A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Publication





OBLATE_cover_5 (1)(Originally delivered as a talk to the Eastern Shore Writers Association)

I was twenty-two when I received my Master’s degree in creative writing, and I knew I wanted more than anything in the world to be a novelist. Fully aware of just how unlikely and fantastic this ambition was, I decided I would have to be very practical. To research, imagine, and then nurse a successful novel into being, I knew I would have to devote most if not all of my energies to the project. And so it was that, to the consternation of my parents, I embarked upon a life-long pursuit of mindless, low-paying jobs that would keep food in my belly and paper in my printer without taxing my mind to the point I didn’t have anything left over to imagine and create with.

Thirty some-odd years later, I had completed one avant-garde, experimental novel—thankfully unpublished—and one novel I was really quite proud of, The Oblate’s Confession. For two long depressing years, I tried to get The Oblate published … and failed miserably. I received scores of form rejection letters, and the occasional personal note from a publisher who wanted me to know they thought the book excellent, but that it probably wouldn’t be a big money-maker. No one was willing to take it on. Eventually, for my own mental health’s sake as much as anything else, I gave up. I had placed my heart in the scales and the world of commerce had found it wanting. It just hurt too much to go one.

So now what was I to do? At loose ends, and desperate to repay my wife for the ten years she spent supporting me while I wrote The Oblate, I took a job as a part-time shelver at the Talbot County Free Library. And almost immediately, for the first time in my life, discovered myself in a job I actually loved. I began to write about my work at the library, our local paper began to publish what I wrote; I began to work the Circulation Desk, and then the Reference Desk. I was placed in charge of all the library’s publications. For the first time in my life, I had found all the fulfillment and satisfaction I needed not from writing, but from an actual paying job. My parents were happy, my wife was happy, and I was happy. For once I had value. I knew I was doing something important, something that provided a real benefit to my community, something that—like writing—I believed in heart and soul.

Life proceeded along these pleasant lines for several years. Then, one day, I was working at my desk, laying out the next library newsletter or something, when the phone rang. I picked it up and the fellow on the other end of the line said he was from Secant Publishing and that he’d read and liked a poem of mine in The Delmarva Review, and he wondered if I might ever be interested in putting together a full-length book. Needless to say, I immediately told him about The Oblate, and he asked me to send him the manuscript. Within two weeks of that phone call, I’d received a healthy cash advance on my book, and The Oblate’s Confession and I were off and running toward my dream come true: a novel published with my name on it.

It’s been almost two years now since I received that first wonderful phone call from Secant’s Ron Sauder, and I have to tell you it sometimes feels as if I’ve been running ever since. The book has received 4 national awards and is about to receive a 5th (which I can’t tell you about till the organization making the award sends out its official announcement later this month), the initial hardcover edition of 1000 books has almost completely sold out, my publisher brought out the paperback edition in September, and now everyone, including my publisher, is encouraging me to write a second novel. And here’s where we come to the point of tonight’s talk ….

I was asked to speak to you about the preparation and research necessary to write a novel, like The Oblate’s Confession, that’s set in a 7th century Anglo-Saxon monastery. And all that I’ve said so far notwithstanding, I fully intend to do that. I can tell you, it’s a lot of work—the research I mean. I read everything I could get my hands on, all the original source material—Geoffrey of Monmouth, Eddius Stephanus, the Venerable Bede, Cædmon, the Beowulf poet. I travelled to England and met with the top scholar of the period. I read all that he recommended … some of it in Latin. I visited the iron-age reconstruction at Butser Hill, I visited the Weald & Downland Museum, I visited countless archaeological sites. I read books about the plague. I read books about charcoal-makers. I read books about early iron furnaces. I read books about Anglo-Saxon farming practices and burial practices and cooking practices and material culture.

But you know, truth be told, researching the book is the easy part, isn’t it? I mean anyone can do that. The historical information is out there. All you have to do is find it and read it. No, the really hard part, the difference between writing a history and writing an historical novel, is the mysterious process one must undergo to turn history into story, to imagine an entire world into existence, then to write into existence a place and people it with characters who have never existed before and yet, are true to life, believable. That is the hard part. That—the point at which information is transformed into story—that is the point at which writing changes into art. When it goes well, this is the best part of being a writer, when the words flow directly from your mind to the page without interruption or error and you know you’ve hit the ball with the sweet part of the bat … well, that is perfect, that is a kind of love, a kind of ecstasy. But most of the time, of course, it is not like this. Most of the time it is a struggle, a long and often discouraging labor of mind and sinew. Stamina is required, stamina and, perhaps, a touch of madness. Anyway, it takes a long time. To do the sort of writing I’m talking about, to transform true and complicated history into even truer and just as complicated fiction, one must lavish time upon the endeavor, time to daydream, to muse, time to be playful with your thoughts, time to engage in endless what if’s, time to set off down one path, go a considerable distance, realize it is leading you in the wrong direction, and then double back to your starting place and begin all over again. Goethe, when asked how he managed to write such massive tomes, replied, “Never hurry, never rest.” And I concur. Though you know time is limited, your life mortal, you must act as if it weren’t, you must act as if you had all the time in the world. Time is the great resource you must have, the one you cannot bank, the one you must be willing to expend and even squander … if you hope to ever find yourself looking down at the last page of a novel you’ve just written.

Or at least you do if you’re as poor a writer as I am.

Virginia Woolf said a writer needs a room of one’s own to be successful and the freedom to daydream in that room conferred by an annual income of 500 pounds. Woolf’s caught a lot of grief for that prescription, many have called her elitist, but in a very real sense, at least as far as this writer is concerned, I would have to agree with her. I am sure there are writers out there who are possessed of so much genius and energy that they can sit down after a long day at the factory or mill and work late into the night, day after day, and end up writing a beautiful novel. Solzhenitzyn claimed to write twelve hours every day of his long and productive life. Steinbeck supposedly wrote The Grapes of Wrath in six months. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is said to have taken only five feverish days to compose. But I am no Stevenson, no Steinbeck. My approach to writing and, more important, my approach to imagining, is necessarily painstaking, lapidary. I lay pebble upon pebble, pebble upon pebble, until, after countless failures, countless collapses, a wall slowly rises toward the sky. I know of no other way to do it.

Virginia Woolf called the craft of writing, the art of writing, “the highest office of all.” Of the writer himself, she wrote, “His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world. No time, no devotion, can be too great, therefore, which makes the vehicle of our message less distorting. We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts.” I love that last line. And I couldn’t agree with it more. But for me, at least, to achieve so precise and immediate a correspondence between what is thought and what is written, requires a tremendous expenditure of energy and time. I must give it my all.

And now my publisher is after me to write another book. Complete strangers who have read The Oblate are sending me handwritten notes asking that I write another book. My wife wants me to write another book. Perfect, right? Every author’s dream. But remember where I was when my publisher first contacted me? I had become Talbot County’s “library guy.” People call me this when they see me on the street. My wife calls me this. Folks come up to me in the grocery and at the post office and in the gym to ask for book recommendations. Patrons come up to me at the library’s Reference Desk and ask me to help them fill out an online job application, ask me where they can take an English as a Second Language course, ask me how they can learn more about the disease their daughter has …. And I help them. People need me in a real and practical way. I offer them real and practical assistance. I’m “the library guy.” It may not pay well, it may not be glamorous, it’ll never make me famous … but I’m not at all sure it isn’t more important than anything else I’ve ever done … including having written a book. I’ve got to wonder about that. I mean we really do only go around once. We have to make choices as to how we’re going to spend our lives.

So, in answer to the question I was posed for tonight’s talk, in my case at least, the first step I must take in preparing to write a book is to ask myself … should I write a book? Am I willing to devote, to perhaps squander, the time required to flesh out and clothe the sort of full-length narrative that lies at the heart of any good novel? Is such a profligate use of the precious years remaining to me wise … or, compared to the very real and honest help I can offer the people of Talbot County by working at our library … would it be the worst of sort of vanity to chuck it all and wander out into the woods just to dream up another piece of fiction? If I were Virginia Woolf, of course, the answer to this question would be clear. She was a genius, in my opinion quite probably the greatest novelist of all time. But I’m not Virginia Woolf, I’m Bill Peak. You know … “the library guy.”

Peak’s Novel Named to “Best Indie Books of 2015” List

general_logo_ads-2015[2]“Kirkus Reviews” has named William Peak’s debut novel, “The Oblate’s Confession,” to its Best Indie Books of 2015 list – and more particularly, as one of the best Indie Historical Novels of 2015. Peak said of this national recognition, “Needless to say, I am pleased. I wanted to try, in my storytelling, to bring an entirely different time and place back to life. Trust me, the so-called “Dark Ages” weren’t entirely dark; we know a great deal about them. Much of that known history informs—and I hope enriches—my story. That all my work, all my research, has now been recognized and honored … well, it is gratifying to say the least.”




