Starting with Aspen Books

Starting with Aspen Books

Six years passed from my leaving Randall to when I was invited to join Aspen. During that time I wrote The Invisible Saint, which has a most peculiar history.

I left Randall for personal reasons. To protect the repentant guilty, chief among whom I was, I will not go into details. But I will add that I was most surprised when my former employer called and asked me to write a novel. I had left his employ with the understanding that my limited abilities were actually more limited than I had thought, so his call offering me an advance for a novel about a Latter-day Saint who goes invisible, both metaphorically and literally, baffled me. But, not being of independent means, I accepted the offer and went to work. It would be my first novel by myself; ergo, without Todd Hester and his towering creativity.

The idea wasn’t mine, but I knew that I had to make it mine if I wanted any chance of success. A local newspaper, The Modesto Bee, had been publishing some of my humorous sketches, and they seemed to be well received, so I chose to write the prologue in a similar vein of humor. I sensed that the tongue-in-cheek humor wasn’t the tone the publisher wanted (wise and somber), but it worked for me, so I went with it. The prologue basically wrote itself in an afternoon, then I turned to remainder of the story. As the story darkened and deepened, so did the tone, and soon I was lost in a miasma of conflicting voices and helter-skelter plot twists. So, I took some time off. About a year. Which was good for me because the story seemed to write itself when I came back to it. Unfortunately, the year off was not so good for the publisher, who had gone bankrupt meanwhile.

One of the former owners started his own publishing company, and I felt an obligation to give him the finished novel. He read it, I suppose, and promptly rejected it. I suggested he reconsider; after all, I would apply the cash advance to his new company, so he wouldn’t owe me any royalties for a while. But further discussions gave me the impression he wouldn’t publish it unless I paid all costs of doing so myself (which is how his new company was doing things). Well, I thought that sounded a might generous on my account, so I bid him good day. My still faithful and patient wife and I had somehow just qualified for a credit card, so, extending her patience even further, she allowed me to max it out in publishing the book, which I did, with my future partner, Stan Zenk, who managed a book distribution company at the time. We paid for artwork, a quick edit, and ran to a printer and binder, who quickly emptied the card. When the book came out, It looked wonderful, magnificent, but nobody knew it existed. So Stan went to the stores, pleading and dickering and cajoling, and soon we had some orders. Then we had a few reorders.

There is a little known quirk in the publishing industry. Because stores can return books to the publisher within ninety (90) days for full credit, they don’t want to pay the publisher for ninety (90) days. So they don’t. In the meantime, we were selling more and more copies of our little book and were starting to hear anecdotes of people actually reading it, and in rare instances, enjoying it. So Stan kept selling, and I kept making payments on my credit card (Janet was teaching aerobics and I was slinging pizzas at Dominoes). When the glorious day came to be paid what our little company was due, the company for whom Stan worked full-time, and who was officially distributing the book, decided we could wait a little longer. Now, Stan and I were good friends, so things became a mite awkward, but we continued on, figuring the payday would come soon enough. And, as I recall, it did—in part. And eventually Stan and I both began to penetrate the fact that the big company he worked for was doing no better than the little company we were now giving life support to. Just as we weren’t getting paid by them, they weren’t getting paid by the stores. Or so they claimed. So, in one of the more difficult decisions of my life, I pulled the book from that company and gave it to you know who—the former owner of Randall Book who had rejected the novel, after having first paid an advance for it. Things were getting confusing.

Now, one of the great lessons this man had learned from his earlier bankruptcy was to keep costs down. At all costs. In all conditions. No matter what. And as a result he was able to pay his bills. It was a refreshing concept. About two weeks after he got the book, he called me:
“Hello, Curtis?”


“You know that book you asked me to distribute for you?”

“Oh, yes, the one you paid me for in advance.”

“Mmm, maybe I made a mistake. The fact is, we just got an order for twelve hundred more copies, from a single account.”

“Wow. That seems like a lot.”

“It is. Like I said, maybe I made a mistake.”

“You mean you should have published it?”

He was silent for a long moment. “Well, anyway, don’t expect your payment for ninety (90) days—you know how these things work.”

I was beginning to learn.

We hung up on good terms, for at least the next ninety days, whereupon he paid his bill—yes, a very refreshing concept—and he continued to pay his bill every thirty (30) days thereafter (an even more refreshing concept). In a few months Janet and I had paid off our credit card, and over the next year or so had made enough money to enable us to move back to Utah, where we bought a house. (The Invisible Saint eventually sold its first printing.) Of course, we had to go back to Utah so I could go back to school again. Which was the last time I did so, which was when I was put on academic probation, which motivated me to actually finish the darn thing. (Things had now been reversed: Instead of quitting school when I got a book published, I now went back to school, and stayed there until the eternal thing was done.)

I wasn’t the only one who changed companies. A successful investor wanted to start a new LDS publishing company, for some reason, and he hired Stan to manage it. That was the wisest decision he could have made, because Stan had also learned to keep costs down at all costs. In all conditions. No matter what. Plus, he was extremely talented. Plus, he still liked me. The new company was called Aspen Books.

