Saturday, November 15, 2008

Homecoming

Life is an endless evolution of developments. Mine. Yours. Jeff Rivera’s. And Dio Rodriguez’. Who are these last two? I’m glad you asked. I’m getting ready to tell you.

Jeff Rivera is an author. Young. African-American. Model-gorgeous. Driven. And talented. I learned about him because he sent me an email introducing himself and introducing me to his concept of “guerilla marketing” (more about that later). He told me that Warner Books/Grand Central Publishing’s Hachette imprint was bringing out a new edition of his book Forever My Lady and that he was available for interviews. I, of course, wrote him back and asked if the email was really from him or from some PR person at Grand Central. He laughed. And it was on.

Rivera’s story is almost a novel in itself. He spent most of his childhood dirt poor and asthmatic in a predominantly White neighborhood outside of Portland, Oregon, before moving with his mother to Las Vegas. The marriage between his mother and his step-father was turbulent, at best, and Rivera felt the pangs of watching the people he loved in long-standing and debilitating anguish. Those pangs of pain and abuse burrowed deep in his soul where they became the words that even as a child poured onto paper.

At six, Rivera was already known for his “stories.”

“Watch out!” his schoolmates would warn each other, “He’s gonna write a story about you!”

But the budding writer was helpless to resist his urge to capture life and turn it into pages. “Even early on,” Rivera remembers, “I knew I wanted to write stories that would make people feel.”

Asked why that was – and remains – so important to him, Rivera is quick to answer. “If people read my words and feel something, then maybe they’ll get me and I won’t feel so different.”

The feeling of difference, needless to say, manifested itself in the longing he had for peace in his life and in the embarrassment and fatigue Rivera felt as a youth from having to get up in the middle of the night to clean offices with his mother to help the struggling family survive.

By the time he was a sophomore in high school, he was journaling about the things that were going on in his world, often in French for privacy, and his reputation as a nerd made him an easy target among his classmates. Then the die was really cast when a kid he knew taunted him with the statement, “Go ahead and write a book! I’ll walk the street naked when you make your first million!” The challenge haunts him still and he fully expects to collect on that debt one day.

But it has been far from an easy process. For starters, after his mother's marriage finally fell apart, Rivera and she wound up at one point living out of their car for a while and if he felt “different” before, his humiliation was now truly complete. While his younger brother stayed with a friend and his older sister was successfully established in a marriage of her own, Rivera and his mother were so reduced in spirit, they couldn’t bring themselves to tell anyone about their plight – not even family. And he spent his days escaping to the library when he wasn’t working at the skating rink within view of the car that had become the symbol of his family’s financial failure.

It was only after his mother reached her emotional and psychological breaking point that social services stepped in to provide a roof over the two brother’s heads. Then, while working in one of the many jobs he has had to take to meet his basic needs, Rivera met a young Latino former gang member who told him – in broken English – stories about his life. Rivera was captivated and ultimately used the stories as the basis for a screenplay, which eventually morphed into the novel Forever My Lady, an “urban romance” in the “street lit” genre.

Hollywood didn’t see the possibilities in the original screenplay at the time Rivera first submitted it, though they are sniffing around the project now. And a decade went by before the novel about a young man named Dio Rodriguez was a fait accompli. Lacking confidence that a mainstream publisher would opt to put the book into print, Rivera decided in 2005 while working a day job at a fancy hotel in Miami to publish the first 25 copies himself.

Every penny he earned from the sale of the books went back into more copies and this was when “guerrilla marketing” was born. He shamelessly peddled the book, joining message boards, linking to websites, allowing it to be downloaded for free online, and emailing thousands of publishers and agents, until about 8000 people had read it.

In the following year, Forever My Lady was voted Best Urban Fiction by the Mahogany Book Club Media Review, who also named Rivera Best New Author of 2006. Mi Gente Magazine made Rivera their Author of the Year that year, as well, and made Forever their Book of the Year. Why? Because Forever My Lady is a story of first love and obstacles, of hopes and dreams, of abandonment and letting go in the classic tradition of all such tales of heartbreak. In other words, it’s a coming of age story and even the preface is so tense in its immediacy that the reader is sucked into it at once.

Needless to say, once the awards joined the voices of thousands of readers, it didn’t take long for folks in important places to smell the money. And when Rivera finally connected with an agent, the sale of Forever My Lady to Warner Books took only seven days. Does this make Rivera’s life a rags-to-riches story? Absolutely. Is he an example of one man’s triumph over adversity to fulfill his own potential? No question. But it took a lifetime of honing his craft, more than a decade of unflagging commitment, and a LOT of work (while working his day jobs) to find the pot at the end of the rainbow. Still, find it he has.

Jeff Rivera, at 32, is now awash in speaking opportunities and consultancy gigs with a passel of literary projects in process. He is being pressed for a sequel, which will be forthcoming, though Rivera is in no rush any more. He can exhale now. No more living in cars with a goldfish in a cup for him. No more crappy day jobs or taunting schoolmates or self-doubt for him. The publishing world and his fans have embraced the wanderer. Jeff Rivera is home.

3 comments:

Macon D said...

Thanks for the introduction to Jeff and this book (and I think you did a marvelous job of writing up his story). I see the book has tons of high marks from readers at Amazon, so I'll have to get a copy, looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you so much for a beautiful article! -- Jeff Rivera (Author of FOREVER MY LADY)

Changeseeker said...

Hey, Macon. If you think I did a good job on this one, wait'll you see what I say when YOUR book comes out. ;^)

And thanks, Jeff, for making a point of letting us know you stopped by. The post turned out well because I really enjoyed our conversation and was personally so inspired as a writer by what I learned from you. I highly recommend your site for writers.