A Writer’s Tale

In September 2001 I traveled to Philadelphia to meet an agent who was interested in representing my first book. I was beyond thrilled; after receiving dozens of rejection letters, an agent wanted to meet me, go out to lunch, and sign a contract. After paying the taxi fare from the airport, I asked the driver, which of two identical high-rises was my destination. He looked at the piece of paper I handed him and shrugged his shoulders. “They’re both independent living facilities. Take your pick.”

Entering the closest building, and checking in with the front desk, I took the elevator up to the 8thfloor and knocked on room 822. Silence. I knocked again, a little more insistent. Then, Click. Click. Click. The sound of an un-wheeled walker approached the door. A deadbolt was pulled back, a chain was undone, a latch released. The door cracked open and there was my agent leaning heavily on her walker for support. Her hair was drawn up in a gray, prim bun. A pair of reading glasses hung from a delicate gold chain from around her neck. When she released a hand from the walker to shake hands with me, she wobbled and caught herself.

The apartment was bright and airy. On the walls inside her apartment were framed posters of books and authors she had represented. I relaxed. This was the right place. Maybe the wrong decade, but the right place. After chatting for a few minutes, she asked if I wanted to go out for lunch. “We can get to know each other and discuss my plans for your wonderful book over a glass of wine. I have your contract ready.”

I discretely glanced at my watch. A full day of rheumatology patients in my office in Portland, Maine awaited me tomorrow. I had been naïve to believe that I could fly from my medical practice to Philadelphia and back in a single day. What folly. Now, I was looking at a lunch which would begin no sooner than 3:00 pm. “Of course,” I said.

“Would it be okay if my husband, Jerome, comes? He’s a retired dentist, and enjoys meeting my new authors.”

“Absolutely. That would be great.” Jerome Click, Click, Clicked from a side-room, wrestled into his overcoat, and stopped to catch his breath halfway down the hallway. A taxi delivered us to a favorite restaurant. Jerome, an ancient ruddy faced bull of a man ordered whiskey, straight up, finished off his first drink, then ordered a second before I’d looked at the menu.

My agent ordered a salad. The soup looked good. I ordered fish chowder. Jerome sipped contentedly on his drink. Was that number 2 or number 3? Out came the contract. It seemed fair, but each time I reached for the pen, my agent waved it like a prop as she recounted her life in the world of publishing. Our food arrived. I grabbed the pen and signed the contract. There. It was done.

Jerome ordered another drink. I ordered a beer. We toasted each other’s health. By my calculation, I had 30 minutes to finish the meal, guide Jerome and his wife into a taxi, and head for the airport. It was a heady moment. Then Jerome excused himself. He needed to use the bathroom. As he pushed back his chair, he caught his foot, and tumbled heavily to the ground. Oh my. Examining him, I was unsure if he’d fractured a hip or merely strained it. The wait staff called an ambulance but when it arrived, Jerome insisted he was fine. He insisted there was no need for him to go to the emergency room. By then, he’d sat up, against my advice, and attempted to crawl back into his seat. The owner came by and was naturally worried about liability. He insisted that Jerome go with the nice ambulance attendants. Jerome insisted he was fine, more than fine. I had a headache. Eventually, Jerome agreed to the ambulance. I agreed to take my agent home.

I missed my flight but made the last U.S. Air connection out of Philadelphia that evening in time to make the last ferry to my home on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. At 6 am the next morning, having spent the previous night at our local Comfort Inn, hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari flew out of the Portland airport on a U.S. Airways Express to Boston. Later that morning they crashed their plane into the World Trade Center.

Many of us knew families who lost loved ones that day. Stories circulated about friends or relatives who were scheduled to be in the World Trade Center but were delayed that morning in traffic or called in sick. Fate determined that I would be on one flight instead of another, one airline rather than the other, a few hours before the coordinated attack. I was grateful that my family and friends were spared the horror of dealing with my loss.

The book world, like so many businesses in America, paused. My agent recommended that we wait a few months. When she did meet with publishers, tastes had changed. It was felt that a book about a doctor practicing on the Casco Bay Islands in Maine was not likely to sell. She tried for a year, then after a long and successful career as an agent, she retired. No-one else picked up the book.

In retrospect, the original Casco Bay Ferry Tales, was only average. I mostly forgot about publishing it and concentrated on seeing patients in my practice and spending more time with my family. I viewed self-publishing as yet another job—promoting the book and convincing bookstores to carry it didn’t appeal to me. The book lay fallow for a number of years. Then I decided to get outside advice; I asked Bill Roorbach, an accomplished Maine writer, to edit and review the book. He had a lot of suggestions. He enjoyed the writing but felt that something was missing, something which would connect the reader to the story: It was me. He felt he didn’t really know or understand me. I was too much a passive observer of my unique island practice. His advice: Allow the reader to understand your inner conflicts, your absent-mindedness, what it meant for you to be a doctor.