Curtis Taylor, Relearning Old Lessons

While pursuing my degree over those 18 arduous years, I had been obliged to work from time to time. After mastering the craft of janitorial work, I applied for, and was rejected by two publishing houses as a part-time, temporary, unpaid editor. (A good friend of mine said there are two kinds of people—the humble and those who are going to be. Somehow I occupied both categories simultaneously.) Eventually I talked my way into a part-time, temporary, low-paid position as an assistant warehouseman at Randall Book Company, in Orem, Utah. The employers there made it clear that they would tolerate me only until the Christmas rush was over, so I began to scan the premises for other duties to make me less disposable.

While wandering through one of the empty offices (there were several, as the firm was not on the most solid of financial footings), I found a stack of manuscripts. Actually several stacks, all thigh-high and leaning toward OSHA-like hazards. I naively asked what the thousands and thousands of pages falling over themselves were. After my reprimand for not being in the warehouse where I temporarily belonged, I was informed that the stacks were dozens and dozens of manuscripts that had been submitted to the firm for possible publishing. I naively asked why they hadn’t been returned after being read. The look I received was one I will not soon, or possibly ever, forget. They had not yet been read, I was informed, because the owners of the company were businessmen, not readers, and since the company’s finances were actually more precarious than those Pisa-like stacks in the abandoned office, that’s where the people who knew anything had to spend their time—to wit, juggling bills, not relaxing with some two-bit LDS novel.

Seeing the picture more clearly, I proposed a solution: I would read the manuscripts, inform the august businessmen of any quality writing that may have snuck in to the piles (which were growing daily), and send the rest back with kind regrets. I almost said I would do it for free, just to endear my sorry self to these fine men, when a strange lapse of practicality overtook me. In the end, my wife and I read them at night, for something less than minimum wage, and, behold, one gem after another began sparkling before our eyes.

Over the next several weeks we found a future bestseller, at least in the Latter-Day Saint genre, The Worth of a Soul, which is still available some 36 years later (alas, now from Deseret Book). We found novels that would stretch into multiple printings. We found young, hungry authors who actually had important things to say. In the end, we found the salvation of the company, and by the following Christmas we had five bestsellers, including a wildly entertaining game called Celestial Pursuit, which alone would bring over a million dollars into the company’s soon-to-be perpendicular accounts. And, by and by, with more coaxing and pleading and sacrificing, I earned myself a near permanent promotion to “Assistant Editor.” Whom, exactly, I was assisting was a mystery, of course, as I could never find the actual Editor, but such niceties were of trivial concern—I had a job.

For a while.

Eventually, with more Latter-Day Saint bestsellers under my belt, I was promoted to Managing Editor, though, again, whom I was “managing” was a mystery, as the other offices were still empty. But life was good, so, of course . . .

I quit school again.

Which meant that I needed humbling, which meant that I would soon be out of a job, which meant that I would be groveling for admittance to BYU again. I say “groveling” because BYU’s academic standards had the annoying wont of going up, making it harder for dilettantes like me to get in, and by the time I squeezed into school for the last time it was with the stigma of “academic probation.”

(Sorry about going back and forth in time, but this is a blog, and all blogs I have read seem to make an art of this. Also noteworthy, and also going back or forward in time—I have lost track—I was the very last person in the world to graduate from BYU under their old “General Education Program.” This program was discontinued sometime in the 80s, and the school gave students ten years to graduate under that program or be forced to matriculate into the new program. I graduated ten years later, to the day.)



But, as I have said, repeatedly, I eventually graduated (though not until I was managing editor of another publishing company, which, remarkably, did employ other editors), and I was poised for a wild ride into the firmament, and into the depths of ecclesiastical contumely—indeed, into the strangest and most wonderful and worst and best and most enigmatically quixotic journey I could have ever imagined.

Next: My infamous journey to a little fame and a lot of trouble.

Curtis Taylor, The Beginning

“Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”

—LL Cool J

As I write this I am 64 years old. I have known highs and lows few people ever experience. I have lived and I have died. I have seen heaven’s brilliance and have walked hell’s depths. I know the joy of truth and the stench of deception. I have tasted the false pride of the world and have felt the burn of its stripes. I know utter joy and utter hopelessness. I once stood on the mountaintop and was feted with the ether of praise. Then I plumbed the depths of devastating illness, of failure, of terrible loss, and said, “I am Job.” But now, with the help of God, family, and a few good friends, I am back. But like the man said, “Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”

May 22, 2020
I’ll start at the beginning. I was born in Japan. My father was an officer in the United States Army during the Occupation, and he was privileged to have his wife with him part of that time—an important part for me, as it turned out. We lived in Beppu, which is like Japan’s Las Vegas, but I was born in Fukuoka, at, as I recall, a drab army hospital with few amenities and even fewer toys. Fast forwarding, we came to the States before I could talk in either language, which left me a bit confused, and we eventually ended up at BYU, where my father graduated. After getting his teaching credential at Chico State, we moved to Modesto, California, where I was raised.

