By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He moved to Dallas from his hometown of Shreveport in 1993 because it was a nearby big city and because his brother lived here, selling commercial real estate. All his friends from school were getting decent jobs, but Clarke had no idea what to do. He recalled reading some book about how left-handed people were more creative than their right-handed brethren and thought, well, he'd do something creative...like...uh... advertising, yeah, that's it.
"So I went to Half-Price Books and got a book that was written in 1960 about advertising, which is basically, you get a black marker and draw these fake ads," Clarke says. "I made a bunch of dumb fake ads with really stupid puns that I thought were funny and tried to get a job in advertising. And it didn't work. I went to an interview with the Richards Group, and I didn't know what a copywriter was, but I'm like, 'I'm really creative and I'm left-handed and there's this whole book I read about left-handed people and they're creative and blah blah blah.' And I had this whole spiel, this really cockamamie spiel about left-handed people. And the guy was like, 'It sounds like you should be a copywriter.' I'm like 'Dude, I'll make copies. I'll do whatever you need me to do, just get my foot in the door! I'm so there!' He didn't call me back for a second interview."
It got to the point where Clarke was so desperate to get his foot in the door he would, quite literally and quite often, fax a photo of his foot to the office. He wound up getting a gig as an assistant manager at the AMC Prestonwood movie theater, which is what happens when you spend most of college making prank phone calls while very, very drunk.
He would eventually get a job at a small agency working rent-to-own and car dealer accounts. Clarke wised up and shelled out the bread to take ad classes through East Texas State University. He studied classic ads, made a mock portfolio and became a student of selling. By the mid-'90s he started getting better gigs, then losing them. But, still, he was going the right direction on the ladder of success.
"I love advertising. It's a really great gig," Clarke says, "but I always saw myself as a novelist moonlighting in advertising. And when I got fired from Joiner, I actually came across this megalomaniacal idea that maybe I should be a novelist."
So he enrolled in a creative writing class at Southern Methodist University, where he found himself surrounded by other people who likewise believed their muses were being crushed by sitting in cubicles beneath fluorescent lighting. Clarke learned how to create a narrative, how to write dialogue that actually sounded the way people speak, how to stop over-thinking the story. He fell in with a group that included commercial real estate appraiser Harry Hunsicker (whose noir novel Still River was published in May by St. Martin's), Doris Elaine Sauter (co-editor of What if Our World is Their Heaven, a collection of conversations with author Phillip K. Dick) and other aspiring novelists. They eventually formed a Wednesday-night writers' group, which began at Legal Grounds and still exists today.
When Clarke finished The Worthy, he was in his late 20s, sort of broke but also pretty sure he'd sell the book and make a million bucks. That's the way the publishing world works, right? Well, actually...
For years, his local literary agent, the mighty Jan Miller, shopped the book up and down Manhattan Island with no takers. Four years of writing, and then nothing. Fact is, the only reason Clarke even wrote Lord Vishnu's Love Handles was to give Miller something new to shop and something to keep her interested. But it didn't work. She gave up, and Clarke gave up. It could have been worse, actually. He was getting pretty good gigs in advertising by this point--at McCann, then at DDB Worldwide, where he was creative director. Self-publishing didn't seem so bad, even if the name MiddleFinger smelled just a little bitter. At least he'd get to design the book covers.
And so, Will Clarke became a novelist and a publisher and, in August 2002, got his very first book review--in Advertising Age, which called Lord Vishnu's Love Handles "a wild and inventive first novel." Eventually, he'd sell some 2,000 copies through MiddleFinger's Web site, through Amazon and his local hangs. A year later, in September 2003, Advertising Age gave him his second review ever, this time for The Worthy, which MiddleFinger also published. This time, the trade called Clarke "the Dave Eggers of the West," referring to the beloved, self-aggrandizing founder of McSweeney's and the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. "Actually," Ad Age noted, Clark is "a lot better than Eggers."
Which was nice, but amounted to, oh, about this much of nothing.
But all that changed when he met Simon & Schuster editor Denise Roy at the prestigious, 80-year-old Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, held each summer at Middlebury College in Vermont. Clarke went two years, in 2002 and 2003, and Roy was there both years telling aspiring writers how to get their books published. She was immediately taken with Clarke, not only because he'd self-published Lord Vishnu's Love Handles and The Worthy, but because "he's a very charismatic guy and has a creative vision," she says. Clarke didn't even know she was an editor when they first met, and wasn't even that interested in selling the book. "I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that this book was a really strange book," he says.