What’s more, he didn’t get a good feel for my wife, Sandi. She was, he felt, probably more interesting than me. Mid-way through the book, she changed professions from a social work counselor to putting on coveralls and working as a plumber assistant on Peaks Island. “Now, there’s a story,” he said.

I took his advice. I rewrote Casco Bay Ferry Tales and renamed it Go By Boat. Characters are no longer one and off. They keep showing up, chapter after chapter. Sandi agreed that it was okay that I write about our relationship together. Perhaps, my character is more accessible, more understandable, than in the previous version. I truly don’t know. When looking at who I am, I’m often at a loss to understand myself, much less communicate that insight to a reader.

What’s next for Go By Boat? Stay tuned for another essay.

All the best,

Chuck Radis D.O.

15 thoughts on “A Writer’s Tale

  1. Joan Hager here. I enjoyed reading this, Dr. Radis. I started reading it on my phone and feared your tale was about being phished in by the scam book “publishers” of predatory vanity presses that were popular a decade or two ago. But I switched over to reading “A Writer’s Tale” on my laptop and it turned out your story was infinitely more upbeat and I can appreciate how exciting and validating it must have been to be accepted by a literary agent, even if she was at the end of her career. I guess the moral of the story is: everything in good time. I look forward to reading more. Please keep us posted!

    • Since I wrote the comment above I’ve had time to think about Bill Roorbach’s comments. With all due respect to Sandi, I suspect you are quite interesting too and I hope that comes out in your book. I can think of a few questions I wonder about: How did you decide to become a physician and how difficult was that process (which is notoriously difficult anyway)? Why did you decide on Rheumatology, a rather unglamorous field, as a specialty? Why did you want to live on an island, which for most of us at first sounds like a dream but on further reflection sounds like a lot of effort? Being as empathetic as you are, have you faced burn out and, if so, how did you deal with it? How did your desire to do international doctoring evolve? What sparked your interest in writing?
      from Joan Hager

      • Hi Joan. I’ve been thinking about your e-mail about the empathetic primary care doc you have been lucky to have.
        With the deadline for the empathy in medicine essay contest coming up, I think you have a good chance of being considered for one of the awards if you can expand it to 4 or 5 hundred words. What do you think?
        Chuck Radis

    • Of course, the only thing that’s really improved in the new book is that people get to know more about Sandi and what a quirky person she is…..

    • I’m sorry to say Arlene, but she falls out of the storyline. She moves back to the Philadelphia area where she lives when she’s not summering on Peaks. I later heard that she passed away from complications of the lung cancer.
      Chuck. Oh, if you haven’t asked already, I’d be glad to give a reading or discussion on Go By Boat where you live. It would be fun. Thanks for looking into it.

  2. Chuck, from laughing at the beginning to silence/memory re 9/11 and your closeness to it, to your lovely rendition of “more interest in my wife,” I am amazed by what you do and bless you.

  3. I have always liked goats. I think maybe you should’ve bought two, though, so they could keep each other company. Maybe change the title to “Go By Two Goats” so other people will do this as well. Plus, as I’m sure you know buy now, it really should be “Go By A Goat” instead of “Go By Goat.” Unless … are you talking about just the meat? Sort of like a Health Food? At any rate, good to see you are writing. Hearing the wonderful (and funny) things you have to say was always difficult because you’re so soft spoken. Was worth the listen, though. The world could use more listeners. And readers, too. Especially readers of books about goats, and how to go by them. Carefully, if it’s a male, and he’s angry. People need to know that. {*_*}

  4. Very interesting “behind the scenes” and getting to know you as a person. Looking for more! By the way, the link in your email didn’t work. Had to cut and paste. Teri G

  5. Chuck,
    As you know, I relate to and enjoy your stories and how you tell them. I also know how it feels to write something important (at least to me) and want to share it (e.g. Aesthetics and the Art of Medicine), only to find out that few others are actually interested. In these all too often circumstances, like the really funny jokes I dream up that are only responded to with my own laughter (and therefore have since learned to keep to myself and emit only a slight subtle chuckle), I generally just file those writings away, perhaps to be discovered and published by a more successful grandchild (or not, but by then I will not have remembered or cared anymore), and go on to something else. So I admire your persistence. Good luck!

    • Thanks Sid. I recall you feeling that Go By Boat was not a good title for my book.
      I’ve had a suggestion from a reader to rename it Go By Goat. Very random.

      We may team up on a book called the aesthetics of Going By Goat.
      It could be a best seller. Chuck

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