Sans round hole?

“Not a great fit for us…”

“Doesn’t really fit our list…”

“You’ll find a better fit elsewhere…”

Any author who’s ever had work rejected is familiar with these statements. Over 20 years and eight novels, I’ve had my fair share of ‘fitness’ fails and I’ve come to understand it’s sometimes literal, more often publisher shorthand for ‘We don’t think it will sell’ or ‘We don’t love it’ or ‘We don’t love it enough’. Typically, I would shake it off and saddle up for the next response, hope springing eternal from decisions not yet made.

The eighteen months of contractual futility that haunted my upcoming 2022 novel, Boy in the Blue Hammock, though? It was different. The parade of passes based on fit seemed to be communicating a new shorthand, not so much a situation of square peg / round hole.

It felt like square peg…no hole?


Boy in the Blue Hammock is my best work to date. It is the story of a failed service dog, Tao; a 15 year old intellectually disabled boy, Kasper; and their journey to find refuge following a police-state purge of their town. Inspired by my son and our very own guide-dog dropout of the same name, the novel is told in third person, often from the dog’s perspective, very occasionally from the boy’s. As you might glean from the above, the two protagonists’ capacity for complex reasoning is limited, and spoken words are few and far between: Kasper has little functional communication; Tao is…well, a dog. The vast majority of language — of voice — belongs to the people they encounter in their quest for safety.

I know what you’re thinking:

“There’s your problem of fit — the main characters in the story don’t speak and have cognitive challenges. Not much of a go-to readership there.

Superficially, you’re not wrong. There isn’t a go-to readership for a novel like this, and it doesn’t help that there aren’t many like-books to establish a go-to readership. It’s well-documented that disability, and in particular intellectual disability, is rarely represented in literature, let alone spotlighted. Casting a cursory eye over cinema, only a handful of mainstream movies fully centre an intellectually disabled character without using them solely as a device for someone else’s journey (sorry, ‘Rain Man’, ‘Music’, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’, etc…). Three come to mind for me: ‘Being There’, ‘Sling Blade’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. In each of the trio, the protagonist has enough cognition and, crucially, language to conventionally drive the narrative and engage the viewer. My story does not feature such a character. Kasper’s spoken words are most likely to be echolalic quotes from The Gingerbread Man fairytale.

So, yes, an argument can be made there’s no foundational audience for Boy in the Blue Hammock.

But, does that mean it couldn’t possibly connect? That it’s lack of fit is insurmountable?

The two dozen publishers that passed on the work believed it to be the case, though their belief seemed at odds with their mission statements of redressing imbalances in representation and supporting voices from the fringe and publishing works that reflect our broad diversity. And their assertion trumped other acknowledged factors that made the story a potentially attractive proposition: powerful idea, compelling premise, strong pace and tension, accomplished writing, resounding thumbs-up from a handful of respected beta readers, track record of publication and recognitions as an author. These factors were enough to see synopses become samples, and samples become full manuscripts, and full manuscripts become serious contractual consideration in editorial and acquisition meetings. But when push came to shove, messages with the same theme kept finding my inbox:

“It does not fit our needs at this time…”

“It’s not quite the right fit for us…”

“We don’t think it will be a good fit for our program…”

Thanks, but no thanks.

The more I encountered this lack of ‘fitness’, the more I began to think this was not just about the place of one book in publishing, but the place of the intellectually disabled in our world.


Let me be clear: I don’t believe for a second that overt or deliberate ableism drove these publisher decisions — at the same time, I don’t discount the possibility that latent ableism or a lack of understanding played a role. For mine, the clearest indicator came with one particular pass subsequent to a request for the full manuscript. To their credit, the publisher didn’t fall back on the catch-all of ‘fit’. Instead, they had doubts about the story itself:

“Your writing reveals real talent. However, I found there were inherently too many growth constraints in a dog’s pov and the limits of the severely autistic boy…for me it was too much a story A to B and not enough scope for character development…

Constraints. Limits. Not enough scope for development.

I can’t speak to the publisher’s background, but I can say with some confidence that a lack of life experience with intellectual disability can make it difficult to see past the barriers to the subtle, often silent, dimensions. A small gesture can be a great leap forward. A strange behaviour can reveal a deep-seated fear. A glance sideways can say a thousand words. When you have to imagine language rather than read it on the page, it can look a lot like A to B. Similarly, when you have to imagine a readership rather than apply an easy label, it can look a lot like a bad fit.

But as is the case with my son and his community, looks can be deceiving. With a clearer view, lack of fit might start to take on an altogether different tag:

Failure of imagination.


I was asked recently in a workshop why I write — I responded: I write to help the world take care of my son when I’m gone. To achieve such a goal, I need assistance in getting the word out there. I’m on the record as saying the ultimate challenge for a publishing industry finally and rightfully giving diverse voices their due is to also support the community that has no voice, figuratively, literally and literary: the intellectually disabled. And if the manuscript of Boy in the Blue Hammock was an invitation to the dance, I’m delighted that, in the end, after much heartbreak and second-guessing, a renowned literary press was prepared to join me on the floor.

Nightwood Editions: thank you for your vision, your courage, and for walking the talk of all-encompassing diversity. It means everything that this square peg of a story eventually found a perfect fit.

Boy in the Blue Hammock will be released in CAN/US Spring 2022. It is available for pre-order here.