Stranger and Better is actually the first novel I wrote, but it's the third that I will publish. How does that happen? Well, I'll tell you.
It began with a story a friend wrote. He was someone who I knew from Oberlin, a good friend there who needed some time off and moved back home to Chicago. When I graduated I also ended up in Chicago, and we continued our friendship there. One day he showed me a story that he had written. It was raw, emotional, triumphant, subversive, insane, brilliant, and funny, in equal parts. It dealt with someone trying to find his way after college, but a good chunk of the action occurred as a flashback in college, a college which wasn't Oberlin, but could have been.
Among the things that stood out were an acid trip that goes very weird, a foil of sorts with an unpronounceable name (Athmudx), and a few memorable phrases, including: "you're a wingnut", "blah, blah, blah, and like, whatever, blah, blah, blah", "a stomach full of vinegar and beach sand", and "pizzly little drizzle." It was great, and I enjoyed it tremendously. As an aspiring writer with no demonstrable results to show for my aspirations, I thought I could do worse than to start by trying to match that caliber of story.
About that time, my friend returned to Oberlin to finish his degree. I drove out there with him, and during the trip we talked about writing. We shared a love of Vonnegut, and in talking I mentioned one of my own conversational quirks, a tendency to trail off in the middle of a sentence with an "and-" or a "but-", realizing that I'd already said all that needed to be said. "Vonnegut ought to work that in to one of his stories, a running gag or catch phrase," I said.
"Nah, Vonnegut doesn't need to do it," he said. "You should write that book."
"Maybe I will," I said. And I decided then I'd write my own story, and it would be a graduation present for my friend. I placed the story in Oberlin, our shared connection, and I would have a foil with an X in his name (Ixthyaki), and I would use all the catch-phrases.
It was December 1998, and I figured four months would be plenty of time.
Roughly 200,000 words later, toward the tail end of 2001, I finished the first draft of what was then called Major Dilemmas. It had everything I intended (except the phrase about the drizzle, which somehow I never worked into a novel, despite it being set in Oberlin) and a whole bunch of stuff I didn't know I needed to say until I'd said it.
After that I spent months floating it around to friends and family, trying to gather feedback, sort out what needed to be done. I liked it, but I knew it needed work, and I also didn't know what kind of work. So I let it sit while life went in a dozen different directions. A few years later I dusted it off and cleaned it up a bit. An old family friend was kind enough to look it over and provide some feedback, which included maybe polishing up the strongest chapter and shopping that around. Over five years I twiddled with that chapter, again realizing I didn't know what to do.
So I set it aside, wrote first drafts for another three or four other novels, invented a computer game and spent five years managing that, only ever now and then wondering about Major Dilemmas. Finally I wrote a first draft of a book that seemed good enough to publish, so I did. I tried a second novel, more niche but more successful. I meant to do a sequel to the second, but on a road trip I woke up one morning, got in the shower, and by the time I was clean I had plans to completely rewrite Major Dilemmas: this time more fragmented like Vonnegut, with a library mystery as backdrop, and layers of editorial commentary to make it weird.
Three rewrites later--and eighteen years from when I started--and it's finally something I'm content with. As I say in the book's dedication, some of these words are old enough to be an Oberlin College student now.