–- Providence Journal
Ian Caldwell, TJ ’94, co-authored the breakout first novel Rule of Four with childhood friend and TJ classmate Dustin Thomason. Published in 2004, Rule of Four, an intellectual thriller about an obscure, real-life 15th-century text, was hailed as “ingenious” by The New York Times and sold almost two million copies after 49 weeks on its Bestseller List. Eleven years later, his second novel, Vatican murder mystery The Fifth Gospel, came out to rave reviews and was an instant bestseller. As of this writing, the book has already spent six weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List and even more on others, including the Independent Booksellers’ Association and NPR.
As the quotes above illustrate, The Fifth Gospel is no Vatican potboiler. The narrator who investigates the novel’s murder is a Greek Catholic priest who lives with his young son. His brother is a Roman Catholic priest who travels the world on behalf of the Vatican. There’s plenty of intrigue, along with interesting details about the Catholic church and the Gospels, a powerful story of brotherly love, and a warm and believable father-son relationship. Caldwell, who has three sons, describes that relationship as “the heart of the book.”
Here’s a surprising fact: Caldwell has never visited the Vatican (nor is he Catholic). When the priests who fact-checked his book asked him how he could write in such convincing detail about places, people, and events at the Vatican without ever going there he had a one-word answer: Research (see Ian discuss his research on KTLA TV).
Successful Novelist Tells TJ Students: It’s About the Journey
On Friday, March 20, the day after appearing at a Tysons’ Barnes & Noble book signing in front of an adoring crowd (right), Caldwell visited TJ as a featured speaker at the second annual “Flow Day” (see Flow). He told the students the real story behind his career as a writer and used it to support the advice he gave: think hard about what you enjoy doing and are good at and pursue a life where you can spend most of your time doing those things. He also told students about friendship: “Last night from out of the blue came all these people from my class, some of whom aren’t even my FB friends. I was very touched to see these people come out. The friendships you make here will get you through the tough patches.” And then he told his story.
After graduating from Princeton in 1998, Caldwell and his best friend since third grade, TJ ’94 classmate Dustin Thomason, who had just graduated from Harvard, thought they’d write a novel. All summer they sat in Ian’s parents’ basement working 50-hour weeks writing alternating chapters. The draft was no good, and they put it aside.
Caldwell then inquired at TJ about a teaching job and was turned away. He went to work for MicroStrategy, a Tysons-based technology management consulting firm, and although the work was interesting, he spent every lunch hour sitting alone at a desk writing scenes from what would much later become Rule of Four. After less than a year, he realized that if he kept working, he would never realize his dream of becoming a writer, and he quit. His parents said he was crazy. “They weren’t wrong,” he told the audience of TJ students sitting in rapt attention on the Gym I bleachers. “Don’t think I’m this poster boy for following your dreams. You can’t be in writing for fame and fortune. When I left MicroStrategy, I gave up stock options worth thousands,” he warned.
He and his girlfriend, now wife, TJ classmate Meredith Evans Caldwell, had been dating since junior year. She enrolled at Virginia Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine, and he followed her to Blacksburg, where he taught SAT prep courses and they lived a “hand to mouth existence.” After another year of working on the book with Thomason, this time remotely, they shopped it around to the New York publishers. Nobody wanted it. I was “devastated,” Caldwell says, describing the first of several low points in his writing career. One editor took the two aside and told them that the work had potential — all they had to do was rewrite the entire book from start to finish. That was a “fork in the road, what it really means to follow your dreams,” he said.
The two authors fought for a week but buckled down and finally persevered, and this time in what seemed like a “surreal” turnaround, publishers were calling and begging for the book. Rule of Four, the Caldwell/Thomason blockbuster bestseller, was such a hit that it was translated into 35 languages. [Caldwell and Thomason shared a portion of their hard-fought earnings with TJ. Working with the TJ Partnership Fund, the pair set up the Caldwell/Thomason Faculty Grants for Excellence in Drama, Foreign Language, and Humanities, which funded $10,000 annual grants for special faculty-led initiatives. -Ed.] Had he achieved success? Absolutely, but that’s not the end of the story.
Altogether it took six years to write Rule of Four, and Caldwell swore his next book wouldn’t take that long. However, after eight years of slogging away on his second book, he took “half a book” to his Rule of Four publisher, expecting to be paid an advance as is customary for established authors, and was told that he had taken too long. His timing could not have been worse. The recession had hit the publishing industry hard and Borders Books had just gone out of business. Again he was devastated, but this time it was worse. He had married his girlfriend — a veterinarian at Oakton’s Hunter Mill Animal Hospital and on Virginia Living’s most recent list of Top Vets — and they had started a family. He felt he had disappointed everyone. “Maybe I’m a one book guy, ” he thought.
But his wife told him, “‘I believe in you and this book,'” he said, and after four more years of work, twelve in total, his second book was finished. Again, Caldwell had a major success on his hands. His story has a happy ending, and we should all follow our dreams, right? “Happy ending? No,” he said. He admonished the students to focus not on the hoped-for end result but on their day-to-day lives. “You have to find pleasure in the journey. Every day you chase your dream.”
One particular dream Caldwell urged the students not to set aside is the dream of being a teacher. If you have an inkling that teaching is your calling, don’t ignore it, he said (see Alumni Math Teachers). His son’s 4th-grade teacher, Lauren Wagner, who just happens to be a TJ ’00 grad, is a wonderful teacher who is having a huge impact, he said (see Alumni Career Fair). Four of his former teachers came to his book signing, including Mary O’Brien, his English teacher from junior year “who inspired in me a love of literature” and Bettie Stegall, his senior-year Creative Writing teacher. “Consider teaching. It’s the single best thing you could do.”