TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One of our contributors, author Mat Johnson, lost everything he'd written this year in one instant when his laptop suddenly crashed. In the aftermath, he was forced to focus instead on what he had left. Here's Mat.
MAT JOHNSON: I didn't drop my laptop or download malware from a sketchy pop-up window or spill Diet Coke on my keyboard. It just stopped working. One minute my computer was fine. Then the next, it was like, new hard drive - who dis (ph)? I tried everything I could - rebooted in different modes, used external disc repair programs. Nothing worked.
So I gave in, decided to wipe the drive clean and reinstall all my data. I went to my online backup service for the first time in a year, opened my account and discovered I had zero megabytes of stored information. See; the company sent so much spam that I labeled them all junk, vanquished them to a forgotten folder in my inbox and therefore missed their repeated requests for me to update my credit card information. So they turned off my account - no account, no backup.
I took my computer back to the Apple store not even thinking they could fix it, just for the official verdict. While my technician worked on my machine, she made small talk. She asked, what do you do for a living? So I told her. I am a novelist; my laptop died a hundred pages into my new novel. I could see her flinch. When she asked, did you back up your novel before it crashed, she wouldn't even look me in the eyes. So I was prepared when she told me there was nothing she could do to save it, that hiring a company to rescue the data would likely start around a thousand bucks. And it might take a month. She asked, do you want me to just order you a new hard drive? You're under warranty.
I lost the first good novel I ever wrote to a computer disaster. It happened at a crucial time in my life when I was still figuring out if I could even do this thing - become a writer for real. I backed up the file. But neurotically, I'd saved it so many times in so many formats on so many computers - at my temp job, at home, at school - that the file itself became hopelessly corrupted.
I was working nights at the time and living in a mouse-infested tenement in Giuliani-era Harlem. Petrified is too static a word to describe the panic losing my novel sent me spiraling into. I thought my world would end if I lost that book, that it'd be like losing a life, the life I aspired to. I'd already spent years, written two unpublished novels to get to the point where I could create that book. That manuscript wasn't just a novel to me. It was the key to an entirely new reality, to my future.
A panicking mess, I call my girlfriend at the time, collapsing emotionally on the phone. She said, don't worry; I got this. And she did - getting a friend of her friend to retrieve the file for me for free, encouraging me as I rearranged the chaotic patchwork of paragraphs pulled off my broken hard drive and put them back into the shape of a novel once more, into a better novel, I think, as it forced me to re-evaluate the value of every sentence before plugging it back into the hole. That became my first published book, the novel I'd eventually build a career on, a career that allowed the girlfriend to become my wife and for the two of us to eventually build a family on as well.
When our first child came, I was working on my second novel. I was adjunct teaching in three different states at three different schools for meager wages. My wife was working, too, as a nanny to other people's kids all the while with our own baby on her back. We were broke. I had to finish that book just so we could get paid, make it through the summer.
My dad had this old hunting cabin in upstate Pennsylvania about three hours from where we lived in Philly, and he offered to let me use it for a week just to finish off the book. So I went up there alone, and I wrote with the discipline and passion and fear that only a broke parent can muster. And by day five, the novel was done. I wrote 28 pages to end it - good ones, too. And when I went to email them back home, my way of backing up files back then, I tripped over the cord connecting it to the modem, and my laptop dropped to the floor and wiped all my new pages away. I couldn't afford to panic just like I couldn't afford to hire someone to pull the file's broken shards off my disk again. So I typed. And I stayed an extra two days, but I got it done. And you know what? They were even better. They were even better than the first draft because they had to be, or it would have broken my full heart.
So here I am now, messing up again. And despite losing more work than I ever have before, I was surprised to see that I didn't panic, not like the other times. It's different now because now I have a life. I've been fortunate. I have a family I love, a job I care about - teaching writing - an existence that can't be dramatically improved by anything I can type on a page. And with age, I, like everyone else, have lost far, far greater things. I've lost people. I've lost people I love who sometimes I forget I lost. And then I remember, and it hurts all over again.
I told the tech at the Apple store this time, just give me a new hard drive. Send it out. Send me back a clean slate. There's nothing on there I can't replace. They're just words. I can write new words. That's within my power. Not only will I replace them. I will write them with hope that they'll be even better this time.
GROSS: Mat Johnson is the author of the novels "Loving Day" and "Pym." He teaches at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be actor and comic Kumail Nanjiani and comedy writer Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote and he stars in the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick." It's based on how they met and how they later got married after she was placed in a medically-induced coma because of a life-threatening infection. Nanjiani grew up in Pakistan, and in the film, his parents want him to have a traditional arranged marriage. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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