Monday, February 27, 2012

What's it like to be $200K in debt? (Interview with Kelli Space)

In May 2009, 23-year-old Kelly Space graduated with a top-notch education from Northeastern University. And a degree in sociology. And, uh, $200,000 in student loans.

How did an intelligent, responsible young woman find herself in an impossible situation with a humungous debt and an unmarketable degree? I’ll get to that, but first let me breakdown some of the financial particulars….

-Northeastern tuition cost $30,000/year. Room and board was an additional $10-15,000/year.

-To pay for it, Kelli took out $163,000 in student loans.

-While in school, the interest accrued, so by the time Kelli graduated, the debt was $200,000.

-Kelli owes $11,000 in low-interest government loans and $189,000 in a multitude of private loans, some of which have interest rates as high as 9 percent.

-After graduating, she entered into a two-year program in which her monthly bills were momentarily reduced to $900/month. At the end of this program, she will owe $1,656/month.

I spoke with Kelly about a year ago (and never got around to transcribing our interview till now). At that point, she was still in the midst of her “fifteen minutes of fame,” which began when she asked for donations on Gawker. The response to her plea was mostly negative, with commentators claiming she was begging for handouts and not taking responsibility for her actions, even though she’d been working 60 hours a week, residing at her parents’ home, and living a frugal, barebones lifestyle—and despite all the sacrifices and hard work—hardly putting a dent in her debt.

What’s remarkable about Kelli is just how unremarkable her situation is. Like her, many students find themselves caught in a perfect storm of bad counseling, poor financial education, and blind hope.

KI: Forgive me for putting the question this way, but I think a lot of people are wondering the same thing. So… ummm… What the hell were you thinking?

KS: I was thinking that I’d get a really good education. Everyone always asks me, ‘Didn’t you know [how much you were going to have to pay back] when you were going to school?’ And the answer to that is ‘Yes, of course.’ But I don’t think I understood the gravity and the enormity of that number. [A high school student] thinks it’s normal to borrow when everyone borrows money to go to school. To a lot of people, this sounds like an excuse, but honestly, if you’re not taught something, how are you supposed to know?

Were you at all “financially aware” before you attended college?

In high school, you don’t learn personal finance. You hardly learn about economics. I think that’s a huge issue. I don’t think I was stupid. You only know what you’re taught. I thought I was doing the right thing.

How should we educate young people so they don’t make the same mistake?

I think it’s so necessary [that we educate them]. If we’re going to teach kids geometry and English, why shouldn’t we teach them [personal finance], which will affect their lives directly?

What made you want to get into the best school you could get into, no matter the cost?

My parents expected me to go to college. It wasn’t expected of them. I had blinders on. It was only [college] that I could see at the end of my tunnel. During my high school sophomore year, my history teacher told us, 'The one requirement I have of you guys is that you go away to school. Don’t live at home.' Stuff like that was instilled in me over and over. [It was all about] going away and having this adult life starting at age 18 at the best possible place you can get this education and get the best career. There was no talk of money.

In college, when did it hit you, when you thought, “wow, I have all this money to pay off?”

My first year, I was loving being away from home. In my sophomore year, it started to hit me a little bit. ‘How am I going to do this?’ I knew I needed to sit down and figure out how what kind of jobs I could get and what I should do after graduation to ensure that I got the highest paying job. I was more optimistic than anything. Junior year, it got a little worse. The recession hit, and I thought, ‘The last thing I need is to graduate in a terrible economy and not get a job with all this debt.’ 

You've been paying it off for a little over a year now. Has the debt gotten any smaller?

At first, when I made a payment, the number didn’t move at all. I was just paying interest basically.

How awful. ::sympathetic laughter::

Yeah, it’s so depressing. ::laughs::. In October—when I was like, 'oh no, I only have 13 more months of these low payments.' Low! They’re $900 a month! ::more laughter:: And soon I’ll have to start paying $1,600 a month. Nothing says depression like putting $1,000 toward a loan payment and not seeing the debt decrease at all. Or even if you see it go down a little bit, the interest shoots it right back up. It’s just so depressing. So when I got some contributions, it was just such a great day to see that number go down.

