When debut authors talk about their struggles to get published, their stories usually boil down to a dramatic tale of numbers, despite the literary context: X number of writing workshops they attended, X number of years spent working on the debut, X number of rejections from agents or publishers. Andrew Hilleman, whose electric, compelling debut novel, World, Chase Me Down, is out today, has numbers that are more memorable than most. This 332-page novel based on the real-life kidnapping in 1900 of a rich Nebraskan’s son (the first successful kidnapping for ransom in the U.S.) was once 700 pages. It is the fifth novel Hilleman has written (the previous four “were just not good,” he tells me, and haven’t been published), and he created a list of “about 60” agents he wanted to query before he actually found one and didn’t have to write all 60.
Most impressive, though, is the following assertion Hilleman makes that I have never, ever heard a debut writer say about the hunt to find an agent: “I wanted to be part of the slush pile.” Rather than ask writer friends of his to ask their agents to look at his manuscript, Hilleman sent World, Chase Me Down to agents who could have no possible way of knowing anything about him. “I want the agent who picks this up to be an agent who I know I’m going to like and is going to like the book because they like the book and not because they’re doing the friend or client a favor,” Hilleman recalls thinking to himself.
It’s not hard to see why Christopher Rhodes (now of The Stuart Agency) took on this unheard-of novelist. Hilleman is a native of Omaha, Nebraska, who was flipping through microfilm while researching a novel about one of the city’s long-gone political bosseswhen he saw a reference in a newspaper to the kidnapping of the son of a wealthy meatpacking owner in Omaha. In Omaha in 1900, the owner ran roughshod over Pat Crowe, the kidnapper, who had attempted to open a butchery; after the crime, Crowe was infamous (and wealthy himself, after he and his accomplice returned the teenage son to his family). Today, Pat Crowe is largely forgotten, but his crime inspired the Lindbergh baby abduction.
Hilleman has a way of evoking the blustery, often brutal world of Omaha at the turn of the last century that feels at once accurate and specific and yet entirely of his own province. Too much historical fiction feels leaden, weighed down by a writer’s obsession to get every last period detail on the page. There’s a point in World, Chase Me Down when Crowe, who in the novel was a bartender before he opened the butcher’s shop, is asked to serve the mayor a drink. “The mayor had a voice as shrill as a teapot on the scald whether he was giving a speech or ordering drinks,” Hilleman writes from Crowe’s perspective. “He took malt whiskey barefoot and had to explain to me that barefoot meant neat.” I asked Hilleman where he learned that people in 1900 in Omaha would’ve said “barefoot” instead of “neat.” He didn’t. Hilleman, who is 34, was once a bartender; a customer had asked him for a Scotch “barefoot.” He had to ask another bartender what that meant. “I wanted to create a feeling with the language—not just the dialogue—that made the prose feel a little otherworldly,” Hilleman says. “I wanted to have a freshness of language even if it wasn’t period accurate. I don’t know if someone ordered something in 1900 ‘barefoot.’ ” Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief.