A Few Questions to Adam Fawer of Improbable

I’m glad Kevin reviewed Improbable last Wednesday because I have recently emailed author Adam Fawer about becoming a writer. Fawer’s last day job was COO of About.com. I asked him if leaving that position was a big risk.

AF: It depends how you look at it. Financially, yes, I suppose it was. I was making a great living and had good job security. However, I was also spending a lot of my time laying off employees and making budget cuts, which quite frankly, I hated. In the end, I decided I’d rather take a risk and be poor and happy rather than play it safe and be rich and depressed.

After I quit, I told myself I’d start looking for a job if I didn’t have a completed manuscript and an agent within six months. Six months later, I had the former, but not the later, so I started up my job search. However, before I found a new position, I got an agent.

So, at her recommendation, I decided to rewrite my novel. Again, I put myself on a timeline. I decided that if I couldn’t finish it and get it sold within six months then I’d go back to work. At the end of the six months, I had finished it, but my agent hadn’t sold it, so I took a job. Two days later, HarperCollins bought the English rights. That was over a year and a half ago. Since then my agent has sold translation rights to my novel in six other languages.

Phil: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

AF: Although I’ve (secretly) always wanted to be an author, I never had the courage to quit my job and just go for it until I got a call from my old college friend Stephanie. At the age of 30, she had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

The news hit me hard and made me reevaluate my life. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. My father had died of cancer when he was only 49 after working a job he hated for almost twenty years. I didn’t want this to be my fate. Suddenly I had an incredible sense of urgency to stop messing around and start living my life to the fullest.

So, I thought back to when I was a kid. I didn’t have a normal childhood. When I was six years old, I contracted a rare illness that caused corneal scarring in both my eyes. I spent the next ten years in and out of hospitals, undergoing countless surgeries. The only thing that got me through were books on tape from the Commission for the Blind. Every night, when I was alone in the dark, I’d listen to a novel.

I “read” everyone from Judy Blume to Isaac Asimov to Stephen King to Michael Crichton to Tom Clancy. These authors and hundreds others gave me the one thing that my doctors and my parents could not-an escape. It didn’t take long for authors to eclipse all my other heroes. And so, unlike kids who dreamed of one day becoming a baseball star or an astronaut, I dreamed of becoming a writer.

When I was sixteen, my vision became stable enough to return to school fulltime. I fell into the typical high school routines with a passion, because I so desperately wanted to be just like everybody else. I went to college, became a numbers guy, and well, you know the rest.

So, after talking with Stephanie, I decided to quit my job and try to pursue my childhood dream of becoming an author. As she had also always wanted to write a novel (she was an award-winning magazine writer), we made a pact. We would write together every day until we both had a completed manuscript. The next day, I took the subway to where she lived in Brooklyn Heights, headed out to Starbucks (our respective laptops carefully tucked beneath our arms), plugged in and began writing.

We wrote for almost two hours that day. And the next day. And the day after that. That first month, I don’t think we missed a single day. Then Stephanie got sicker and had to go into the hospital; but I kept going. And when Stephanie was feeling better, she resumed writing as well.

By the summer of 2004 we both had publishing deals. Mine, through HarperCollins and hers through a former colleague who was starting a new imprint. On June 21, 2004, I (along with about 100 others) attended Stephanie’s book party. She said it was the happiest day of her life. Unfortunately, two weeks later, she lost her battle with cancer. It was an incredibly sad day, but her family and I were comforted knowing that Stephanie had lived her dream.

Stephanie helped show me how important it is to do what you love because you never know how much time you have left. Now, I’m a full-time writer.

Phil: I don’t think your response to Stephanie’s diagnosis is corny at all. That’s the stuff of life. I wish more of us would give serious thought to our lives before the hard times come. As Jesus said, “There are few things that matter. Really, only one.”

Your response is very similar to Anthony Burgess’ response to his own fatal diagnosis. As I understand it, he was told he would not live beyond a year, so he decided to stories which might generate an income after his death. But he didn’t die, and he kept writing.

You’ve gotten good reviews from other blogs and sites as well as Kevin’s review here. Clive Cussler calls it “spellbinding.” Does the praise surprise you at all?

AF: The praise is great in that it (hopefully) gets more people to read the book. However it doesn’t really thrill me one way or another.

Phil: Where did you come up with the idea for your story? (I dislike that question, but some people give interesting answers to it, so I’ll throw it to you.)

AF: I had a statistics professor in college who once said “If you walked outside right now and jumped up into the air it’s POSSIBLE that through a confluence of incredibly low probability events (a sudden typhoon carrying you up into the sky high enough to collide with the space shuttle) you could land on the moon. However, this is highly unlikely. Thus, the moral of the story is nothing is impossible, but certain things are infinitely improbable.” This idea always stuck with me and eventually morphed into the premise for my book: a man who could understand all of the consequences for every improbable action in the universe.

Phil: And here’s a question for the guys at the design blog, Foreward: What do you think about your cover art? Pleased? Unmoved? Hope others like though you don’t?

AF: I like the U.S. cover quite a bit. I think it captures the right mood and it’s very eye-catching. However, it’s nothing compared to the Dutch cover. Not only did they rename my book DE EINSTEIN CODE, but the cover features a green bikini-clad woman throwing a mask of a yellow face. It’s very trippy.


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