Jeff Geiger had to hit bottom as a writer before he really learned to write.
The 35-year-old Eugene man had been writing seriously since he was 20, turning out speculative fiction in the sci-fi/fantasy vein of the Wordos, a long-running Eugene writing group he was part of for several years. The Wordos have included such well known writers as Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ray Vukcevich and Eric Witchey.
But things weren’t going well for Geiger. He was getting small pieces published here and there, but not anywhere that many people were really reading them.
And then one day he was coming home from a writer’s retreat near Seattle, where his latest work had failed to get much reaction. “I had brought this work in progress,” he explained. “And it obviously wasn’t working.”
His ’93 Buick broke down in rural Washington, and he found himself stuck in a cheap motel, debating whether to abandon the car and take the bus back to Eugene in time for his day job – he worked full time then as a program officer at the Oregon Community Foundation.
And that was when he hit dead bottom. He gave up.
“I said to hell with it,” Geiger said over a glass of wine one day last week. “I am not going to sell a book. I am never going to sell a book. I thought I had hit bottom before about not selling a book. But I hadn’t, until then.”
Geiger talks like a born story teller, stretching out the suspense just enough to keep his listener attentive but never impatient. He’s honed those skills for six years as director of the small theater group No Shame Eugene, where aspiring playwrights and actors can produce short pieces in front of a live audience once a month on First Friday. You get five minutes on stage to tell your story. Then the lights go out, whether you’re done or not, and the next act takes the stage.
He wasn’t done with writing. What he was really done with was the marketing merry-go-round that every post-Internet writer is sadly familiar with. Sell your brand. Sell yourself. Reach out to the public. Make sure you have a huge online presence. Tweet as fast as you can.
Geiger ran the other way. “I unplugged from Twitter,” he said. “I unplugged from Facebook. I didn’t go to any more conferences. I stopped every manifestation of marketing. I just stopped.”
He stopped querying agents and thinking about contracts.
He started over, with a new sense of purity about his mission. He wanted simply to write.
He told himself this: “I am just going to write a book like you would write a letter. Like just one person would read it – I would write a book that just one person would read.”
Two years later he finally showed that book to a small group of friends. One, a published author, told him it was the best thing he had ever written.
Encouraged, Geiger went back to that same retreat near Seattle again and showed the work around. This time he found himself talking to an agent, who said the book sounded really interesting. She actually wanted to read it. He sent it.
Cut forward a few months. Geiger, to his continuing surprise, last February signed a two-book deal with Disney-Hyperion for the book he wrote as a letter to a single reader, as well as for one more book he hasn’t even written. The book in hand is called “Wildman” and is scheduled to come out in spring 2017.
In “Wildman,”a valedictorian’s carefully-planned life goes off the rails when his car breaks down 300 miles from home.
I gently inquired, and he gently declined to say, how much money the deal was for. But the best answer is this: In June, Geiger quit his full time at job at OCF, now working part time for the foundation on specific projects.
Part of his success involved shifting from speculative fiction to the growing genre of young adult fiction, or YA.
Geiger grew up reading Roald Dahl and a lot of comic books, from Batman to Spiderman.
YA comes naturally to him as a writer, Geiger said. “I wanted to write authentically about the young adult experience and do it in a way that was respectful of the intelligence of young adults. And writing without a market in mind freed him to do the job right.
“Unplugging from marketing and social media let me stop thinking about what would sell and write in a way which was truly personal,” he says. “The same way I would write a letter.”
Meanwhile, he’s thrilled with the prospect of publication to a broader public.
“It’s exciting! What an opportunity, to have two books that will be read by an actual audience. I had resigned myself to the idea of of only ever having five readers.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly described the title and plot of the book coming out. That has been fixed.