BOXED SET -- A novel by Bernie Kohn & Gina M. Smith

An unemployed Chicago sports writer quickly finds himself broke and homeless, but he uses his gift with words and some inspiration from Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac to turn his life around, help his fellow homeless and to get the girl, a perky tech at the local plasma clinic who thinks a boob job will solve everything.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A wisp of an idea and then, 300 pages

In pitching and querying Boxed Set, I've used the phrase, based on actual events and, loosely based...

We wrote the first half of this story about an unemployed journalist while one of us was an unemployed journalist. David M. Ettlin, a legend at The Baltimore Sun, describes the day the real debacle hit its crescendo, on his blog The Real Muck. He uses the words bloodbath and massacre, and five years later they still do not seem like hyperbole. Print journalism was having a moment in 2008, 2009, and it hasn't gone away.

I had forgotten about Ettlin's blog post until recently, although I had read it a couple times in past years. Lived through April 29, 2009 with my co-author, who recovered very nicely and returned very successfully in 2010 to his first love, journalism, after six months of not working and a hateful one year on the dark side in PR.

The column resurfaced as I looked again at our protagonist, Jack Wroblesky, the out-of-work sports writer, to make sure his voice is as authentic as possible. 

But the key reference in Ettlin's column is not about my co-author. It is this: Wednesday afternoon, (sportswriter Rick) Maese was back at work at Oriole Park doing an interview when he got the news of his layoff by telephone, according to accounts from colleagues at the newspaper.

Boxed Set is not about Maese either. We heard about what happened to him when it happened, but we also learned of and heard from too many other journalists in the same predicament Ettlin describes, and not just at the Sun. And specifically there were others notified by cell phone while out in the trenches covering the news they had been assigned to cover: sportswriters, photographers, top editors. 

These threads wove themselves together into the first tiny swatch of an idea for our book. And then we ran with it, adding the color to make it fiction. Fiction based on fact.

The second half of the book and the ending happened when we were both gainfully employed, one of us back in journalism and one (me) working in the field of sales and marketing, a fairly distant cousin several times removed from our matching undergrad journalism degrees. 

Interestingly, once the book was finished, shelved and waiting for edits, I also lost my job in a so-called layoff or downsizing: a financial decision by my large hospital system-employer, just one of so many overgrown entities falling victim to the same overarching issues and diseases as print journalism. 

So although I couldn't know internally whereof I wrote in the beginning, I quite unexpectedly got to know whereof I edited after. And still do. I'm not sure an attack on one's beloved profession and individual employment status is ever really forgotten. It's tucked away when a new job is gained, but it's near enough to inspire us to avoid unemployment in the future. As if we have full control of that. 

After about seven months off for me in 2013-2014, when work on Boxed Set was too far from either of our minds, my own unemployment stint has informed the return to edits and shopping the book. Unemployment leaves you hungry. Inspired. And hopefully, a little smarter.

Today, I am a little smarter and a lot happier/sadder, having just finished The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, a smart, hip, literary genius rock star of a writer with whom I am enamored now and forever. His unemployed journalist Matt Prior is a little bit of all of us, journo and non-.

In a related non-fiction endeavor, Warren Watson, another journo who is six degrees to Ball State University and a former executive director for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, is working on a book, Surviving Journalism, due out in 2015. And see more here at Out of the News, a book and blog by Celia Wexler.

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