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Life After a Critically Acclaimed First Novel
Comments () | Published August 4, 2011
When World was first published, Duffy was an emerging star in the world of literary fiction. He received writing grants and got a two-book contract. Famous people—writers, scientists—wanted to meet him. He appeared on talk shows and gave lectures on Wittgenstein in Europe. The BBC took out an option on World for five years with the thought of doing a TV production, though it never materialized. “They decided they wanted only works by dead authors,” Duffy says dryly.

He didn’t make a lot of money, but that wasn’t the point. People loved the book, and he was beginning to be known. In Washington “I got some good recognition,” he says. But as a native of this area, he knew that such folks as journalists and politicians would always be the city’s real stars. Still, Duffy wasn’t prepared for the setbacks ahead.

When corporate work dried up, he turned to journalism, writing a long piece on hoboes for Harper’s. He says the travel his journalism required contributed to the breakup of his first marriage. He’s now married to Susan Segal, a Washington psychotherapist, and has two grown daughters and a stepson.

His editor was fired in a corporate shake-up, and Duffy’s contract with Ticknor & Fields was taken over by Simon & Schuster. “They definitely weren’t ready for me, and me for them,” Duffy says of the publishing conglomerate.

Last Comes the Egg barely caused a ripple when it was published in 1997. After that, he was reluctant to commit to another book contract. Then Duffy gave up on another project, one he had thought about and worked on for ten years. “It was a book where I wanted to depict these characters who were caught between the white world and the black world,” he says.

Last Comes the Egg was, among other things, my way of really becoming totally open and honest about a boy raised in Maryland in the early 1960s. It was still a Southern redneck state in those days. I lived in Garrett Park, and the n-word was in no way uncommon. Black people were totally foreign and hence totally fascinating to me.”

He started to work on a novel about a Jewish orphan and Holocaust survivor and her relationship with a black maid in the Washington home of a former Office of Strategic Services officer. Ultimately, Duffy decided it wouldn’t find an audience with black readers or with white readers, who he didn’t feel would be able to handle some of what he had to say.

"I was getting every day to write at 4 in the morning. It was like going on bomb missions every day, but I had to get this done."    

“I put it aside, and it was a big defeat,” he says. “It was going to be a massively crazy book, all over the place. I had a contract with Simon & Schuster that I had to buy my way out of, because there was no way I was going to ever do anything with them.”

Once again, he put his writing career on hold. It was 2002, and the consulting was going well. But where was the inspiration for another book? The Duffy approach of waiting for an idea to come to him wasn’t working. And the disappointment over giving up that long-envisioned novel on Washington lingered.

Finally, he stumbled upon Rimbaud. Perhaps it was better that he wasn’t following up so soon after World, he thought. There were a lot of readers who had never heard of Duffy or his first book. He was free to operate under the radar.

Still, it’s inevitable many reviewers will compare Disaster Was My God with The World as I Found It—and the bar is high. Like it or not, Duffy will always be judged through the prism of that first magical book—and the time when an unknown ex–security guard, driven by an unshakable vision and sheer bravado, confounded the literary world.

“Some people say he should have written more,” says Bob Shacochis, an author who brought Duffy along when he was reporting on Haiti for Harper’s in the mid-’90s. “What if a writer does ten mediocre books? Bruce has written one great book, one of the best books by anybody of my generation. In this country, there is a ghost brigade of really good writers who get little or no notice. Bruce is a captain in that brigade.”

Duffy says he has no regrets. He deflects any suggestion that things haven’t turned out so well in the aftermath of The World as I Found It.

“I have never felt cheated in terms of recognition, and I have never felt pressure to come up with another World,” he says. “Maybe that’s just me, but I live in the moment. I’ve never gone back and reread either of my first two books, and I never will.”

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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