go. You see, even though I kept quiet about it, I knew early on that the construction business wasn't for me. Rather, I wasn't suited for it.  
First things first.
The construction business doesn’t require a degree in physics from MIT, but it does require a certain amount of engineering know-how, and engineering know-how takes math skills, of which I had zero. All my life I had trouble passing even the most basic of math courses. That right there should have been a red flag for my dad. But still, he persisted with trying to steer me towards taking over the helm of the Zandri Construction Corp. Although I “technically” had a choice in what path to take in my life’s pursuits, the choice was a very difficult one to make. If I chose not to enter into the business, then I ran the risk not only of disappointing my family, I ran the risk of ending what promised to be a three generation business legacy. Add into the mix a strong Italian heritage and the powerful concept of familia and you get the picture. Think, Godfather meets the Sopranos meets The World According to Garp.

In other words, I basically had no choice.

From the moment I started...and I mean, from the moment I punched my proverbial time card...I was like wet paper bag filled with glum sprinkled with despair. While I had spent many summers working for the business in the field as a laborer, I was now expected to work in the office as a project manager and estimator. My duties pretty much revolved around reading blueprints and trying to determine how much a prospective project would cost (You’ll remember that little math problem). Price a project too high and you risk missing out on the successful low bid. Price a project too low, and risk losing your financial shirt.

Other duties included managing the costs on existing jobs. Also expediting them. Checking up on when the carpeting, doors, and windows would arrive on site. Stuff like that. There was a lot of time spent on the phone asking for lumber prices and delivery dates. For a guy or a gal who’d just graduated Babson College or a similar trade school, whose sole interest in life was building up a business….any kind of business…it could be exciting stuff. Maybe even the most fun you could have with your clothes on. But for me…the dreamer, the would-be Ernest Hemingway or Joseph Conrad, the arm-chair traveler…the work was tedious, and as dry as work could get.

Still, I stuck it out, with the understanding that much like a bad, pre-arranged marriage, I might learn to at least like the job.

A few years went by.
By the time I turned 25, I was a Junior executive in a thriving commercial construction business. I had a house, a company vehicle,  a steady paycheck, a country club membership, one week's paid vacation, the promise of wealth, a new wife and a child on the way (did I mention I'd gotten married at the ripe old age of 24?), and had more stability than anyone could ask for.
But I was suicidal.

Then something happened that changed everything.
I'd seen somewhere that the Albany Times Union newspaper was looking for stringers to cover local high school football games on the weekends. I'd read in one of the many Ernest Hemingway biographies that I'd been devouring in my spare time, that the master started out his writing career as a cub reporter. So naturally I thought, what's good for Papa might just be the right thing for me. It might also be my ticket out of the construction business, at least inevitably.

That late summer and fall I covered every game I could, often times writing the stories in the TU newsroom on a Late Friday night or Saturday afternoon at a frantic pace. I became so proficient at the job I was offered to stay on and write basketball stories in the fall and baseball in the spring. In the meantime, I started freelancing stories on all different types of subjects for several papers. I wrote about fly fishing, bird hunting, honeymooning in Venice, book reviews, you name it. It was after collecting a portfolio of clippings that I started freelancing for some larger magazines like Hudson Valley, Game and Fish Magazine, New York Newsday, and just about any rag that would take a story.

At the same time, I'd also started writing short stories that for the most part were collecting rejections. But every now and then, I would receive an acceptance by a journal the likes of Negative Capability, or Orange County Magazine, or the University of Idaho's, Fugue. When that happened, I would feel myself levitating from the earth, flying as high as a kite with its string snapped off in a wind storm. I'd spend an entire weekend celebrating. I wasn't making a whole lot of money, but I was making something. Suddenly, I was a professional writer and I was building a career that was all my own.

You’re expecting the big BUT here right?

Then Monday morning would arrive.

Since I had a family to support, I was still employed by the Zandri Construction Company. It was a strange existence, because when I was writing, I was so very happy, so very determined, so very inspired, so optimistic about my future. But when I was working in the construction office, I was so horribly sad, depressed, and pessimistic.

