Two Lecturers on Their First Books
Unlike most careers, writers face rejection regularly. Accepting this reality can lead to vulnerability, frustration, and the temptation to quit, but William Jensen and Levis Keltner—lecturers in the English Department with first books out or forthcoming this year—prove, as Jensen says, that being a writer “really is about patience and hard work.”
Both writers attribute their success to the determination and the discipline required of writers working to bring their first books into the world. William Jensen’s novel, Cities of Men, took five years of waking up in the morning, following the twists and turns of the novel’s plot and focusing on the littlest details. Testing his resolve, Keltner faced a disheartening first year in the MFA program. His big idea for a book was getting negative feedback, and he had reached a point of personal crisis. He spent the following summer writing about anything and everything, trying to break out of his literary rut. The following semester, Keltner became close with Tim O’Brien after taking his fiction workshop. O’Brien liked Keltner’s new work and gave him the encouragement he needed to move forward. “Without taking that class,” Keltner admits, “I don’t know if I would’ve stuck with [writing].” This positive reinforcement helped him finish his first novel, Into That Good Night, set for release in 2018.
While these authors share the same commitment to their work, they took a different path to reach this point in their careers. Before he decided to pursue writing, Jensen worked many odd jobs, including landscaping and dishwashing. Like Keltner, Jensen came to Texas State with a desire to study with Tim O’Brien, the National Book Award winner of The Things They Carried. O’Brien, Jensen says, demonstrated that “showing up is ninety percent of success.” In addition to simply showing up, O’Brien also confirmed that writers already have a wealth of material from their backgrounds to draw on for their stories. Having spent his life between California, Arizona, and Texas, Jensen has an intimate relationship with the Southwest, and he uses this familiarity with the landscape as the backdrop for Cities of Men. “I knew how certain winds would feel, and how certain trees would smell,” Jensen says of his choice for setting. The non-traditional route that Jensen took to arrive at where he is today likely gave him the wisdom and resilience that writers require.
Unlike Jensen, Keltner has always thought of himself as an artist. Before coming to Texas State, he played in a band for many years. “My songs were always very long,” Keltner jokes, admitting that this was his first sign that he was meant to be a novelist. After an onslaught of band drama, Keltner decided his best option was to pursue writing, and the only looking back he does is to gather material. Keltner grew up in a forest preserve on the outskirts of Chicago, and rumors circulated among his peers about the creatures who might live there. This mysterious backdrop eventually became the setting for his novel.
At a certain point, the hardworking and determined author must commit to a completely different job—submitting their work. For Jensen and Keltner, this involved draft upon draft of query letters to agents, those gatekeepers of the publishing world who understand not only the artist but the publishing landscape as well. Instead of waking up to work on their books, they were practicing how to sell their ideas.
In spite of their commitment to seeing their work published, these writers are most concerned with the act of writing itself. Both noted the joy felt when the writing was going well. “I couldn’t live without that feeling,” Keltner says. Such moments of creation keep writers from succumbing to the fear of being rejected. While that fear never goes away, the allure of bringing their first books into the world has allowed these writers to push past the hard facts of publishing and to forge ahead with their artistic visions. Only one thing can explain why someone would voluntarily go through all of this, as Keltner remarks of this phenomenon: “You have to be a little bit crazy.”
by Sammi Yarto, English major
Cities of Men by William Jensen
Jensen’s novel, released in May 2017 by Turner Publishing, follows a twelve-year-old boy and his father who find that the boy’s mother has gone missing. Their family dynamic is far from healthy, but together they take a road trip through Southwest America and Mexico to find the woman with whom they both share a connection.
Into That Good Night by Levis Keltner
In Keltner’s book, a group of junior-high misfits set out to find a girl who died in the woods, a setting not far from the mysterious forest of Keltner’s own childhood. The kids are united by their fascination with the girl who died and by collectively facing the horror of death. They embark on a coming-of-age journey full of love, murder, and moral dilemmas. Into That Good Night is set for release in early 2018 through Skyhorse Publishing.