September of 2009, an honest decade ago, was a complicated time. My rare-book business was in the middle of a fracturing bankruptcy, I was flopping around in the low tide of a depression, and my cat, Micio, had just been put down. He was three. I was 44. But mitigating all the unpleasantness was this: my first novel, Fever Chart, was just out. Bankruptcy judges, MAOIs, veterinary fatalists — none of that mattered. The little book had somehow survived.
It wasn’t so little when I uploaded it to McSweeney’s online submission portal a couple years before. Some 180,000 words, if I remember right. Eli Horowitz, McSweeney’s editor nonpareil, thought this a bit long, and also felt the text was lacking in novelistic attributes. He took the story to pieces, discarded half of it, and over the next year cobbled the remaining bits into a novel-like work with a beginning, middle, and end. He schooled me in the active voice, patiently explained conflict, and added a thousand commas. The cover, by Ron Regé, Jr., is my favorite part.
Like many first novels, Fever Chart is partly autobiographical, at least in the larger, thematic sense. The book is about an escape; a flight from the confines of one part of the world to the flirty promise of another. Like Jerome Coe, the main character, I once lived in Boston, fled, and landed in New Orleans. Demons followed and looked me up. Jerome, too. The similarities mostly end there. I was never a grilled-cheese expert, never bit a finger off, never shaved with a shard of glass. (I did, however, once fall in love because of a nosebleed.)
For reasons of self-preservation, I avoided reading reviews and comments and appraisals of the book, so I haven’t been entirely sure how it was received. My dad liked it. My mother got through it, with a cold cloth applied to her forehead. My youthful nephews were (and still are) forbidden by their mothers — my sisters — to even take it off the shelf. I have a picture somewhere of Jeffrey Tambor reading the book on a plane. I never found out what he thought. I think it’s a good novel. McSweeney’s, and in particular Eli’s editorial field surgery, somehow made it work. I hope it persists.
— Bill Cotter
Check out the 10th-Anniversary edition of Fever Chart over in our store.