There weren't enough hours in the day to do both jobs.

I would wake up at four in the morning to write my stories and then I'd put in an eight hour day or more at the construction office. My dad could see the desperation that was painting my face. Not to mention exhaustion. My coworkers could see it. There was very little peace in my life and I was not easy to be around. Something had to give.

My dad and I started to fight.

He knew how much I was retreating from the business, if not physically then mentally. My mind just wasn't in the game. But then, my head had never been in the game. Our arguments were vicious. My dad, a short but stocky, salt-and-pepper haired intense man, took my retreat personally. But, as it turns out, there was a good reason for that.

My dad, after all, was a gifted musician. A skilled trumpet player who had given up all his hopes and dreams of being full-time performer to take over what had become in the early 1960s, a failing Zandri Construction Corp. from his father.

Although the details of the agreement are sketchy to this day, my father made a promise to his father who, at the time was literally in tears over his ensuing bankruptcy, that he would not only make the business a success once more, but that he would pay back all his debtors. My dad would do whatever it took, even if it meant giving up his own personal dreams to make the most out of his God-given talent. That one decision made by my father in his mid-twenties took strength, conviction, and selflessness.

It also changed the course of his life forever.

But here's the thing: As much as I resembled him, I was not my dad.

And when it came my turn to step up to the plate, so to speak, I could not give up what now had become a dream not only to be a writer and freelance journalist, but to be a full-time novelist. I felt that if I "wrote on the side" as so many people suggested I do, that I would eventually give up the dream, succumb to the enormous demands and responsibilities of the business, grow soft in the middle, hard in the arteries, and angry, and unhappy with my middle age. In essence, what I foresaw was living a very slow death. Nobody wants to be that guy who looks at himself in the mirror at sixty and whisper, "I should have stuck to my guns. I should have lived my life while I had the chance."

So the day came finally, when I decided to make the official announcement to my dad, while he stood over a blueprint inside his corner office. "Dad,” I said, “I'm going to become a writer."

“Good luck with that,” he said. But the look on his face said, “Rest in peace.”

I applied to writing school and in late 1994 I was accepted to the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College. It was while writing and reading for two straight years that I came up with my first novel. The book that would become As Catch Can or, in its most recent form, The Innocent. That book would get sold to Delactorte Press less than a year after my graduation from writing school for a quarter of a million dollars.

That deal, which was touted in Publishers Weekly among other publications, hit my family with all the subtly of a major seismic event. I was thirty three years old. I now had money in my pocket, some pre-publication notoriety, the promise of a stellar bestselling series, and even reads from major film production companies and talent like Dreamworks, Robert DeNiro, and George Clooney. My dream was finally becoming real. I had also achieved something else. Validation. Not only for my writing, but for my convictions.

Ironically, the first person to congratulate me was my dad.

I still remember the smile on his face when I first told him about the deal. He laughed and then he told me something I'll never forget. He said, you and I fought because you assumed I wanted you to stay in the construction business. But that's not what it was all about. I just wanted to make sure you were able to make a living for you and your family. I took him at his word, but there was a little salt to be tossed onto his sentiment.

 Of course, as successful as that first deal was, there were to be many more trials and tribulations to come. A first divorce, contracts that went unfulfilled, depleted bank accounts. But also, wonderful things too. Many of my books would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. I was able to become a freelance foreign correspondent for RT and other news services. Work that took me to Africa, Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, the Middle East, Asia, ... so many places I've lost count. I've seen the sun rise on Machu Picchu and I've seen the sun set on the pyramids in Giza. I've hiked the Amazon jungle, been bitten by piranha,  and nearly drowned last year in the Ganges. I'm able to live in Florence, Italy for part of the year and I support it all, not with paychecks from the construction company, but with royalties from my twenty-plus in-print novels.