Has the debt affected your personal life?

The depression has gotten increasingly worse since graduation. I don’t think it’s affecting my job, but I do think it’s affecting my relationship with friends and family. All I can think about is my debt. It’s just such a burden. My posture… If you saw me standing… I can’t stand up straight. It just feels so heavy. I’m constantly upset. It’s so overwhelming. 

Do you think it’ll affect your decision to have a family (if that’s something you want)?

There’s too much of a wall in front of my face to see the future. If I still have this debt in 10 years, in 15 years—which I’m hoping I don’t—I don’t think I’ll have a family. I don’t think I’ll be married.

I’m okay with sitting at home. I’m okay with not spending my money. I’m okay with putting all my money toward my debt. Yet it doesn’t feel like the debt is coming down at all. It just feels like I’m giving, giving, giving to this debt. I’m making all these sacrifices for it. But there’s no positive result yielding yet.

When do you think you’ll be out of debt?

This is something I need to be clear of before I can move on, be happy, and do things for other people. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be out of debt, but I definitely know it will not be 25 years from now. It’s going to be sooner than that.

What would you say to an 18-year-old girl who wants to go to the best school she could get into, regardless of the cost?

I dream of this. I’d tell her that she should start off at a community college for a year or two. Get credits and good grades, and reapply to these great schools she wants to go to. Maybe she’ll get more scholarship money. Maybe she’ll be able to save up money so she doesn’t have to take out any loans. I think those two years in community college—and maybe two years just working—would give you such a different perspective.

[The other day I asked Kelli about her progress. Her debt is down to $140,000 and she expects it to be as low as $120,000 by June. She’s working in the legal department of a large media company and has moved out of her home and into a $500/month apartment just outside of NYC. She has raised $12,000 on her site, on which she calls for better youth financial education and is trying to raise awareness about student debt. You can follow her on Twitter here, or buy what's left of her possessions on sale here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A walk across Stokes County

I have friends editing the book at the moment, so--to stretch my legs--I took two days to hike the 28-mile Sauratown Trail that spans across Stokes County, North Carolina. I started at Pilot Mountain in Surry County in the west and finished in Hanging Rock State Park in the east.

One of the most iconic features of all of North Carolina is Pilot Mountain, a tree-topped teat jutting from the round udder of the Piedmont. The mountain is a 2,421-foot tall "metamorphic quartzite monadnock," also referred to as "Mount Pilot" in The Andy Griffith Show, which was set in the fictional town of Mayberry.

Stokes County, abutting the southern border of Virginia, is home to 47,401 residents who live in small villages and along country roads. The county formed in 1789, and was named after a Revolutionary War captain, John Stokes. For decades, the county residents were involved in the mining, iron-making, and tobacco-farming industries, but around 1850, Stokes began to develop into a "resort town." Affluent visitors from Winston-Salem would travel to Stokes to stay at one of three grandiose, Shining-like hotels nestled in the Sauratown Mountains, where European orchestras would entertain.

The hotels burnt down long ago, and Stokes, today--without a flagship industry--seems to be suffering from a mild identity crisis. Much of the rolling farmland has gone fallow, and the old barns--careening green-bearded Pisas--have been left to rot. There are hideous chain restaurants in the towns, ruthless crystal meth murders, and obese kids who have calves as meaty and round as roast chickens. The place just feels old and forgotten, but that's not entirely a bad thing. There is a silver lining to neglect and disinterest. The woods still grow tall and green, the streams run wild and clear, and the farmland is some of the most glorious scenery I've ever set eyes on.

While most of the Sauratown Trail goes through forest, a great deal of it leads the hiker over private farmland. While there are, no doubt, benefits to immersing yourself in wild man-less, machine-less country for days or weeks on end, leaving the trees for a short sojourn on bucolic farmland is always a treat for the eyes. It is just one of those timeless complementary combinations of pleasure: wine and cheese, milk and cereal, beer and pretzels; if there is anything that makes you want to plod on, it's a variegated landscape.

