NOT THE WAY I expected it to come.
The first time in my life I heard a voice, with no one there to speak it. I was walking alone one evening, a starving young writer desperate to know how I was going to pay the rent. Then someone behind me and to my right, said, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” It was decades before I realized that was a simple, honest answer to my question.
I turned, pretty well startled, and there was no one there. I went home, frightened, and locked the door behind me, wondering who was the voice and what was a Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Hours of puzzlement later, about the time I had to admit I hadn’t a clue what was a Jonathan Livingston Seagull, my office wall disappeared, and in its place, a Cinerama screen. On the screen I saw the ocean below, and the sky and one solitary that’s what must be a Jonathan Seagull.
The story unfolded and I wrote what I saw, as fast as I could write, scene by scene.
Two thirds of the way through Part I some discarnate apparently tripped over the Cinerama power cord and the movie disappeared, turned back into a wall again.
I liked the little guy I had met, liked him at once, but I had no idea how to finish his story. He has these different ideas, he does this crazy flying, he’s thrown out of his Flock and then what? Not one single idea of then-what. Couldn’t finish the story.
Eight years later, 1500 miles away, I woke from a dream with that’s then-what! I flew out of bed, typed as fast as I could type till it was finished.
Part 2 and 3 followed, no movies required since I had learned in those years to trust my imaginings.
Any story that comes in this strange way, I thought, is destined for instant success with readers. What happened is that Jonathan Livingston Seagull was instantly rejected for publication, then rejected again, and again…rejected 18 times before my agent sent the manuscript back to me. “I like your story, Richard, but nobody in Manhattan can stand it. Time to put it away and go on to your next book.”
In that same mail with that final rejection was one other letter. From an editor at Macmillan Publishing Company: “Dear Richard Bach I’ve read some of your work and find it interesting. Would you happen to have a manuscript that is not committed to another publisher? If so, I would love to…”
The manuscript went back to New York at the speed of light, Eleanor Frieda loved what she read, even though another editor at Macmillan had already rejected the story.
Then it turned out that my friend Russell Munson, pilot and professional photographer just happened to have hundreds of photos he had taken, years earlier, when for no particular reason he had felt like taking pictures of seagulls.
The photos matched the text perfectly, even that impossible shot: “His feathers ruffled, he stalled and fell.” I didn’t know that seagull feathers ruffle when their wings stall, except for seeing it in that psychic movie. Russell got the proof that they do.
First printing was 5,000 copies. Something like 40 million copies have sold around the world to date. If you have a first edition, these days, I will be happy to buy it for, say, twice the cover price…