How and Why I Wrote “The Backfill”

It took me a little over three years from writing the first sentence of The Backfill to finally publishing it. I started writing in February 2020. I’d planned a short solo escape a few months before, and had booked a cabin on Whidbey Island (sound familiar?) where I could be alone to read and start writing. As it turned out, February 2020 is a month we all think back to with some nostalgia, because it contained those last few weeks of sweet, blissful innocence before we fully understood how serious the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be. I often remember that trip even when I’m not thinking about the book because so much changed so quickly afterward.

In that sense, The Backfill is not a “pandemic book.” I technically started working on it before the pandemic set in. But in many other ways, it is a pandemic book. I’d only written a few chapters before the world flipped on its head. And as it happened, I eventually ended up tossing out most what I’d written during that trip anyway.

More importantly, the silver lining of the pandemic – having more time at home than usual – gave me the space and time to fully immerse myself in the long slog of writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. And without that slog, I don’t think the book would have ever reached a point where I was happy and secure enough with it to let the world have a look and inevitably start to pick it apart.

It’s also a pandemic book because the pandemic gave me the time needed to hone my skills. This doesn’t mean that I’m convinced The Backfill is some kind of masterpiece. But for me, it’s all about where you started and where you ended up. It’s a better book because of the many podcasts, books on writing, and blog posts I pored over as I was developing and then editing my story. I’m grateful to all of those people who shared their journey and helped me avoid some of their mistakes. Their collective wisdom resulted in me making something I’m proud of, even if I know it could always have been better. In a future post I’ll share what some of those resources were that were especially useful for me.

So what about the story? I actually had the core idea for a long time. I don’t know how long – my memory isn’t the greatest. But at least a year or two before I started writing. And that core idea is the same one I used on the advertising copy for the book: What if the person you replaced at work had vanished without a trace? I knew it was a cool idea, and that as far as I could tell, it hadn’t been done before, or at least not in a major novel I’d come across. I also knew that setting the story inside a big tech company would it make it easier and more authentic. I had some stories to tell there as well.  

My career in big tech has been a mixed bag. There are parts I’ve loved – the greatest of which is the excitement of working on cutting-edge technologies that are rapidly changing the world. That may sound a little corny, but it’s the real deal. Being surrounded by incredibly smart, competent people is a huge plus too. And most of the time, the money hasn’t been bad either. But it has its price to pay (sometimes literally, in therapy), especially if you’re not regularly sharpening your knives and watching your back – and many of these hazards show up in The Backfill. Did I exaggerate? Yes – at least in the sense that I needed to compress what happens to Jake into a pretty short period of time, and to have the whole mess happen to him directly. The daily grind, after all, is pretty dull to the outside observer even in the most exciting of workplaces. But everything cruel or soul-crushing that happens to Jake has either happened to me in one form or another, or else is something I’ve seen happen to others firsthand. Though, I take that back. I’ve never had a colleague (or my predecessor) go missing. Or at least, not for more than a couple of days.

I actually finished my first draft of The Backfill in mid-2021. Afterward, I followed the advice of virtually all writers and let it sit for a month or so before looking at it again, which was incredibly difficult. I shared the first three chapters with exactly one person after that, who was very encouraging. Then, I began rewriting the whole thing, line by line, which took a few more months. There were definite plot holes (luckily nothing major), weirdness, and lots of fat to trim, in addition to the many typos I found that I never would have seen if I hadn’t waited.

In a future post, I’ll share my journey with beta readers, then agents, and then finally deciding to just publish the damned thing myself. All of that took a year, or maybe slightly more. Do you think The Backfill is at least a teensy bit too long? So do I. But you should have seen my first draft. I could only kill so many “darlings” before my spirit was drained, and before I risked losing touch with the story I wanted to tell. I hope you’ll forgive me that indulgence while reading.

So far I’ve mainly focused on the “how” rather than the “why” of writing this book. Maybe it’s because the “how” is a more straight-forward narrative. But the “why” of writing it – well, haven’t we all at some point thought, “Hey, I should write a novel!” Sounds easy, right? Just sit down and start typing. I tried a few times before, and even got as far as about 100 pages way back in 2007, with something I gave up on because I knew (and I was right) that it was mostly cheeseball drivel.

I think the why is partly ego and partly because I had a story I needed to tell. Though maybe that part is really just ego too. Why would anyone want to hear my story, and why is it important to me that they hear it? I did it because I wanted to see if I could do it. And once I started and realized it wasn’t hopelessly awful, I knew that I needed to finish it. The pandemic, for all its horribleness, gifted me the time and quiet I needed to make that happen. Writing the book was its own kind of painful but ultimately effective therapy – a way to escape and hide, as well as a form of release for the various work-related battle scars that, like Jake’s, still sting when the sunlight hits them.

I hope that you like my book, and that it resonates with you in some form or another. It was a deeply personal journey and one which I’m honestly excited and anxious to share with you and then later repeat with my next book. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to pour as much of my own experiences into a story as I did with this one, but I think my writing – or at least my fictional prose – is a lot better than it was in February 2020.

Thank you for reading this and for reading my story, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. I’d be especially interested in anything you did to cope during the pandemic. Just one request: don’t mention your toilet-paper hoarding or how you tortured and ultimately mercy-killed a sourdough starter. We all did that and I think would rather just collectively forget about it.


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