A good portion of the trail takes the hiker down backwoods country roads.

Pine and poplar forest.

Lots of holly, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons in some of the lower, shadier elevations.

Hanging Rock is in the distance.

The cave below is called "Torey's Den." During the Revolutionary War, there were several skirmishes in the area between the American patriots (called the Whigs) and the British loyalists (called the Tories). In one such skirmish, a gang of Tories, who had been removed from their land, stole provisions from (and allegedly the daughter of) Colonel Martin, a Whig leader. About 100 Tories were hiding in this cave. None escaped Colonel Martin's wrath.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How to make shiitake mushroom logs

Last year, I inoculated two oak trees with shitake mushroom spawn. For the longest time I thought I didn't do it correctly because the logs, after almost a year, had yet to bear any mushrooms.

That all changed last month when they started producing. We've stir-fried a couple of them and they were delicious.

Please don't consider the video "expert advice," as those were just my first logs. We bought our spawns from Maine. You can find additional advice here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

New Look

I figured it was about time that I spruced up the old blog. If just for the different colors, I liked the above picture (that's Duke Chapel in the background), but I never liked the name "The Spartan Student." I thought it was a touch too self-promotional and I was always a little embarrassed by the whole thing. Plus, I haven't  been "poor" or "desperate" for a long time. And I'm more frequently pitching articles to magazines, so I desired a more professional look. The old look had to go.

I guess I need some sort of new title for this blog because my Duke years are over and my life is headed in a new direction. What that direction is, I'm not exactly sure, which is why I'm struggling to think of the proper words to capture the blog's themes. (The new picture above is me standing on an unnamed mountain in the Brooks Range next to Walker Lake. It was taken by my ranger-friend, Adam.)

A couple other housekeeping notes:

- My new domain name is You can access the blog by using this new address, or my old one ( (PS: If you're thinking of starting a blog, I can't say enough good things about Blogger/Blogspot; they've really made it easy for the average person to make a decent looking website. Plus, the new domain name will only cost me $10/year.)

- I liked the narrow text columns I had in the old blog template (because I thought it made for some easy-on-the-eyes reading), but these new wider columns permit me to post really big pictures, which is a feature I'm excited about. If there's anything about my new format that you find disagreeable, please email me or post a comment and I'll see what I can do.

- In an effort to post more than once a week (which is a rate I clearly haven't been able to maintain lately), I think I might do a "weekly quote" post. I have 162 single-spaced pages of interesting quotes/passages I've written down over the years--many of which aren't to be found on the Internet. I thought such a weekly post would be an easy way for me to bring a little more activity to this blog; my life hasn't been incredibly blog-post-worthy of late because I've been doing little more than book-editing for the past many months. Perhaps I need to find new ways to compensate.

- Anyway, thanks again for your readership. The comments and emails and well wishes are always encouraging. I never would have thought that I'd still be "blogging" after three years, but it's been incredibly fulfilling.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

To get a book deal (Part 2 of 2)

[This is Part-two of a two-part series. For Part-one, click here.]

A tough decision (August 2011)

The agent had asked me if any other agents had read my proposal.

Ahhahahah! I loved that question. I read it over and over again, smiling and laughing to myself. This email was written by someone who WANTS ME. This was the first time in a long time when someone in a position of power recognized that the book had potential.

Was I surprised? Of course. But just a little. Deep down, I knew the book was good. Well, maybe it wasn’t good quite yet, but I knew that it would be good.

But to answer her question, yes, anther agency did have the proposal in their hands.

My friend JanaLee hooked me up with a small, two-person, mom and pop agency. (Let’s call them mom and pop.) While mom and pop had represented a few impressive clients—a Nobel Prize winner for instance—they were a small website-less, two-person agency. When I talked to them on the phone, they were laid back and casual. Picking up a new writer to them seemed as ordinary as picking up the morning paper. But now that I had options, I didn’t want to be “picked up.”

I wanted to be seduced.