When I started writing those first football stories for the Times Union newspaper all those years ago, I never would have dreamed that I would hit the New York Times, or USA Today bestseller lists, or that I would nail the overall No. 1 spot on the Amazon Kindle Bestseller list. I never thought for a moment I would win the ITW Thriller Award or the PWA Shamus award for the best paperback original with Moonlight Weeps.  I just wanted the chance to make a living as a writer no matter how humble.  I wanted to go my own way, forge my own path. To have a life of adventure outside of a construction office in Cohoes, New York. To be thrilled by a life that's admittedly unstable, but far more gratifying. So gratifying in fact, that even now, at 51 years old, I feel younger than I did when I felt I had no choice but to step foot into the construction office each and every morning.  

My dad stayed with his business long after I left, working seven days a week, sometimes ten or eleven hours a day even into his mid-seventies. While our relationship was strained over the years because of my career decisions, we eventually became friends again and I think he enjoyed seeing me off on my adventures. He'd often tell me to stay vigilant or to watch my back, especially if I was entering into a country that was particularly unstable at the moment.

I recall our last phone conversation together. It was well after work hours, but he was calling me from the office after everyone had gone home. He was more than a little stressed out over a job he was working on in Troy, and the hard time the architects were giving him. Young, up and coming architects schooled in contracts, digital know-how, and a particular brand of 21st century business savvy that was as far away from my dad’s philosophy of doing business with a handshake than Portland, Maine is from Portland, Oregon.   

He knew he was going to lose money on the project but that wasn't the point. They were insulting his integrity and that's what hurt the most.

"How are you doing?" he asked. "How's the new publisher?"

You see, I'd just signed a new five book deal at the time with Thomas & Mercer and it was for very good money. "Did they pay you yet?" my dad pressed. Always the worrier, he was forever looking out for my well-being.

I remember laughing and telling him that yes, I had been paid and what a joy T&M were to work with as opposed to Delactore of Dell. He also asked me about my second wife Laura. We'd become estranged over the years and divorced, but had been talking again as of late. "You two aren't done," he said. "I just know it."

“Time will tell,” I said.

We hung up then, and I never spoke with him again. The next morning he died of a heart attack while putting his work boots on.

But I can still recall the last time I saw him in person before he died. I remembered seeing something in his tired eyes. I can't quite explain it, but it was a look that exuded both pride in my achievements, and a kind of sadness. A sadness that told me maybe he too could have followed his dreams. That had he chosen to do so, his life might have turned out differently. But much like the writing life chose me whether I liked it or not, I think he felt deep down that the construction business snatched him up in its claws, for better or worse.  

My dad died a successful man, but I'm going to be perfectly honest: I’m not sure how happy he was when death struck him so very suddenly that bright December day. Even at 76 he still bore a tremendous weight on his narrow shoulders. The responsibility of carrying on the family legacy, even long after his own father had passed away.

But you see, my dad was a man of integrity. The kind of man we see less and less of in this new 21st century. When he made a promise, he kept it. Even with his dying breath. And now, I no longer recall our butting heads, or arguing over my path in life. Instead, I thank him for all the lessons he taught me about being a success not as a writer necessarily, but at whatever path I chose.



  1. Great talk Vince, and inspirational as always. Carry on my friend. You inspire many of us.

  2. Curious linkages Vin. My dad has run his own family construction company since the late 1960's. He had five boys and did not expect any of us to take over. My dad knew how tough the work was and so did we having worked throughout high school and college years with him. When he found out I wanted to be a writer, while still in high school he encouraged the hell out of me. Dad turned 69 this April and still tinkers with construction but mostly makes furniture now. He has read many of my novels and is grateful I went that route.

    1. Wow, Bryan, I had no idea you were a construction man too at one time. So now you get it when some old crusty mason says, "You don't mix concrete with water. You mix it with sweat."

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  3. Yeah, but I put in a lot of basements and without the water there is no sweat! LOL!

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  5. Vince your blog is wonderful! I'm just starting to look around here -- wow, you have so much useful, thoughtful information. Thanks and God bless!

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  6. I know this story all too well. My dad wanted so much for me, and to see him in his later years worried about my future still stings today, but I didn't have a choice. I was born to write and it will provide for me when I need it the most. Just wish my dad understood before he passed.

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