Doug Wilhelm's book is 38 years in the making
WEYBRIDGE — As a young adult novelist, Doug Wilhelm knows that if you don’t pull the reader in right away, “you're done.” Nothing is different about the way he starts his 17th and newest book, “Street of Storytellers,” which he’ll share in a discussion and reading at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 4 p.m.
The book opens into the strange and intriguing world of Peshawar, a crossroads city in Pakistan’s North West Frontier. This is where 15-year-old Luke and his father have just arrived. Their relationship is strained by a recent divorce and his father’s obsession with finishing a book about a lost ancient civilization — referred to by Luke as the “Great Goddam Project.”
Refusing to learn about the “project,” Luke is instead drawn to the Old City, where extremism is on the rise, and is “dazzled by Danisha”; but strict Pashtun culture forbids them being seen together. The risks become greater until Luke finally must make a decision.
“‘Street of Storytellers’ is intensely suspenseful,” Wilhelm wrote in a brief book synopsis. “It’s about three families across two cultures… about two world religions, Islam and Buddhism… about music, Western and Eastern… and about how modern extremism affects ordinary families.”
This Weybridge author is no newbie to publishing. Wilhelm’s the author of “The Revealers,” a novel about bullying that was (and still is) ubiquitous in over 1,000 middle schools across the country. He’s also written three other YA novels, a biography of Alexander the Great for young readers and 10 books for the Choose your Own Adventure series.
But even this seasoned author knows the struggles of rejection.
“It’s taken me 38 years to publish this book,” he said.
Wait. Seriously? Wilhelm’s either the slowest writer on the planet, or there’s more to this story…
Yes, there’s more to his story, indeed.
It all started back in 1974 — after he graduated from Kenyon College. When Wilhelm spent half a year painting houses and then traveled from England to Pakistan, India and Nepal.
“I was very struck by the dramatic drive down the arid, dangerous Khyber Pass into the Peshawar Valley,” he said in a thorough Q&A interview on his website (dougwilhelm.com). “After six months, I came home — but I wanted to go back, and I wanted to write about it.”
Wilhelm took a job as a reporter/editor for a group of newspapers in New Jersey — where he called home growing up. But soon realized that he was too young to be stuck behind a desk.
“I wanted to go have a big, meaningful journey,” he said in an interview last week. “When the hostage crisis happened in 1979, where 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days, the Muslim world became a new adversary… I wanted to go and be a naive journalist and write about my experiences there.”
So Wilhelm set out with his backpack and portable typewriter, to write a nonfiction “journey story.”
“I found Peshawar to be extremely traditional but also very hospitable and open for males only,” he said. “All the men wanted to talk to me.”
Wilhelm spent 10 years working on this nonfiction piece then put it away, after being rejected 75 times, and got to work writing his other novels for middle schoolers and young adults.
“After 9/11, we all realized that Al-Qaeda came out of Peshawar,” said Wilhelm, who saw an opening for his book.
Wilhelm took his original nonfiction book, cut it and reframed it and tried again.
“My agent suggested turning it into a YA novel,” remembered Wilhelm, adding that he thought that was a terrible idea. “But it percolated and I started asking ‘what if’ questions… I wanted to write a thriller/suspense novel, of ideas; but this is a big topic: extremism versus sanity and I was worried about readers being able to absorb this question of extremism and what side are we on?”
One day when Wilhelm was driving his son Brad back to college, he remembers asking Brad his advice. “He said, ‘if you can make people turn the pages you can make them think.’ I though that was the best advice.”
And that’s just what Wilhelm has done.
“Street of Storytellers” doesn’t let you go for a moment. It’s a gripping, relatable read for all ages, that tackles a struggle we all face.
“We’re wrong in thinking that extremism is part of a region or a religion,” he said. “It’s a global issue we have today.”
Wilhelm finally, finally got his novel published on Sept. 10 this year by Montpelier’s Rootstock Publishing — after 11 more rejections and another decade of reworking the novel.
“After all these years, it’s finally here,” he said with a sigh. And boy did it arrive, within three weeks of publishing, “Street of Storytellers” is one of two finalists for the 2019 Book Award, Young Adult Fiction category, from IBPNE, the Independent Book Publishers of New England.
The book is available at The Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, and is available for order by any local bookshop (as well as at the giant/online bookstores, who shall not be named…) Wilhelm open his talk on Sunday up to questions and a book signing will follow.