The seductive agency (let’s call them Agency A) was passionate, sending me emails and setting up multiple phone conferences. (This is the agency that sent me a couple emails including the “Does any other agent have this” line.) And while they called themselves “small,” they had a host of clients, several of whom won awards and were New York Times Bestsellers.

One of the co-owners of Agency A insinuated that my book could be “big.” He threw around writers names like mega-bestseller Tim Ferriss, hinting that my book could achieve similar success. He was a bit pushy, though, telling me that I was merely “molting” as a writer, and that I needed to rewrite the book with a completely different structure. He wanted it to be a “how-to,” with tables and charts and such. I didn’t know anything about writing a “how-to,” and while I had nothing against how-to’s, I just didn’t think that was my style.

They were passionate. They were big. And they were promising big things if I did it their way…

Mom and pop, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care how I wrote it. Plus, they offered free book editing, which is a service basically unheard of among literary agencies. Plus, they were just really nice; I knew that they weren't the type who’d let me agonize over an unanswered email for months on end.

With much reluctance, hesitation, and second-guessing, I turned down Agency A.

I wanted to write the book my way. I went with mom and pop.

Proposal submission (November 2011)

After I selected an agency, I edited the manuscript and revised the proposal. I fixed up the sample chapter, created a “comparable books” section, described my core audience, and touched up my overview. The document, now, was well over 100 pages. I thought it was looking pretty good.

We had to wait till November to submit it because there are only a few times over the course of a year when a publishing company is able to approve new projects.

Once we put some last touches on the proposal, my agent submitted it to editors at 17 big-time publishing companies, the names of which most any casual reader would be able to recognize.  

How was I feeling when my agent submitted the proposals? I was excited. Optimistic, even. We couldn’t have picked a better time. Because of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, student debt was suddenly at the forefront of the national consciousness. My book dealt with a lot of issues facing the indebted demographic. And while there were books about debt—I couldn’t find one narrative about someone actually getting out of debt. It was timely. It was relevant. It was inspirational! Millions will want to read it!

But I’d been rejected from school and internships and girls enough to know not to go my hopes up. After all, there was the possibility of getting rejected across the board. I didn’t have a backup plan, so if the book was rejected, I figured I’d just call it quits and buy a ticket to Europe or Asia or South America or some continent I’d never visited.

First responses

The following responses came from editors at various publishing companies. I’m keeping their names and the company’s names anonymous out of courtesy:

1) Although this story does sound interesting I'm afraid the amount of publicity he did after the Salon article scares me off. I think it would be a real impediment to getting (repeat) publicity for the book. Of course, this is just one editor's opinion; maybe another will be less skittish and more bullish about this.

Okay, I thought, no biggie. She didn’t say anything about the writing being crappy or anything. In fact, she said it was "interesting." She just figured there was a publicity technicality.

2)  Interesting story, but as luck would have it, I just passed on a student debt book the other day. Our sense is that these kinds of books are difficult to sell because there’s so much advice on reducing student debt on the internet for free.  And even though Ken has a decidedly different slant on this, I just have a sense it would be difficult to get out big numbers.

Okay, no big deal. He thought it was interesting, too. 0 for 2, but not a bad 0 for 2. 

3) Ken is a delightful writer, and an inspiration to anybody who has ever despaired at their own personal student debt, but I’m afraid this project isn’t quite right for us. This is more of a personal memoir than it is an examination of the debt crisis, and I don’t think we’d be well-positioned to publish this effectively. Thanks very much for the chance to read!

“Delightful writer.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. It seemed like he liked the idea, but his company didn’t appear to be into memoirs. I shouldn’t take this one personally.

4) He has a terrific voice indeed and is quite a lively writer.  I enjoyed these pages very much and it couldn’t have a more timely resonance.  I regret, however, that I just couldn’t see a way for us to break this out at a larger level.  Thank you again for thinking of me; I know you’ll find a great home for this.

“Terrific voice?” “Delightful writer?” What’s the problem, here??

5) Ken Ilgunas is a very winning guy and has a story that certainly tracks the political/economic moment. However, I didn’t find the writing terribly strong.

Oh, Jesus, this is going to be painful.

