Sometimes it worries me that my writing of fiction is so much more muse-dependent than my history. I never know when the muse might go off on vacation, and when she is on duty I have no idea how she works. Thus it was reassuring to me that the story of FINAL REFUGE honest-to-God came to me in a dream. I can’t tell you the dream here without spoiling the book, but I awoke in the wee hours of the morning in a cold sweat after a scarifying nightmare, sketched the scene and knew I had to construct a story to get there.
I told my then-agent about the experience and he asked how he should pitch it. Having seen Robert Altman’s wonderful film The Player, I knew about pitches and I knew that, for instance, Gene Roddenberry got nowhere trying to sell “Star Trek” until he thought to pitch it as, “It’s ‘Wagon Train’ in Outer Space.” Having already considered a pitch, I answered, “It’s ‘Die Hard’ in the Zoo.” On the surface the story is about running a wildlife park, but the subtext is the struggle to save endangered species from extinction.
The book did not sell well. Perhaps it was that most of my following was in Western history, perhaps it was that I obeyed the publisher’s 85,000 word limit when the story needed at least half again more, or perhaps it just sucked. But it didn’t sell.
After a long wait, however, I enjoyed sweet vindication. In 2003, when SAM HOUSTON won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, I flew to Helena, Montana, to collect it. One evening there was a big book-signing event, with a long table of writers down the middle of Helena’s mall, and locals walked by, trolling for titles. One middle-aged gentleman looked at me, looked at Sam Houston, and walked on, and I thought that’s fine, you’re not necessary to my happiness.
Then he turned and came back. Hesitantly he asked, “Are you the guy, some years ago you wrote a novel about rhinos getting shot in zoos or something?”
I said, “Good Lord, that book was seen by about thirty people. Where on earth did you see it?”
He said his wife was an animal trainer, and made a hobby of finding obscure animal stories. He said, “She was so upset by it she put it down several times, but she finally finished it and it’s her favorite book in the whole world!” He shook my hand fervently. “She’s gonna be so happy I met you!” and he went on his way rejoicing.
That night at the banquet I told a friend of mine about this, and the lady sitting between us looked at me like I’d hit her. She said, “You wrote that book?” Her daughter was a vet in Virginia, and it was HER favorite book.
I am a cult novelist! Who knew? Of course, it might be a cult of two, but you got to start somewhere.
New York Times: "Smooth and passionate."
Booklist: "Enormously compelling ... wonderful ... you can’t ask any more of a novel than this."
©2016 James L. Haley All rights reserved