In a few weeks, I’ll publish my first novel, “Every Common Sight,” which has been more than 20 years in the making. The book went through several drafts, spanning my very long apprenticeship as a writer. As I kept improving, the novel did, too. I also had to put it aside for years at a time to focus on non-fiction book projects.
But now it’s done. I’m very proud of it and can’t wait to share the novel and its characters with you. In this exciting time, I’ve also been thinking about one of the book’s first readers.
I met Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood through a newspaper assignment in 1995, the beginning of an unlikely but close friendship that lasted until his death eight years later.
Over that time I sent him several of my favorite newspaper articles, and in the spring of 1999, imposed on Fred an early draft of “Every Common Sight.” It was a lot to ask, and I would not have been at all disappointed if Fred had said he was too busy to tackle a manuscript three hundred pages thick.
But on April 6, 1999, I received his email, one that began this way: “Oh my dear Tim, your ‘people’ will forever be with me.”
At first I thought, maybe Fred was just being nice. But I’ve come to realize he never said anything that he didn’t mean from the deepest part of his heart.
“Ever since I received your manuscript I could hardly wait for my workday to be over so I could come home and read as many chapters as possible before going to bed,” he wrote. “As you can imagine, I just finished reading this mighty special work. I wondered at every passing page how much of you was reflected in it. I guess I want to listen to your heart.”
Fred actually pleaded for the well-being of the main character, a tortured World War II veteran named Wendell Smith. Wendell had been sustained in the years after the war by the love his remarkable wife, Selma. I had actually borrowed one of Fred’s favorite sayings, putting his words in Selma’s mouth.
“Anything mentionable is manageable,” Selma told her husband, trying to coax out the details of his battlefield horrors.
(“The main thing it did, of course, was to make me want to get to know as much as possible about your particular ‘mentionables,’” Fred wrote.)
With his battlefield trauma, Wendell had also brought home a secret, the one thing he could not confide to his wife. Late in life, shortly after Selma’s death (“I literally wept as Selma was dying”) a chance meeting with a young woman named Claire brought back the worst of Wendell’s war. Claire, it turned out, had a secret of her own. In the novel, their secrets threaten to destroy them both.
“I wanted a hopeful (Hollywood?) ending,” Fred wrote. “I longed for even further healing and redemption in the life of that tortured man…all the while knowing that a difference Selma made…what a difference ‘mentionable is manageable’ made. And I want you to feel that Wendell has a hopeful future.”
He even corrected a couple of errors in the manuscript. In one scene, I had a character playing a solo “concerto.” Fred pointed out that only a sonata is played alone.
“Also, something I just learned recently, (since we did a film for the Neighborhood about people making sidewalks:) I always thought it was cement sidewalks, but it’s not: it’s concrete. Cement is used to make concrete. Cement is not used (by itself) to make sidewalks.
“Of course, all of this is minor compared with the development of the theme of Wendell’s and Claire’s ‘furies.’ That is masterfully done. You write so well, Tim.”
“You’ve passed the test (for me) of great art. You’ve helped me meet and learn and care for people who are painted by your words on a piece of paper. I find that an extraordinary accomplishment, Tim, and I congratulate you.
“What an enormous piece of work, beautifully composed. I ‘explode’ with pride knowing how much of your ‘self’ you’ve shared with your reader. BRAVO, TIM…BRAVO. IPOYLove, Fred.
As I said, the book has gone through several drafts since Fred read it. It took me a long time to figure out the novel’s tricky structure. But the essence of the story is what he read all those years ago. I think Fred would be happy now, too, that the characters that I love and that he came to care about so deeply will be known by a much wider audience.