6) It rests somewhere between a full bodied memoir and a truly practical guide for students and graduates, not quite either one. I liked Ken on the page, but I found him a little too earnest and lacking in fresh insight at book length.

Earnest? I'm not sure I'd say I’m earnest, but what’s wrong with being earnest? Must all writers be sarcastic and cool and hip and ironic?

7) I wish the writing were stronger—it’s perfectly fine, but because the premise is so quirky, I think the writing might need to be a notch more distinctive.  (I did stop reading it somewhere along the way, feeling I got the gist….)  Let me take another look and consult with my colleague, who was interested in the subject from a generational perspective.  I’m glad you checked in, since I read it right after you sent it and am now a bit foggy about it.

Oh god, not another “strong writing” comment.

8) Unfortunately we don’t think it’s quite right for us, in part because the writing isn’t as strong as I would have liked it to be, but also because as all of the younger readers commented to me, they’ve got much more debt than the range that he’s writing about and his solutions wouldn’t really come close to helping them to pay it off. So they felt his story was largely irrelevant for them.  I’ve got to listen to that, as they’re right in the core potential readership.

Conference Call

And suddenly, I became numb. As the rejections continued to trebuchet into my inbox, I’d become a diligent mason, erecting mile-high stone walls around my brittle, defenseless psyche.

This was it. This was my writing “career.” I’d been writing on a semi-professional basis since 2004. In eight years, I’d gotten paid something like $2,000 for all my work. How much longer am I going to write for pocket change? It’s not like I had another book idea in the back of my mind. If I can’t sell a book about student debt when EVERYONE is in debt, then what can I sell? If I can’t sell a story about a dude secretly living in his goddamned van, then, well, I simply don’t have what it takes.

Frankly I thought I was sitting on a pot of gold when everyone else just thought I was taking a dump. What must I do to show these New York City-ites that this was going to be a good book?

I was numb. I could neither feel gloom nor hope—just a steady nothing mixed in with a dash of dread.  So when one publishing company showed interest, my reaction could best be described as “meh.”

My agents and I had a conference call with that company’s editor. He seemed really enthusiastic. He said he once built a canoe. He said he had wondered why we all go into debt. He got it. Finally, someone fucking got it! But I was still so numb and detached—I would not let my hopes get up again.

Amid the rejections, there were a couple more publishing companies that showed interest. Okay, I might have a chance, I thought.

After the proposal had been in publishers’ hands for a few weeks, my agent told all others who hadn’t responded that they had to make their decision soon. He set a specific day.

Game day (December 2011)

I think we are most content in our working lives when we play a useful role, especially when this role is in accord with our passions, and when it provides us with an arena where we can exercise our unique abilities. We feel best about our work when we do something that other people cannot.

Maybe I was merely “molting,” but I wanted writing to be my role. I was happy writing for myself or for a small (but wonderful) blog audience, but when I’d write for a larger audience, I’d often fall into a “writing nirvana.” I’d forget about everything else. Me and this Microsoft Word document would become one. I’d be so wholeheartedly engaged in the project that I wouldn’t want to check my email or eat or go to bathroom. I just wanted to write; and knowing that these words might make someone laugh or think made the work feel meaningful.  

The happiest year of my life was probably when I was the "arts editor" for my undergraduate school’s newspaper, The Spectrum. I loved writing columns, dreaming up stories for the staff to write, thinking about the layout… It printed three days a week. And at night, before a workday, I couldn’t wait for the morning to come. I'd never felt that way before and I don't think I've ever felt that way since. That’s how much I loved that newspaper and my job. Since then, I’ve known that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to feel that same sense of anticipation for the morning every night.

So on the day that I was to find out if I got a book deal, I was numb, but I wasn’t so numb that I’d forgotten what was at stake. I just felt powerless. I’d done all that I could do. My fate was in someone else’s hands.

The phone call

My phone rang.

“Hello Ken,” said my literary agent.

“Hi P----.”

“Well, I have news.”


[There were several companies who were interested in bidding, but I must refrain from divulging specific information.]

