By Elizabeth Christopher
Calvin Hennick’s debut memoir, Once More to the Rodeo, won the Pushcart’s 2019 Editors’ Book Award and was published in December 2019 by Pushcart Press. The book follows the author and his 5-year-old son, Nile, on a road trip from Massachusetts to the annual rodeo in Hennick’s Iowa hometown, as he grapples with his uncertainty as a father both as a white man raising a bi-racial son and as a son wounded by his caregivers. I spoke to Hennick in March 2020 for this final post of the three-part series, The Many Paths to Publishing. Here is an edited version of our interview:
Q: Can you talk a little about your writing background and how your book came to be?
A: I’ve been working as a freelance business and technology writer since 2006. In 2012 I received an MFA in fiction from UMass Boston. That’s when I got involved in GrubStreet, teaching and taking classes, and where I joined a writing group called the Chunky Monkeys, which includes authors Celeste Ng and Whitney Scharer. I’m the least famous of the group. Celeste’s book, Little Fires Everywhere, has been turned into a Hulu series.
I knew I wanted to write a book-length project. I had family stuff I wanted to write about and parenting stuff, so I decided to take my son, Nile, on a road trip to my small Iowa hometown and use that as a narrative line to explore those too-big-to-chew questions.
Q: How did you approach turning that road trip into a memoir?
A: I took photos of everything and had a recorder in the car with me. That was the only way to capture the details of such a long trip. When we got home, I spent a lot of time transcribing my recordings. I gave myself a deadline: 14 months. I didn’t want to be working on a book about my 5-year-old son when he was 15. I emailed a 175-page outline to Celeste so she could hold me accountable to my schedule. I often wrote until 4 a.m. and then emailed my writing group, letting them know about the progress I was making.
Q: When did you decide to publish your book?
A: When I felt I wrote the book I wanted to write, I began looking for an agent in the summer of 2017. Summer is a notoriously slow season for publishing, and no one was getting back to me. Finally, an agent emailed me about 5 minutes after she got my query and asked for the first chapter. Then she asked for the first 100 pages. Then the entire manuscript. And then she said she wanted to represent me, so I signed on with her.
And then we struck out.
The book didn’t get any real interest from publishers. To make me feel better, my agent forwarded to me an email she received from an editor at a major publishing house, who said she loved my book. It made her laugh and cry. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get her marketing team behind it.
I licked my wounds for a few months and then decided to query small presses, which I hadn’t considered before because I thought they only published lyrical prose. I also started looking at contests.
The Pushcart Editor’s Award was one of them. Nominated manuscripts needed to be submitted by an editor at a big publishing house who wanted to publish the book but couldn’t. I sent that editor my agent told me about a very humble email about the contest. Eleven minutes later she said she’d love to nominate my book. Twelve days later Bill Henderson, founder of the Pushcart Press, told me he wanted to publish it.
Q: Did you do any promotion before your book launched?
A: Pushcart distributes through W. W. Norton, a big 5 publisher, so I went to Norton’s annual sales meeting before the book launched to meet account representatives. Norton has hundreds of titles, so I wanted to put my face in front of the people in charge of selling my book. It’s good to make those relationships and get on people’s radars.
Also, Pushcart sent out 75 review copies to newspapers and magazines. That’s how it ended up on The Boston Globe’s and Amazon’s radars, and it snowballed from there.
Amazon named Once More to the Rodeo one of the Best 100 Books of the Year and chose it as Amazon’s debut spotlight for December 2019, which was a big surprise. The Washington Post put the book in their gift guide, calling it a “Must Read.” The book was a New York Times “New and Noteworthy” pick. The Boston Globe ran a cover story in its Sunday Magazine, and the book was included in the Massachusetts Book Awards Must Read Long Lists. The book got more attention than I expected coming out of the gate.
Q: Has publishing a book changed you as writer?
It’s a monkey off my back. I’ve been writing seriously since I was 16. A lot of my projects never made it anywhere. It was quite depressing when the book didn’t sell initially. I had that feeling of “what’s the point? Why spend time writing something no one will ever see?” I was in that place for a while, so it was liberating to get that monkey off my back.
But I think people get obsessed with whether they are a real writer or not. It’s an obsession only writers have. People who knit don’t ask, “Am I really a knitter?”
Q: Is there anything you would do differently?
A: I’m not sure I would. I wrote the book I set out to write, and 40 publishers passed on it, but then it was chosen as one of the best books of the year. It’s entirely possible the big publishers were right—I wrote a good book they wouldn’t be able to sell. It’s also possible the book would have sold a lot more if there were a bigger machine behind it. It’s unknowable.
Publishing is not a process with defined inputs and outputs. You can’t say, “I’m going to work really hard and write a book that is really good or is at least the best I can do,” and have that translate into money or attention or publishing success. You have to work on the stuff you feel you have to work on and then put it out into a sometimes indifferent universe and hope for the best, which is tough because you write to be read and published, not for the work to live on your computer.
Good or bad—everything’s on a razor’s edge. I was a hair away from the book still living on my computer. It was going to be the world’s weirdest wedding present for my son one day.
Q: Will you look for an agent for your next book?
A: I probably will because that’s how the industry still works. But I am not looking forward to that process. It’s difficult for writers to navigate the process of figuring out which agents would be a good fit. It’s like hiring a real estate agent. You don’t know anything about real estate—that’s why you are hiring a real estate agent. And because you don’t know anything about real estate, you are not in a good position to hire someone in that field.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m dipping into a few things but they’re so new I don’t want to talk about them yet. But I do feel a certain amount of freedom right now. I don’t have an agent or publishing house depending on my next success. There’s no pressure, so I get to explore things from the same place of play and wonder as I did with my memoir. That’s where good work comes from.