Blood on the Tracks

A racing freight train couldn't stop Sean Rowe, but can he survive the wild world of book publishing?

When the train roared by just a few yards in front of me, Sean Rowe disappeared. One moment, I was watching Rowe walk toward me under the streetlights with a bemused look on his face; the next, there was a locomotive raging northward where he used to be.

My hands came to rest on top of my head. I looked at a friend standing beside me and said, "Oh my God -- he just got hit!" In complete shock and denial, her eyes glazed over, and she said with an eerie calm, "That didn't just happen."

I looked over at my wife, Brittany, who knew full well that it had happened. Soon, we all started running down the track in the direction the train was going. We ran across six lanes of Broward Boulevard. Then I heard Brittany yell, "There he is!"

I was scared as hell. I didn't want to see him. I thought he would be cut in half. I thought, Sean Rowe can't be dead. He's too cool and too good to be dead. He has too many great tales to tell. And more than anything, he had a great novel to write.

But there he was, curled up in a tight fetal position beside the track about 30 yards from where he'd been hit. His body seemed impossibly small, about the size of a suitcase. Brittany initially thought it was a small bag of leaves. As we approached him, the fear in me grew. We stood over him, all of us yelling his name. Brittany knelt by him. He was in one piece. Blood was pouring from his mouth. One of his eyes was a God-awful mess with a pool of blood in the socket. The other was bruised and swollen. And he was in and out of some form of consciousness.

Knowing he was in capable hands, I fled into the darkness toward the cars backed up on Broward. Someone had to call 911. This was perfectly logical, but I also knew it was an escape -- I didn't want to see a friend die.

It was late, after midnight, and we'd all been drinking. People rolled up their windows when they saw me coming, but one very kind woman opened her door and made the call.

This wasn't the going-away we'd imagined. Rowe, who was the first writer hired by New Times Broward-Palm Beach when it started in 1997, was leaving the paper to write a novel in North Carolina. It was January 15, 1999, and we'd been drinking on the company's tab in his honor at a bar in the Himmarshee district. We were walking back to our cars in anticipation of God-knows-what more bacchanalian adventures when it happened.

Now, you may think it's impossible to accidentally walk in front of a speeding freight train. But it was made possible by another train, which was running on the southbound track when it happened. While we stood waiting for that train to pass, Sean crossed the empty northbound tracks to get close to the first train. We had no idea what he was doing. Then he tossed a quarter on the track. It was a damned kid's game. As he walked back toward us, he stepped again on the northbound track. In that instant, the other train, its sound masked by the first, suddenly rushed through and swallowed him.

When I returned, my wife was holding his head in her arms, comforting him. Brittany, whom Sean still credits with saving his life, was fearless. She managed to coax him back to consciousness and was gently urging him to fight for his life.

He survived. Barely. Sean suffered a badly fractured skull, a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and other assorted ailments. He'd been battered -- and saved -- by the train's iron cowcatcher in the front. It kept him from being crushed underneath.

During the past six years, I've kept in pretty steady contact with Sean, though I've seen him only a few times, once in the hospital and at a couple of parties. He walked with a cane and seemed older. There was a bit of lingering nerve damage and a whole lot of pain. I wondered if he could possibly make a full recovery. One question that lingered: Could Sean, who happens to be one of the best writers I've ever known, still compose that novel?

He could.

His first book, Fever, came out earlier this month, and he made a promotional swing through South Florida last week. It was published by Little, Brown, which gave him a two-book deal with an advance in the low six-figures. It's a thriller and it's a very good one that I think puts him in the top tier of crime fiction writers. He received some good reviews and glowing blurbs from a few big names in fiction, including mega-seller James Patterson, a fellow Little, Brown author.

So he's on top of the world, right? Well, I asked him to describe his life as a literary debutante, and he was gracious enough to write something up. Something beautiful. What he sent me, which he claimed to have knocked off in 15 minutes, is what I expect from Rowe prose -- honest, playful, funny as hell, and sort of sad too. I share it with you now:

What I've learned in the Book Biz (So Far)

1. You will go broke. That six-figure advance? Here's what happens to it. Federal income taxes eat 27 percent. Now pay your literary agent 15 percent and spend a few thousand more on state income taxes. Finally, you get to pay back all the debt you've accumulated in recent years, much of it directly related to writing the book. When it's all over, you have about enough left for a new pair of socks and a Whopper with cheese.

2. Total strangers will fuck you -- but not in the way you had hoped. The latest case in point: After glowing reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post, my former hometown newspaper decides to play contrarian. Oline Cogdill of the South Florida Sun-Sentinelcalls my characters "mere shadows" and my novel "low grade" (a pun!) -- without, of course, offering any evidence for these assertions.

3. Your friends will hope you fail. An old newspaper colleague and fellow author calls me up and says, "You know what? I hope you fail." He isn't joking. And he isn't really being mean. He's simply saying out loud what others are thinking.

4. Your own family may turn on you.After reading an early draft of Fever, my sister refuses to talk to me "ever again," i.e., about two months. Why? I have named one of my characters Kelli, and since my sister's name is Kelly, she concludes that the character is her. This despite the fact that she's a practicing poet and should know the difference between reality and fiction. In the course of the novel, the Kelli character gets knocked off, and in a tearful letter, my sister accuses me of "hostility." I change the character's name to Koko.

5. Your ex-girlfriend will sell your soul on eBay.You inscribe an advance review copy of your novel and hand-deliver it to an old flame. Weeks later, she calls you and mentions that she was cleaning house recently and sold your book on eBay. For three bucks.

6. There will be no groupies.Rock stars have groupies. Aspiring rock stars have groupies. Aspiring rock stars who live in their mothers' basements have groupies. You will have no groupies.

7. No one will tell you shit. What's the first print run? What's the promotional budget? Will there be a book tour? If so, how extensive? Finally, how are sales going? These seem like reasonable questions, but after e-mailing New York for the tenth time and receiving polite brush-offs, you will learn to stop asking.

8. You will become a whore.Think you're going to pull a J.D. Salinger? Think again. You will be contractually obligated to get up on your hind legs and dance like a monkey for the pleasure of suburban housewives. This is called a book tour. Your publisher will put you up at the Biltmore in Coral Gables and give you a generous food stipend -- the literary equivalent of a red miniskirt and matching heels -- and put you on the street.

9. Your second novel will suck.Why do so many second novels prove to be stinkers? It's not just the psychological pressure to live up to a successful first one, though that's part of it. It's because, from the moment you sign that contract, you may have as little as a year to deliver the goods. In reality, you'll have six months, because you will still be working your day job, waiting for the advance to arrive so that you can quit. And guess when the deadline for your second novel occurs? Precisely when you are spending eighteen hours a day promoting your first one.

10. Brad Pitt will not call you.Yes, you will have a Hollywood book agent. But the odds of your book going to film are approximately equivalent to your odds of being hit by a freight train and living to talk about it. Hmm. Wait a minute...

Don't feel too badly for him -- Sean also acknowledged that he's having the time of his life. When we spoke last Thursday, he was ready to take a dip in the Biltmore's famous pool. He says he still has some aches and pains in the morning and some memory problems, but he's pretty much fully recovered and working on that second book, titled I-95. Odds are, considering what he's already done with his second shot at life, it won't really suck.

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