“[Unnamed publishing company] has made a bid. What do you think of $-0,000?”

While 15 percent of it would go to the agents, I knew my impoverished days were over for a long time.

While I’d like to say I accepted the news nonchalantly—like a good gentlemen—my response was far from classy.

“ARE YOU SHITTIN’ ME??!! Oh my god. Holy fuck. Holy fuck!”

Some moments when by.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“Yes,” my agent said, laughing. “They want to publish your book. Would you like to accept?”

“Ha. Yes, of course.” 


Within a couple days, I had flown to NYC for the afternoon to have a lunch with my agents and my new editor. The following weekend, to celebrate, my pals and I got drunk in my friend Quaz’s basement playing beer pong and flip cup.

I needed to recommence editing, so I moved back down to Acorn Abbey in Stokes County, North Carolina, where I’ve gone over the book 3-4 more times. The van is still here. I had the oil changed and it runs as well as ever.

Currently, the book has 22 chapters and 90,000 words. I’ll be sending it to my editor soon and it should be “done done” within the next few months. It will be available in hardcover and ebook next year, ideally in January of 2013.

I cannot name the publisher quite yet since the contract has yet to be signed, but I’m excited to work with them. It’s a big-name, and one y’all will be able to recognize. I’ll announce it as soon as I can.

While I’ve been avoiding full-time jobs these past many years, I've done so with the hope of setting myself up with a job I really cared about—a job where I’d be happy to work 12 hour days. And now that I have that, I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier than I have been these past two months. Every night, I look forward to the morning.

But with the pleasures of having a book deal come the stirrings of anxiety—a good anxiety—but one that will grow and grow and grow as I begin to worry more and more: What if people don’t like it?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

To get a book deal (Part 1 of 2)

My cell phone rang.

It was late December 2011. I was in my old room in my parents’ home in Wheatfield, New York. I’d been waiting for this phone call for hours.

Scratch that.

I’d been waiting for this phone call for two whole years.

Scratch that.

I’d been waiting for this phone call for my whole adult life.

The phone call was from my literary agent.

Today was the day he'd receive “bids” from publishing companies that wanted to publish my book. It was uncertain if we’d get several bids or if we’d get any bids at all.

To get to this point, I’d quit my job as a ranger. I’d given up $30,000 in possible paychecks. I was nearly broke and I had no backup plans other than to skip country and roam the world as a wandering bum. I’d put all my eggs in this book deal basket.

“Hi Ken,” he said.

“Hi P----.”

“Well, I have news.”

The Salon piece (December 2009)

The “journey to publish a book” began the day I sent an article about living in a van to an editor at Salon in December 2009. When the Salon editor read it, she immediately sent it to her agent (let’s call him Jerry), who was in the process of selling one of her books.

Like the editor, Jerry instantly recognized the potential in my article. Before my article was even published on the Salon website, I received an email for him, inquiring if I wanted to adapt the article into a book. He offered to represent me.

He wrote: “I do think a book elaborating your Thoreauvian themes would have broad appeal, to publishers and readers alike, and I would love to discuss the possibility of a book with you.”

At that point, I’d known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer. There was nothing complicated about it: I loved writing; I loved doing stuff worth writing about; and I got a kick out of sharing that stuff with other people.

Maybe I didn’t have the talent, but I knew I felt “a calling.” It was writing.

So when Jerry put the idea of a book into my head, I swooned. This was all so wildly surreal. While I’d wanted to write books, I didn’t think anything I’d done quite yet merited a book. This changed everything. Maybe I can write a book about living in a van?

In a matter of 24 hours, I'd went from being an no-name bum living in a parking lot at Duke, who had little professional writing experience, to a bum who could now boast of having a freakishly popular article, an agent, and the real possibility of a book deal.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Creating a proposal (Summer 2010)

The first step in getting a book deal is creating a “book proposal,” which is a large 50-100 page document that contains everything from an overview of the book, a bio, a marketing plan, an annotated table of contents, to a sample chapter. The proposal, once completed, is sent out to various publishing companies. Oftentimes, there are no publishing companies that want to pick it up. This is usually when a book dies. Sometimes, though, one or several publishers will make a bid. This is when a book is born.

