Loss of dog adopted in Maine inspires nearly $1 million advance for ‘magical’ novel

 Steven Rowley's 300-page novel, "Lily and the Octopus," is expected to be a big seller this summer. It goes on sale June 7. Alan Mittelstaedt/Special to the Press Herald

Steven Rowley's 300-page novel, "Lily and the Octopus," is expected to be a big seller this summer. It goes on sale June 7. Alan Mittelstaedt/Special to the Press Herald

Originally published in the Portland Press Herald. 

One hundred days. That’s how long it took author Steven Rowley to write his book “Lily and the Octopus,” acquired by Simon & Schuster with an advance of almost $1 million. Every day for 100 days, Rowley, 45, sat down and added to a short story he had written about his dog, Lily.

“I was terrified that if I stopped or took even one day off that the story would dry up or that the octopus would take back his ink, and it was sort of out of sheer terror that I kept writing,” Rowley said.

For the speed of his success and the size of that advance – he wouldn’t give the exact figure – Rowley’s publishing story sounds like a writer’s fairy tale. “Lily and the Octopus” is his first novel, or, as he says, his third novel but the first “to see the light of day.” Simon & Schuster bought the book during a 48-hour negotiation after an editor who Rowley had hired to help him self-publish the book sent it to a friend there.

“This was something magical on our hands,” said Karyn Marcus, the editor at Simon & Schuster who first read “Lily and the Octopus,” which goes on sale June 7.

But to Rowley, who grew up in South Portland and graduated from South Portland High School, and to those close to him, this has been years in the making.

“I’ve seen him work hard at his craft for 15 years,” said Trent Vernon, Rowley’s longtime friend and the inspiration for the name of the best friend in the book. “It only looks quick from the outside.”

GOOD ADVICE, FEARFUL REACTION

Rowley has always wanted to be a writer. He moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Emerson College and has basically been there since, working as a screenwriter.

Rowley sold a script and optioned a few others, but his success had always stopped there. Then, around the writer’s strike in 2007, something changed. A project that was very close to coming together fell apart, and he started to re-evaluate his screenwriting career.

“When you’re a screenwriter, there’s so much waiting for other people to say yes,” Rowley said. “So I thought, ‘If I focus my writing elsewhere, maybe I might have a little more personal control getting what I do out into the world.’ ”

However, in order to keep writing, Rowley needed a full-time day job. He had worked at law firms off and on, so he got certified as a paralegal at the University of California, Los Angeles. That allowed him to write when he could on nights and weekends.

When Rowley showed a short story he had written about Lily to a man he had recently started dating, the man called and told him: “This is what you should be doing with your life. Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. Hang up the phone and go write chapter two.” But Rowley wasn’t so sure.

“In the back of my head I was like, ‘Chapter two? It’s done! If I write chapter two, I am going to have to write chapter three and then four, five, six – where does it end? What’s the end game for this?’ ” he said. “But I just sort of blindly sat down, and when that happened I was off to the races.”

UNEXPECTED CALL – AND WINDFALL

After he finished the now-just-over-300-page novel, Rowley sent out queries. Nothing. And because he was so tired of waiting as a screenwriter, he refused to wait as a novelist. He bought a book on how to self-publish and started going through the steps. In addition to freelance editor Molly Lindley Pisani, Rowley hired a typesetter, a layout designer, someone to create an e-book file, and a graphic designer to do the cover. He was in the process of hiring a printer when Pisani asked to send the book to a friend at Simon & Schuster.

Rowley said he assumed the self-publishing process would be complete before anyone got back to him. But Pisani sent the book on a Friday in March 2015 and Rowley received a call on the following Monday, offering him a publishing deal and, later, that stunning advance.

Katherine Flynn, a literary agent at Kneerim & Williams, said that such high advances are not an everyday occurrence in the publishing world.

First-time writers do not have sales records, so publishers must estimate how many books a writer could sell by using comparative titles, with similar content or readership.

Marcus, at Simon & Schuster, said the staff unanimously agreed to exclusively acquire the book and was looking for comparison titles such as “Life of Pi” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” which were “terrifically commercial books which sold enormously,” more than 3 million and 4 million copies, respectively.

Another factor in determining large advances, Flynn said, is that “publishers seem to have a lot of pressure to get the big best seller, the blockbuster books.”

“Lily and the Octopus” has already sold foreign rights in 14 countries, Marcus said. Rowley said Creative Artists Agency is marketing the film rights.

So what makes this book such a clear seller? Simply put, it is a book about a man, Ted Flask, who loves his dog, Lily. He loves his dog so much that, when the 12-year-old dachshund gets a tumor, Ted can only see the tumor as an octopus because accepting the truth – that Lily was dying – would be too hard.

This book is anything but simple. It is a story about heartache and loss. Ultimately, through humor and a strong writing style, it is a story about friendship, growing up and moving on.

Rowley found real-life Lily at a farm in Waldo, Maine, and adopted her when she was 12 weeks old.

“I don’t have children, so this was the first time I had got something in relative infancy and saw her through her entire life,” Rowley said. “That’s an incredibly touching experience.”

REVELATIONS AND TAKING RISKS

It wasn’t until after Lily died and Rowley was sitting down to write the story that he began to think about the dog’s tumor as an octopus. He wanted to write about attachment and letting go, so he was thinking about something being suctioned on.

“What’s more opposite of something that’s all spine and furry and lives on land than an invertebrate, slimy creature from the sea?” Rowley said. “I really needed a foe that could needle Ted (Flask) a little bit and toy with him and be formidable.”

By taking bits and pieces from his own life and expanding them into fiction, Rowley creates a magical relationship between a man and his dog, but he also reveals a man who retreats from reality, only to come out the other side having discovered a bit more about who he is.

One reason the book is worth the read, Marcus said, is because Rowley took risks as a writer, breaking with the path that a traditional novel might take.

“He took (the main character) as far as he could go on this journey, and I think that was really courageous of him as a writer,” she said during a phone interview. “As a reader, it pushes you to see the depths that this person has gone to in their own head, in their own fantasy world and escapism.”

Vernon, the longtime friend, agreed that Rowley’s vulnerability in adding personal events into the book helps take it to the next level.

“Despite having lived through some of the events in the book, it’s the elements of magical realism that I find so funny, so raw, so real,” he said in an email interview.

Rowley’s success from “Lily” has allowed him to start writing full time. He now lives in Los Angeles with his boyfriend and their one-eyed rescue dog, Tilda, who is about 7 or 8, they estimate, and was previously abused.

Finding a new dog “was an interesting experience,” Rowley said, “because it had been maybe 18 months or so since Lily had passed away, so I was ready to open our home but maybe not 100 percent to open my heart, and she was ready for a safe place to live but maybe not entirely to trust new people, so we gave each other a wide berth at first. But it’s worked out really well.”

While Rowley wants readers to know that they will laugh as much as they cry with his book, he says he was striving for emotional truth.

“I don’t think (the book is) hiding that it’s a personal story or that people are going to conflate Ted with me. Ultimately, I am fine with that,” he said. “Good artists are always vulnerable. That’s where art sort of comes from: vulnerability.”

Rebecca Gibian is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She can be contacted at:

rebeccagibian40@gmail.com

Rebecca Gibian