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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Resilience part two: the story of Street of Storytellers

Last week I shared a resilience story, of how my first book was rejected 75 times and what I learned from that. As it turned out, the story has a second half.

The original book recounted a journey I made with a portable typewriter into Muslim Asia in 1981. I had left my newspaper job at the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, hoping to find some understanding of this world that seemed about to become our country’s new global adversary. Over 10 years of working on it, and all those rejections, the book never sold. But a sense of purpose behind it never seemed, somehow, to let me go.

The best part and second half of the book took place in Peshawar, a very old crossroads city by the Khyber Pass in Pakistan’s legendary North-West Frontier. The city was home in the early 80s to the Afghan rebellion against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan next door; after 9/11, it became clear that Peshawar was where the global extremist movement known as Al Qaeda and ISIS had been born. By then I was writing realistic novels for young adult readers; and against all apparent sense, I found myself thinking about a story. It had to do with an American teen named Luke, unwillingly brought to Peshawar in the early 80s by his history-professor father over Christmas vacation.

I did new research about the extremist movement, about the local Pashtun culture and its rich musical tradition — Luke, a big music fan, would make a connection with this — and about an ancient Buddhist civilization that had left great ruins in the Peshawar Valley. Luke’s father would have returned to Peshawar to finish a book on those ruins with a Pakistani colleague, while Luke, furious with his dad about a recent divorce and this trip, would find friends in an old-city neighborhood and be drawn dangerously into the tension over the rise of extremism. I saw the story as a way to engage young readers with another culture, through the lens of an unwilling American who at first knows nothing about it. Over time a “thriller with ideas,” as I thought of it, became a draft. Then several drafts.

Nobody wanted it. The novel was rejected by every publisher that didn’t ignore the submissions by my increasingly wearied agent. With no traditional path left, I happened on a new enterprise in Montpelier, Vermont, where I had lived for years: a tiny publisher called Rootstock that had adopted an emerging model called hybrid publishing, where the house is selective and the team is professional but the author supports the cost of publishing. Rootstock wanted my book, Street of Storytellers (named after a famed Peshawar bazaar), and I began to see the chance to produce it as a community project, with an editor, a designer and a mapmaker whom I had known for years and who all had world-class book-making skills.

In autumn 2019, just after it came out, Street of Storytellers won first prize for YA fiction from the Independent Publishers of New England. It was the first book award I had ever won. Then this spring while I was coping with a case of covid 19, the novel won the Independent Press Awards gold medal for YA fiction, the Benjamin Franklin Awards silver medal for teen fiction, and second top prize for all fiction from the IndieReader Awards. This is my 17th book for young readers, and most likely it’s my last. I just wanted to share the story with you.

I hope you'll stay well and find good ways to enjoy your much-deserved holiday break. Thanks for reading this blog, and for now at least, so long.

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My first book, my 75 rejections, and the lesson I ...
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