After my Salon piece, I spent the rest of the 2010 Spring Semester dreaming about my book. While I didn’t think I had enough material to do a whole 70,000-word book on living in a van (because living in a van is actually quite boring most of the time), I began to think about other possibilities, like if I included a series of flashbacks about my past, when I was paying off my debt in Alaska and other strange places. Maybe I’d have enough material that way?

As summer approached, I had a big decision to make: Do I go back to work in Alaska at my well-paying Park Service job—a job where I got to do cool things, protect wildland, and leave with a solid $15,000? Or do I put everything I have into this book thing?

Because Jerry made me feel pretty confident about getting a book deal, I thought it was worth the risk. I chose the book thing. I moved into David’s abbey in rural North Carolina where I began writing my proposal. I had it my mind that I’d have the proposal finished and a book deal in my hands by summer’s end.

A trip to NYC (August 2010)

As the summer months went by, I began to “see” the narrative arc of my book. I knew where I wanted it to start (the moment I had to begin paying off my student debt), but I wasn’t too sure about when I wanted the book to end. Arbitrarily, I decided to end it after my first semester in the van. It took a lot longer to plan a book out and write a proposal than I'd expected, but I knew it wasn't a big deal if I didn't get a book deal by summer's end. I was still a graduate student at Duke, so my coursework was my #1 priority. I came to Duke to learn, not to earn.

Jerry and I were still emailing each other on a regular basis. While I didn’t think the proposal was done, I wanted to get his thoughts on what I had so far, so I sent the draft to him and—to make this whole book project feel “real”—I took a bus to NYC to meet him.

We met at a deli somewhere in Brooklyn. He was a dapper, 40-year-old man, dressed in a clean pair of slacks and a tight Oxford shirt. I was wearing my best summer wear: an old ratty Coldfoot tee and a decrepit pair of sneakers that should have been thrown out years before.

We talked about the proposal for a while over a plate of sweet potato fries. He said it was a good “first draft,” but I had to work on some things. I needed to develop my characters more. I needed to think more about my narrative arc. I needed to change the tone of the story.

I liked Jerry for his forthrightness. He seemed genuine and smart and well-experienced. A good guy to have in my corner.

I wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about the proposal by conversation’s end, so I asked, “What do you think my chances are?”

“Ken, I'm working with you because I know this will be a book.”

A weight was lifted off my shoulders; my whole body breathed a sigh of relief.

My Liberal Studies Final Project (Spring 2011)

I shelved the book for the 2010 Fall Semester so I could focus on tutoring and studying for my classes. At the end of that semester, I only had to fulfill one more obligation to get my degree: I needed to write my “final project.” I thought this was a grand opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: I could write my book and get my degree if I made my book the final project.

So I moved back into David’s for the semester, where I began writing a 70,000-word book. I still had the same narrative in mind that I’d outlined in the proposal, though I thought the book would work best if I got creative with the chronology, jumping back and forth in time.

It would be about two things: 1) The first was my two-and-a-half-year journey to get out debt. I’d take the reader to places like Coldfoot, on long hitchhikes, a voyage across Ontario, Mississippi, and back up to Alaska at the Gates of the Arctic National Park. It would be an adventure narrative, a travel memoir, always with the goal of getting out of debt in the background. 2) The second part would be my Duke vandwelling experiment, which would be an extension of my get-out-debt journey, but would be more reflective, more stationary, more Thoreauvian.

Jerry and I had stopped corresponding over email, but I figured that that was only because I was focused on school work. Still, though, I was a little concerned.

I emailed him if just to maintain relations and to tell him that the book was coming along.

“I’d love to see whatever you’ve got,” he responded. “The most important thing, of course, is that the proposal is really strong. Keep at it and thanks for the update. I’m here if you have any questions.”

After I thought I finished Chapter One (which I would end up editing and overhauling no less than 100 times), I sent Jerry an excited email, including the chapter.

