This is the last of my three-part interview with Jonathan Langford, author of No Going Back. How did you submit your work to Zarahemla? Query? Finished ms? Had you submitted it anywhere before Zarahemla took it? How long was the work in process from submission to publication? Did the story change much through the editorial process?
I’ve known Chris Bigelow — owner and operator of Zarahemla Books — for a long time, and admired his work with Zarahemla Books. Chris’s stated goal with Zarahemla Books is to publish “provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity.” That’s a good description of the niche I feel No Going Back falls into. It’s more frank than I imagined Deseret Books or Covenant would have been comfortable with, but in the end it’s pretty orthodox. From the time I first started thinking about this novel, it seemed to me that Zarahemla Books would be the ideal place to publish it.
Back when I was trying to decide whether to write the novel or not, I queried Chris about it. He said the idea sounded like something he’d be interested in seeing. That was back around the end of April 2008. So I knew that if I could just do a good enough job of writing the story, I had a good chance of publishing with him.
Once I had a complete draft in early March 2009, I sent a copy to Chris, who sent it out to a couple of readers. Meanwhile, I also sent a copy to several readers, such as LDS playwright Tom Rogers and BYU English professor Steve Walker. My readers and Chris’s readers all gave positive reports, so at that point Chris tentatively agreed to publish the novel, conditional on his own positive reaction, since at this point Chris still hadn’t read it.
Chris prefers not to do much story doctoring with the manuscripts he accepts, and his preference is to read a manuscript only once, while he’s editing it. So what I wound up doing over the next several months was recruiting a whole bunch of people to read my manuscript, then taking their comments and using them to make the story as good as I could before submitting the final version to Chris. I also recorded these readers’ reactions as a kind of ongoing pool of evidence about what people liked and didn’t like about the story and whether they thought it was worth publishing, which I later passed on to Chris.
Some of the changes I made were fairly important, though none altered the actual plot of the story very much. For example, one reader commented that Chad was accepting Paul’s orientation too easily. I realized he was completely right. I went back and changed that by making Chad pretend to be more okay with it than he really was and try to hide that from Paul. It amounted to only minor changes in terms of actual revised text, but I think it made a significant difference in improving the realism, adding a certain underlying tension in the first half of the novel, and making Chad’s ultimate character growth more meaningful. I also did a lot of tinkering with the conclusion, and adjusted several plot threads along the way. Mostly, though, the shape of the story didn’t change much.
It was early May when I handed over my revised manuscript to Chris for his edit. He would read a section, embed comments and changes, then send it to me for my response. I’d send it back, then he would continue on from there. After reading a couple of chapters and verifying that he liked the style and direction of the story, he sent me a contract, though it was still understood that he might pull out if he ran into something he truly disliked. Fortunately, that never happened.
Chris’s edits were mostly about making individual scenes flow more smoothly and clearly. Patiently, he unsnarled (or forced me to unsnarl) who was talking when, the logistics of what was going on in some scenes where it wasn’t as clear as it should be — stuff like that. He also helped me tone down the language some without losing the effect I was trying to achieve, which I’m quite grateful for. And he reminded me that YouTube hadn’t been invented yet, and so Paul and Chad couldn’t spend time watching YouTube videos over spring break. I can’t believe I hadn’t bothered to check that one. (I did my best to make every detail as historically accurate as possible. For example, every video game mentioned in the story exists and would have been available on the boys’ game systems at the time they played it. I even found a website where I could check the weather in Oregon each day for the timeframe I was writing, though I didn’t always follow it exactly.)
Chris’s editing process took about three months, due to other commitments on his part. On August 2, he emailed me with the final segment: “OK, here you go. I thought it ended very well on all counts. Loved the book, felt some real eye-welling emotion several times. I think we could have a real winner on our hands here, if we can get the right people to help us get the word around. I'm very happy to be publishing it!” Happy words for an author to hear. Then desktop publishing, proofreading, and priting, all of which took only about two months — very fast, from what I understand. The official release date was October 5.
That is really fast! And very interesting to learn how you and your publisher handled editing. Finally, what would you hope readers will take away from your novel?
I hope they’ll care about the characters and what has happened to them over the course of the story. I hope they’ll feel like they know a little better what it’s like to face the kind of challenge Paul faces — but also that they’ll see it as in some ways an ordinary part of life, not fundamentally different from the challenges all of us face in striving to live as true followers of Jesus Christ. I hope it will make them think and feel.