One note on the confusion of my birth and quick transfer to the States. I was born on February 19. Now, any astrologer worth his or her salt knows that this is a cusp day: February 18 is the close of Aquarius, and February 19 is beginning of Pisces. Of course none of this mattered much to me over the years because I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (formerly known as Mormons) and had an inbred aversion to signs and such (Genesis 1:14 notwithstanding). But one day while ruminating on the confusion and addlement that has plagued me since my trip to America, I realized that if I had been born where I was raised, in California, I would have been an Aquarius, because it was still the 18th in that fine state. So, in Japan I’m a Pisces, but in America I’m an Aquarius. Who can handle such an existential conflict? Certainly not a three-month-old boy who barely knows enough kanjis to write his name. In that moment of epiphany I realized that “It is not my fault.” Let confusion spiral forth from me, let foolishness spew from my pen; let “bizarre” be newly defined by my words and deeds—still, It Is Not My Fault. I am the product of an arbitrary International Dateline, of unwise travels, of signs and wonders beyond my power to control. Thus, you may read and find fault, you may snicker at my errant “wisdom,” you may mock my foolishness but just remember, it is not my fault, and, as you well know, greater is the crime of not forgiving another’s sins, especially those of a simple man riddled by the vagaries of the universe.

Anyway, back to something I could control. Although I seemed to have some limited facility for writing in my early years, I had no desire whatsoever to pursue it. (I once got a D- in Creative Writing—and only got that because the teacher, one Miss Nicholson, was the picture of forbearance and generosity.) Then, when I was 17, a spiritual experience changed my course. Although I didn’t want to write any more than necessary, I felt that I was supposed to, so I began studying the craft, partly by viewing musicals and partly by reading scriptures. The next year, I went to BYU on a track scholarship (sprints and hurdles), then served a mission to Japan, where I was a Pisces again, in the mid-70s. After returning home, I resumed my education and embarked on a composite degree in English. A composite degree consists of both a major and minor in the same subject. In my last two semesters I had on average one paper due each morning. That’s when I learned to write fast, though not necessarily well.

During this time I also met Janet Scott, on the BYU women’s track team, and we were married within a year (April 6, 1979) in the Oakland Temple. She also ran sprints, and long jumped (20 feet). Although I had a respectable mark on the Top Ten record board in the Fieldhouse, Janet was the real athlete in the family, as she was ranked 5th in the United States in the indoor 60-meter dash when we married. (Another interesting fact is that we are both the oldest of eight children, both have five brothers and two sisters, who came nearly in the same order, and we both had brothers born to our parents two years before we were married. Also, we ran the same events in high school and college—sprints and jumps. We may have other uncanny similarities, but I have been too skittish to research the subject.

A year before our marriage, I had, quite by random, been roomed with one Todd Hester, an engineering student, who is undoubtedly the funniest person I have ever known. As it turned out, he also wanted to write, so we began working on an adventure novel for boys. It was called The Not-So Private Eyes and was published by Randall Books before the end of our sophomore years. Combining Todd’s creativity and humor with my ability to encourage him, made us a good, if unequal, team. He was truly the brains of the operation, and I was the lucky one to grab onto his coattails.

Getting published at an early age was both a blessing and a curse. It was nice to know that we weren’t altogether misguided in our attempts, but it gave me false hope. I thought we had arrived, that I could quit school and write full-time. But, alas, as soon as I dropped out of school, the royalties dried up, and I was working as a janitor back in Modesto. Needless to say, I hurried back to BYU, where I resumed both my studies and athletic career, where I managed to stay most of another year before another book got published and I dropped out again. I was writer, after all. I didn’t need homework and tests and term papers. Unfortunately, I was not a successful writer. Although our books received some nice reviews in library journals (where perhaps five or ten people glanced at the innocent pages), and although Todd and I had been invited to sign books alongside Walter Cronkite and Diane Keaton at the ABA convention in Dallas, Texas (American Booksellers Association), we were, again, financial failures. Some bookstores said our books were good enough to be successful, but unfortunately we had chosen to write them just when video games were beginning to rage across the land, consuming every self-respecting boy’s time and energy, not to mention hopes and dreams. Poor judgment on our part, I guess.

So, I went back to school, again, had another stint on the track team (my coaches were the epitome of patience), and I eventually passed a few more classes before mistakenly getting published again and trying the same old trick.

By following this course of action, college became the longest 18 years of my life, and I graduated (whew!) At the tender age of 36, with a number of books to my credit, a faithful and patient wife at my side, and four children under my feet (especially when trying to write). My track career had long since dried up, along with the coaches’ goodwill, and my mark on the Top-Ten board in the 400 meter hurdles had finally fallen off the board like a withered leaf from its branch. But the winds of change were blowing, and success like I couldn’t have imagined was sneaking up on me.