The drought (March – June 2011)

After I send him that chapter, Jerry stopped responding to my emails. And my phone calls too. I didn’t know what to do. I inferred that Jerry wasn’t emailing me anymore because he didn’t think my writing was good enough.

Of course this was extremely upsetting. Not only was I losing confidence, but I was running out of money, too. Because I hadn’t worked the previous summer and because I wasn’t tutoring anymore and because of a few unexpected van repairs, all of a sudden I was down to $300.

I had some big decisions to make. Should I sell the van for money? Should I work with the Park Service this summer? I was also offered a job in Durham to work for a magazine that would pay in the high $30K’s. Should I take that?

I decided: no, I'm not going to take any of these jobs; I’m going to see this thing through; I’m going to pursue my dream. I have an agent and a good idea for a book, I justified. It was worth the risk. Plus, my writing professor and final project adviser—the wonderful Christina Askounis—told me she thought the book was good, and with enough revising, it might get published. With her and others’ encouragement, I decided that I’d keep working on the book after graduation.

But as my relationship with Jerry regressed, my confidence receded.

It had been two whole months since I sent my chapter to Jerry and I still hadn't received a response. Christina, though, told me not to worry too much. “Agents are notorious for taking longer than they say they will,” she said. “Try not to read too much into it.”

I was worried, though. If anyone could gauge whether or not I could get a book deal, it was a professional agent.

I sent another email to Jerry and left a message on his phone. I finally—finally!—got an email back from him saying he’d read it over the weekend.

And then another two weeks passed with no word from him. My professor reminded me that this was normal and that sometimes it takes agents literally months to get back to writers. But I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to figure my life out. I decided I’d send one last email. If he didn’t respond—fine—I’ll find a new agent.

Hey Jerry,
With graduation over and having $800 to my name, I'm eager to get the proposal going. Have you had a chance to look it over? If you still would like to work together, please let me know. 
Hope you're well, 

The agent search (July 2011)

“You have seemed a bit subdued the last few times I've seen you,” my professor wrote. “I suppose that’s to be expected as this part of your life comes to a close, but I couldn’t help wondering if there was something apart from all that weighing on you. Please know that you have a friend in me, and, if you need one, a confidante.”

I was feeling a bit worn down. The process wasn’t going the way I thought it would. I’d lost my agent, and with him, all my confidence. Plus, I didn’t think the book was any good at all. While it was good enough to pass as my final project, I knew it was still far from being a book that someone would buy on a bookshelf.

I was now in Coldfoot, Alaska; I was their “writer in residence.” Everyone was working around me and making money. The park rangers were being sent out on patrols and cashing huge paychecks. Soon, I’d begin guiding part-time, and later, dishwashing in Deadhorse, a sister camp to the north.

I had hoped to have a book deal last summer, yet I wasn't any closer to having one now. I’m running out of money, I’m washing dishes, my life has no direction. I began to pursue a girl that summer, but this loss of confidence was beginning to leak into other parts of my life. I was losing a sense of self-worth; I felt insecure and weak.

I spent almost all of my non-working time revising the proposal. It was far easier to write the proposal now that I’d written my first draft of the book. I knew exactly who my audience was and what I was trying to accomplish. The tone of the book wasn’t serious and meditative as I once wanted it to be; rather, it was light and self-deprecating. It was kind of a Bill Bryson meets Liz Gilbert meets Jon Krakauer (except not nearly as good as any of the above).

I asked Christina—who’s a published author—for advice on finding a new agent. She sent some emails out to her writer friends, and sure enough, I soon had the email addresses of three “good” agents. Meanwhile, my friend JanaLee said she knew some agents, so she let them know about me.

On July 1, 2011, I sent my proposal to three agencies. The first two would never respond. Twelve days later, I received a frantic email from the third.

She said that my submission had been flagged from the "slush pile" and that it was one of the best proposals she's read in a long time. She said she hopes that I'll consider their agency and asked if I had submitted it to other agencies.

Just minutes later I got another frantic email from the owner of the agency. Her excitement and her sense of urgency were palpable.

[This is Part 1 of a two-part series. For Part 2, click here.]