Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Raffel 5.0

Keith here.

Now that I’ve been writing full-time for about four years, friends and relatives are finally getting used to the idea. I’ve impressed upon them that writing a novel does indeed count as work. They have learned not to refer to my time in the software world as “back when you were working.” And maybe out of fear of being a defendant in a wrongful death action brought by my heirs, they no longer ask if I am enjoying “retirement.” That vein that starts throbbing on my forehead gives them a warning that an apoplectic fit cannot be far away. In fact, many of those friends tell me something like, “Actually, I’ve read your latest book and it’s pretty good.” I don’t know if I should be insulted by the tone of surprise, but I’ve decided to just go with it and say “thank you.”

Well, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m screwing the whole thing up. I’ve gone and taken on a day job. Why would I do something like that? I cannot say that writing novels has been quite as lucrative as working in software, but it’s not just the money. (I can’t say money plays no role at all. It was Dr. Johnson who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”) For my entire post-college life I’ve just gotten that itch to try something new every four, five, or six years. And happy as I was spending my days in my neighborhood café rapping out the stories of Ian and Rowena and Sam and Cecilia, I still am excited to be started something new. Leaving aside a few flings like my six months as a gambler at the race track, I figure this newest incarnation is my fifth.

I’ve overcome the shame of admitting that I went to law school. Even worse, I went intending to become a corporate lawyer. A summer job at a Wall Street firm cured me of that folly, and I decided instead to do my bit in saving the world. (Another folly.) I pounded the hallways of the Capitol in Washington and was hired as the junior of three lawyers on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before the end of my first year, the other two had left. I was 27 years old and the senior lawyer on the committee overseeing the government’s secret intelligence activities. Holy s**t! (I mined that experience in my latest book, Drop By Drop.) Then I got a little too big for my britches and went home to Palo Alto to run for Congress. My experience running for elective office was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. No matter how much fun the ride was, what I remember is the landing. Splat – like an overripe tomato hitting a concrete floor! So ended my life in politics and career #1.

Next I landed at ROLM Corporation in Silicon Valley, where Ken Oshman, a brilliant and demanding executive who’d been CEO of the company from his 20s, took a chance on me. I was there when we introduced the first successful corporate voicemail systems. After we sold the company to IBM, I stuck with high tech, but eventually found myself in a company where I loved my colleagues, my boss, and the product, but I was still getting a little bored. So I did what you do in Silicon Valley under such circumstances. I left my job and started a company. That was the end of career #2 as a high tech employee and the beginning of #3 as an entrepreneur.

After six years of 70 hour weeks, we sold the company. Part of closing the deal was promising to stick around for awhile. Once my indentured servitude had lapsed though, I left and started casting around for my next move. I thought about starting another company, but an old Japanese proverb kept running through my head: “Every person should walk to the top of Mount Fuji, but only a fool does it twice.”

And so ended my third career and the start of #4 as a novelist. I love writing. When I walk into my neighborhood café, the staff turns down the music and brings me my pot of green tea. I put on noise-canceling headphones and pretty soon I’ve made the jump to another world where I have adventures as another person – one braver, smarter, and more attractive to women than I am. I’ve written five manuscripts. Midnight Ink published Dot Dead and Smasher. Drop By Drop has just come out as an ebook original – which is going great. I have delivered two more manuscripts to my agent. Writing is a great gig. But still, dammit, I found myself needing to scratch that itch to try something new.

I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Whenever I thought about it, a picture of Mt. Fuji would pop into my brain.

At a New Year’s party at the beginning of the year, I mentioned to a friend that I was feeling that itch to try something new. She said something to a friend of hers, who in turn said something to her husband. And the upshot of all that? I’ve just started a job at a genetic sequencing company. What the heck is that? Well, it turns out that humans have 21,000 genes that are written in something like computer code. It cost over a billion dollars to sequence all of a human’s genes in the Human Genome Project that finished up in 2003. The company I’m at now does it for less than one hundred thousandth as much. Why does it matter? Sometimes when one or more of those genes run amok, cancer results. Anomalies in other genes can lead to a predisposition for heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Researchers are figuring all this out. In the not distant future, it will possible to take medication targeting our own specific genetic make-up (or genome). We’ll find out if we have a predisposition for diabetes or cancer and have the option to change our diet and exercise patterns accordingly. I participated in Silicon Valley’s Internet revolution. This was a chance to participate in the personalized medicine revolution that is definitely coming! Could not say no!

It turns out to be harder to leave career #4 behind than my first three. On the job only for a week and I already have ideas for thrillers set in the world of DNA sequencing and research. Yes, I am starting another career, but without abandoning the old one. I am still an author.

16 comments:

Jessie Chandler said...

Great post Keith!!!! Good luck on both 4&5!!!!

Lois Winston said...

Keith, if you can figure out how to turn off the gene that requires us to sleep, you can have two full-time careers at once. Good luck with both! Number 5 should supply lots of fodder for Number 4.

Erica Orloff said...

Very cool twists and turns in your career. It sounds like the new job will spark plenty of plot ideas.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks, Jessie and Erica. Lois, don't know if we can figure out how to turn off the sleep gene, but I bet some newborn genetic screening can find those who need little sleep. Then parents can train those little ones to grow up to be writers.

Beth Groundwater said...

You're a true Renaissance man, Keith, with multiple interests and talents! When I get the itch to do something new, I plan a trip to an exotic location, but you try a whole new career. Good luck with the gene sequencing gig and don't stop writing!

Alan Orloff said...

Wow, Keith. You're like that guy in the story Caps For Sale, who wears a ton of different hats. Best of luck with 5.0, but don't neglect 4.0. I want to read more Raffels!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sounds like you'll be burning the midnight oil, with so much good new material to work with!

Darrell James said...

Keith- I can identify with the itch to try new things. But I'm glad you're sticking with career #4. The world needs you as a story teller. Good luck!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

You've lived like 7 or 8 different lives packed in one! Good luck with genetic sequencing...and a DNA thriller. :)

Robin Allen said...

It's so cool that you keep reinventing yourself. Perhaps this new job will enable you to do it literally. My dream of spending my days at the track has been stymied by my inability to consistently pick winners. I think it's genetic. Hey...there's another little project for your new company.

Sebastian Stuart said...

fascinating. what a life. if I make it down to the corner mailbox, it's a big day.

Keith Raffel said...

Beth, a renaissance man? Yes, that's me. About 400 years behind the times.

Alan, thanks. One question though. Is Caps for Sale on your nightstand?

Kathleen, Elizabeth, and Darrell, lots of good ideas.

Robin, I actually made decent money at the track.

Sebastian, the world of our fiction is always more interesting anyway.

Jeanine Cronin said...

Keith, this is so exciting. Just promise never to leave career #4. I love your writing, your plots, your characters and your books. Please look into the gene that supplies energy to 2-yr-olds. My granddaughter is a whirling dervish. Oh, to have a little of that energy!

G.M. Malliet said...

I am so impressed. Good luck with your newest venture (so important, this technology). And you are right - so much good material for a book.

Keith Raffel said...

Jeanine, I am blushing. Thank you. Will look into energy transplants. And if it works out, I'll share the material with you, Gin.

Deborah Sharp said...

Wow! I feel like a slacker, with only two careers so far (does waitressing thru college and grad school count as a career? If so, 3)
Congrats on what sounds like a fascinating new endeavor. And maybe the plot of a new thriller, too.