Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic
by Rob Siegel
Roundel - October 2012
The Hack Mechanic gets a book deal
It is with joy bordering on the profane that I announce that Bentley Publishers, producers of the best damn automotive repair manuals in the world, have signed me to publish a 350-page book, tentatively titled Car Nut: Why Men Love Cars, And How Fixing BMWs Saved My Sanity (A Memoir With Actual Useful Stuff). It's my life, viewed through the lens of cars, in a way that other car guys (and the women who love them) will instantly relate to. It's that miserable Triumph GT6+ I owned in college. It's rebuilding the engine of Maire Anne's VW bus in the kitchen of the apartment in Austin. It's the 25 BMW 2002s. It's the 3.0CSi that I've owned for over half my life. It's loving how my 911SC gurgles. It's teaching my kids to drive in the Suburban on the beach late at night. It's a defense of men as intimate, caring creatures, even though we often appear to have the emotional intelligence of algae.
It's an explanation of why, in a world in which we have so little control, I enjoy working on cars, and get such a charge out of identifying, diagnosing, and completely fixing a problem.
Let me explain why this signing - with Bentley - is so particularly satisfying to me. In 1993, I was contacted by Bentley Publishers and asked about writing a book. I was enormously flattered, and signed a deal. But what with the birth of our third child, crushing amounts of work-related travel, and the challenge in following an outline - I tried, but the content kept wanting to jump the tracks, and the chapters resembled a loosely strung together series of articles - the book foundered.
Bentley, to their credit, never tried to twist my arm to complete it. But I had virtually no contact with them for the next seventeen years.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2009: Unbeknownst to me, one of my columns had found its way to a New York literary agent (actually, the one about the piece-of-crap Techno Violet M3). Imagine my surprise upon receiving an unsolicited e-mail from her, saying, "You write very well, and you're very funny; do you think you might have a book in you?"
I thought, "Oh, I know the answer to this question: YES!"
But, as you can probably imagine, it was a peculiar situation - happy, but peculiar. I didn't set out to write a book. I didn't have a concept to pitch. I appear to have jumped straight to the "accepted by an agent" part, without ever having said what it was I was going to write. Now, I can type 90 words a minute, so I can bang out my Roundel column and other content in my professional life very efficiently but hey, you can drive fast and have no idea where you're going.
The agent and I began talking about a Car Guy book. I started stringing together as many of my thirty-plus years of car-related stories as best I could recall, combined with examples of my Hack Mechanic philosophy of why working on cars - myself, with my own hands - makes me a more complete human being, saves me money, and keeps me off the streets at night.
However, things rapidly became frustrating. My agent never told me what to write, but she made it clear that: 1. most books are bought by women; 2. she didn't care about cars; and 3. the book couldn't be loosely strung together like a series of articles; it had to have a plot, a beginning, a middle, and an end. (I've never understood this. Go to Amazon, look at bestselling car-related books, and you see compilations from folks like Peter Egan, and books like Tom Cotter's The Cobra In The Barn. The format is one-pagers with a facing picture. It's the antithesis of plot.) She gave me frequent comments like "And what was your wife doing?" and "And what did your wife think about that?" and "And how old were your children?" And whenever I'd get too car-specific, she'd write "yawn" in the margin.
In other words, more guy, less car.
After three drafts, to my stunned surprise, she dropped me, telling me that I'd made great strides, but it didn't look like the book was going to get to the place she needed it to be . She also said - and I'll never forget this - "I think you need a boy" - by which she meant a male agent, one who understood me and "the car guy thing" a little better.
After I sulked awhile, I had a thought: Bentley Publishers. I sent them the manuscript. They were interested. "The memoir-based content is fine," they said, "but you said the agent had you take some of the car-specific stuff out. Could you put it all back in?" I did three more drafts for Bentley, each leaving the Guy Knob where it was, but cranking the Car Knob higher.
And the remarkable thing was, though I'd railed every time the ex-agent recommended inclusion of memoir-based content, there was no question that the book is, in fact, the better for it. It is heartfelt; it is quirky; and it is mine-a memoir with actual useful stuff. Who else is going to tell you car stories, give you parenting tips, and tell you how to burn out a snapped-off stud with an oxyacetylene torch?
And so, eighteen years after signing a contract with Bentley for a book that foundered partially because I was writing loosely strung-together chapters like a series of Hack Mechanic columns, I've delivered them a book whose format is, um .. . loosely strung together, like a series of Hack Mechanic columns.
I guess I did always have a book in me. I just needed people to quit telling me what it was.
Hack Mechanic column from and courtesy of Roundel - October 2012