Word of mouth is the self-published author's Kickstarter. Steadily building buzz can catapult a book from selling a few copies here and there to being picked up by a major publisher with all the distribution resources and marketing muscle at its disposal. So it has happened for “Once We Were Brothers” by Lincolnshire resident Ronald Balson, a 69-year-old lawyer whose debut novel was initially self-published (or in the case of the Balson family, son-published) in 2010, and will be released next week by St. Martin's Press. A screen adaptation is in the works.
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"Once We Were Brothers" tells a great story, but the story behind Balson's late-blooming success is almost as thrilling, not to mention inspiring to other self-published writers looking for their books to break through.
Balson has been practicing law since 1972. It prepared him well for his second career. Writing, he observes, is what lawyers do more than anything else. "Nonfiction, of course, although there are some judges who would say otherwise," he jokes. And to argue before a jury "is a form of storytelling." He added: "Any successful trial lawyer will agree that you have to paint an interesting story for the jury to follow."
But at heart, he said, "my wife would tell you I was always a storyteller. We raised eight kids, and they would gather around and I would make up stories, mostly fantasy."
"Once We Were Brothers" echoes one of those classic Warner Bros. gangster dramas about two childhood best friends, one who becomes, say, a priest, and the other a notorious criminal. In the book's gripping opening chapters, 83-year-old Ben Solomon crashes a Chicago Lyric Opera gala to confront at gunpoint Elliot Rosenzweig, one of the city's most prominent philanthropists. Solomon claims that Rosenzweig's true identity is infamous Nazi SS officer Otto Piatek, "the Butcher of Zamoœæ." Could Rosenzweig really be the same person who was taken in as a child and raised by Solomon's family? Solomon prevails upon the reluctant Catherine Lockhart, a lawyer, to take his case, and relates to her his wrenching story of friendship, betrayal and undying love.
The book, three years in the writing, had its inception in one of Balson's cases. "I represented a couple of entrepreneurs who got an exclusive contract to construct telephone service in southern Poland," he said. "The contract fell apart, and the lawsuit ensued from that. All the witnesses and documents were in Poland, so I went there a lot. Poland still bears all the scars from World War II. The whole country — its government, its infrastructure, everything — was devastated by the Nazis. You go to Warsaw now and you see buildings with bullet holes in them. You see monuments and memorials to Warsaw's freedom fighters. It's hard not to be affected by that."
Balson is Jewish. His family — "thankfully," he says — was not affected by the Holocaust. But over the course of his trips, his story took form. "I wanted to write a story about an ordinary family in an ordinary Polish town and how they would have been affected by the Nazi occupation," he said.
Balson, who lists authors Herman Wouk and Leon Uris as inspirations, felt duty-bound to render the period accurately. Research ("also something a lawyer does," he says, laughing) proffered a wealth of material on the war and the Holocaust. "Nazis were great (chroniclers) of their own atrocities," he said ruefully. "I could also draw upon the memoirs of people who vividly remembered (events such as) when the Nazis rode through the town on Passover and forced everyone, including children and the sick, to gather in the square."
As the writing progressed, Balson, a first-time author, wasn't quite sure what he had. "You think to yourself, 'Is this any good at all?'" he recalls thinking. "I love it, I love my characters, I love what they're saying and I love what they're doing. But would anyone else like this? You have to ask people, and it can't always be family members who would be looking at it hoping it was good and wanting to tell you it was good."
Chapter by chapter, he said, he sought feedback from colleagues at work as well as those with special knowledge, such as Rabbi Emeritus Victor Weissberg at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, whom Balson says gave him "some very good comments."
He was next faced with the ultimate question: Would someone publish it? For a while, it seemed the answer would be no. "I initially did go the conventional route, but I could not approach a publisher as a credentialed author. I wasn't a politician or a celebrity, somebody whom people would know."
His search for an agent was equally unencouraging. "I was getting turned down," he said. "One agent would say, 'This is not for me.' Another actually said, 'I don't know why you think Otto, the SS officer, is such a bad guy.'"
Finally, he found New York literary agent Maura Teitelbaum, who shares Balson's mother's maiden name, and whom he cleverly approached by stating that they might be related. She loved the manuscript. "It was one of the first books I have ever read that I truly thought broke down the timeline of how a very normal family was affected by the Germans and the Holocaust," she said. "You actually experienced this well-off family slowly being stripped of their rights and their possessions. That story truly stuck with me."
But editors did not love the book as she did and found reasons to pass. "I submitted it to many editors but just didn't get the response we hoped to receive," she said. "That can be frustrating to authors and agents. But I always stayed in touch and helped him when it came to inquiries about the book. I was just happy to be part of his fan club." (Balson also credits her with providing invaluable feedback. "She made some suggestions that were very valuable; whole sections of the book I added after she read it and said, 'I think it's missing this.'")
After more than a year, Balson, with his son, Matt, formed their own publishing company, Berwick Court. "I wanted to see this in print before I died," he jokes.
For a long time the book sold "one copy at a time," he said. But then around September 2011, he said, without him knowing how or why, sales skyrocketed; 300 copies that month, 1,000 copies the next, 3,000 in November. Balson said the book in its original incarnation has sold 130,000 copies.
It was word-of-mouth that brought "Once We Were Brothers" to the attention of St. Martin's Press editor Kathryn Huck. "My aunt loved it so much she brought home a copy of the book for my mom to read over Christmas last year," she recalled. "I took a look at it and noticed it was self-published. I read it and loved it. I had gotten some copies so I could garner in-house reads and drum up interest. While a publicist was reading a copy on the train commuting home one night, a ticket conductor told her that he had read the book on the recommendation of another commuter and loved it. I also handed off a copy to another editor here whose wife used to be in the business and is a good gauge on commercial books. She told him she had read it already and loved it, as did her circle of friends."
Last June, upstart production company Cool People Productions acquired the film rights. "Sometime around January of this year, I kept hearing people talking about this book," said company president and producer Billy Asher Rosenfeld. "My mom was one of them. When your Jewish mother tells you to check out a book, the first thing you do is make a mental note to never read that book (laughs). I was literally, 'So much for that.' But around that time, we were massing the company together and one of the investing partners said, 'Hey, have you ever heard of this book?' I checked it out, and by Page 5, I said I was going to have to make this movie."
In the meantime, Balson (who is still practicing law) has already written a sequel in which Catherine is recruited by her former law firm to investigate the case of a lawyer who is missing — along with $88 million of a client's money.
Balson is basking in his unexpected happy ending after years of rejection.
"It can be done. The odds are against you, but today, more than ever, it can be done because of the Internet and self-publishing," he says. "You can write a story and get it out there. If it's good, people will read it. Nothing sells a book better than a passionate fan base."
Donald Liebenson writes features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment. He lives in Highland Park.
"Once We Were Brothers"
By Ronald H. Balson, St. Martin's Griffin, 400 pages, $15.99