Creating Child-Oblates


Madonna and childFor me, one of the best things about all the readings I’m giving these days is the Q&A that takes place afterward. People are so smart. Almost every time, I’m asked a question I’d never thought about before. A few weeks back, for example, a lady asked me when the practice of creating child-oblates came to an end. I told the woman I didn’t know, but that I would try to find out for her. Well, so far, I have been unable to come up with an official Roman Catholic end-date for the practice. If anyone out there has information on this, I would love it if they would share it with me and the readers of this blog.

I’ve been thinking about this because of something that took place a couple of weeks ago at the big annual book festival in Gaithersburg. I was giving a lady who was interested in my novel a summary of its plot when she interrupted me. “You know,” she said, “that sounds a little like my life.” Turns out the woman was orphaned as a small child and her family—not having the wherewithal to feed another mouth—gave her to a convent. Popular culture has taught us what to expect next—the story of a straitened childhood complete with brooding shadows and repressed sexuality—but, instead, the lady gave me a big smile and said the nuns had been wonderful, that she still looked back fondly upon her time with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.

I was so surprised and impressed by the woman’s story that, the following week, I recounted it during a reading at the library in Chestertown, Maryland. And lo and behold, a woman raised her hand to tell me her father-in-law had also grown up in a convent and, similarly, had nothing but good things to say about the care he had received there.

All of which would lead one to say that, in a sense, the practice of giving a child to a religious community—even if it wasn’t the formal practice of medieval child oblation—persisted well into the twentieth century. Who knows, it may persist somewhere still ….

Pace and “The Oblate’s Confession”

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I attended a music recital-cum-luncheon yesterday at the Academy of Art Museum in Easton. You can imagine how happy it made me when I sat down at a table with three other people to learn that two of the three had already read “The Oblate’s Confession,” and the third intended to. A prophet is not without honor even in his own town!

One of my luncheon companions, a lady who looked vaguely familiar, told me we had in fact met before. Apparently she’d approached me in the grocery a couple of months back to tell me she had begun reading my book. She said I’d told her then that it was meant to be read slowly, and she now reported that this advice had really helped her enjoy the novel. I’m not surprised. I myself prefer a slow read, especially at night, when a leisurely pace is guaranteed to send me contentedly off into the land of nod. With this in mind, I tried to keep each chapter in my novel (or each section within the longer chapters) to a length that would permit it to be read within the confines of that magical half hour before sleep. I like to imagine my readers drifting off each night dreaming of the 7th century.

But of course not everyone will have the opportunity to run into me at the grocery. How then does an author let folks know his book is meant to be read at a civilized pace? Well, if he’s any good, he makes this clear from the very first line, his word choice and the rhythm of his language signalling that this is not a story racing toward its conclusion but, rather, one that promises a gentle stroll through interesting landscape toward new and entirely unexplored territory. I have no idea if I pulled this off in “The Oblate’s Confession,” but certainly that is what I aimed for.









IMG_1043In response to the blog I posted December 30, entitled “A Christmas Gift,” someone sent me the following link to a post on the Mother Nature Network (who knew she had one?) concerning seven cultural concepts we don’t have—but might want to consider having—in the United States:


I liked them all, but I out and out loved the second one, the Japanese idea of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” It captures perfectly what I feel when I sit quietly for a while in the forest, the sense that all the sights, scents, and sounds of the woods are washing over me and, in some way I don’t claim to understand, refreshing me.

Time and “The Oblate’s Confession”

















Sunday’s readings included an interesting line from the Gospel of St. John, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” (John 1: 39) Father probably wouldn’t approve of the way my mind drifted after that. I kept wondering what were the original words that someone had translated into the modern concept of “four o’clock.” Whatever they were, I seriously doubt the number “four” figured anywhere among them. And that, in turn, got me thinking about time itself.

If anyone doubts Einstein’s claim that time is relative, let him consult history … and fairly recent history at that. Until well into the first part of the twentieth century, localities across America were free to set their clocks any way they chose. And they did. Noon in one town might be 1:15 in a town not far away.

Clocks themselves, of course, are a fairly recent innovation. The monks in The Oblate’s Confession wouldn’t have had one. Someone there, perhaps the prior, would have darted a cautious glance at the sun, made a guess as to its proximity to the meridian, and apportioned the hours of Matins, Prime, Terce, etc. accordingly. There is, I think, something appealing about a place and time that measured time—however inaccurately—by the rhythms of season and sun.

Still it is, I suppose, in the nature of our species that we should try to codify time, make it dance to our tune. But the way people have gone about this over the course of history—and the significance they have accorded the result—often tells us more about their culture and its notions of reality than it does time itself. Surely there is no more telling difference between Anglo and Gallic cultures, for instance, than the fact that we call the timepiece we wear upon our wrists a “watch,” and the French call it a “montre.” So English culture watches time while the French show it.

The monks in The Oblate’s Confession followed an unvarying schedule of daily hours that caused them, over the course of a day, to move regularly back and forth between the two poles of their existence: ora et labora. In this way, even today, monks seek to transform the profane—their daily work schedule—into something holy, periods of prayer alternating with periods of work to create a sort of comforting, complementary rhythm in their lives.

I saw my first book of hours years ago in an exhibit at Baltimore’s Walter’s Art Museum. A product of the Middle Ages, books of hours were designed to give laymen the chance to follow a holy round similar to that followed by monks and nuns. The vellum pages of these books were richly illustrated with pictures showing the everyday activities of everyday people: farmers and fishermen, hunters and housewives, shepherds and swineherds. Finding these books and the illustrations they contained was as important a discovery in my attempt to understand the Iron Age society I wished to depict in The Oblate’s Confession as my discovery of the Bede. I bought a copy of the exhibit’s catalogue and spent countless evenings poring over its pages, imagining the possibilities. For me, the title of that catalogue says it all, capturing, as it does, the intent of the culture that produced books of hours. It is called Time Sanctified.

A Christmas Gift

Melissa's 60th 089Since June, in addition to my full-time job at the library, I’ve been working what amounted to a second full-time job preparing for the launch of “The Oblate’s Confession.” But this past week, thanks to Christmas, I was finally able to take a few days off. Which meant that, for the first time in almost half a year, I found myself with a little free time. Immediately, as quickly as my legs would carry me, I went into the woods.

Have you ever read Richard Louv’s “The Last Child in the Woods”? If you haven’t, I would heartily recommend you do. Louv’s book examines the effect certain modern anxieties (that Lyme disease, for instance, lurks around every corner, that our country is overrun with criminals) have, however unintentionally, had upon our children. It is Louv’s contention that overprotective parenting has reached a point that a preponderance of our children are now denied the unhindered, unstructured access to the natural world all preceding generations of human children enjoyed. Louv believes such access is essential to healthy development. He cites compelling evidence linking today’s epidemics of obesity and Attention-Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder among our young to that age-group’s unnatural separation from the natural world.

I am not a scientist. I have no idea whether or not Louv is right. All I know for sure is that I need the woods as a drowning man needs air, that if I am to remain healthy, if I am to remain in touch with myself and the world, I need to sit for extended periods of time in the woods with no purpose other than to be there, to listen to the wind move through the tree-tops, to watch a woodpecker slip into its roost-hole for the night, to smell the musky scents of leaf-mould and deer, the delicate scents of spice bush and partridge berry.

And so I thank God for this Christmas, the space it has given me to sit in the forest with nothing in mind and find myself inexplicably replenished by the experience. I wish you such happiness. I wish our children the same.

As Christmas Draws Nigh…

IMG_1825Christmas looms with all its attendant pressures—cards to be mailed, gifts to be purchased, bank balances to be worried over, family gatherings to be enjoyed … and endured—still, at this time of year, despite all the schmaltz and materialism, my step inevitably grows lighter, my heart appears a little more obviously upon my sleeve. Somewhere, somehow, the spirit has once again caught me unawares and worked its special magic.

Of course some would say I should have capitalized that word “spirit,” while others, scoffing, would tell me we’re just culturally hard-wired to feel this way at this time of year. Who knows who’s right? I’m just thankful for the gift.

I wish you all a Merry and Blessed Christmas!

The Oblate’s Confession: Week 1


On Monday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m., in the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library, “The Oblate’s Confession” celebrated its official launch to a standing-room-only crowd of 175+.Launch sro I gave a brief reading and then folks lined up to purchase and have me sign copies of the novel.





Truth be told, after that the rest of the week is a bit of a blur, with signing events for me in Rehoboth, Del., Washington, D.C., and, yesterday, here in Easton at The News Center (where my old college roommate, whom I haven’t seen in years, surprised me by showing up completely unannounced).

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At the launch, my wife sold 60-some-odd books, and I probably signed over a hundred (many people brought copies with them they had purchased earlier from Amazon or elsewhere). Our two local bookstores (The News Center here in Easton and Mystery Loves Company in Oxford) have already sold out of their first order of books and have had to re-order. And on Friday, at the grocery, a lady came up to me to report that, earlier in the day, her doctor, having noticed the copy of The Oblate’s Confession protruding from her purse, told her she was the third (!) patient he’d seen that day who was reading my novel. The people of Talbot County have been very kind to this old duffer. I thank them all.