Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Biography of a Book

In many ways New Paltz reminds me of the town I grew up in, Fairhope, Alabama, as it was in the 1950s and not as it is today. Fairhope was founded as a utopian colony by followers of Henry George (a prominent citizen of New York State in the 19th century). They moved to the shores of Mobile Bay to found a community they felt would prove George's economic theory of a single-tax and change the country. They bought land in a pleasant setting and rented parcels of it to settlers at a low yearly amount, using the tax collected for civic maintenance and improvement.

Fairhope in its early days, the turn of the 20th century, attracted reformers and nonconformists of every stripe--writers, Socialists,  raw foodists, artists, and even a few nudists. By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, the single tax element was on the wane in Fairhope, but it still was home to more than a few oddballs, most of whom were solid citizens of the town and all of whom added to the bohemian flavor that still existed. There is a bit of that in New Paltz, but not a shred in Fairhope any more. It is still in its efficacious location, with spectacular views of the sunset into Mobile Bay, but has become a tourist and retirement destination and the population is enchanted by a civic emphasis on horticulture and a borrowed cachet of artiness.

I resisted attempting to write fiction all my life, thinking maybe one day I would write a book in the way Grandma Moses painted pictures—word pictures of a bygone time and place, my place being old Fairhope in its infancy, when the oddballs and intellectuals gathered there to discuss the ways they would change the world.

That Was Tomorrow is my attempt to do that. It is also a way to flush Fairhope out of my system. My villain is loosely based on a real person with whom I had had struggles. I made him more ignorant, more deranged than he actually was, but I did enjoy doing that. My protagonist is idealistic and innocent--I wanted her to represent the kind of "New Woman" of the 1920s who struck off on her own. Swirling around her is the circus that was Fairhope in 1921—with some of the names of real people who founded the settlement and thrived there. I included unknowns and forgotten artists and travelers who came through the place in that period, cavorting nude in the bay, arguing Bolshevik politics, teaching the Negroes to paint, and hatching books of their own. There are a number of real people in the book, but none whose names are known outside Fairhope, and few inside.

It is very real to me, and of course compelling, although long ago I learned that there is a very small market for this particular segment of the things that I find compelling. Unable to find a publisher for my last work of non-fiction about Fairhope, I vowed that if this one does not find a publisher then it will go unpublished—so be it.

I wrote the whole book in about 10 months. Then I began rewriting. I sent it to three readers, one of whom (Jonathan Odell) is a published author and he was the most helpful. He zeroed in on my problems writing in this fiction format—I had not created tension in my story or even really let the reader know who my protagonist was. I was telling the reader about the story and not telling the story. He also knew that I was going to have to edit out a lot of unneeded backstory. He said this in a positive, constructive way, assuring me that I had created an interesting book that might go somewhere after I polished it up.

The polishing period was the most difficult. I could not find an agent to represent me to a publisher, and after submitting it to about 50 of them I tried Alabama publishers but they all either said they didn't publish books "about Fairhope" or they just didn't respond at all. When I heard from the University of Alabama Press that they no longer considered historical novels, I gave up on that and set up my own imprint, Sibley Oak Press, and published That Was Tomorrow, both in electronic format and as a paperback.

It's a modest little book, but the response of those who do read it is generally good. So far I've gotten 32 reviews on, and only a few found minor things to carp about. One said it was not of interest to the general reader, which may be true--but others have claimed that they never read books like this and were delighted to have found this one. It is for sale at three indie bookstores that I know of--Page and Palette in Fairhope, Inquiring Minds in New Paltz, and the Book Mart and Café in Starkville, MS. Yes, it's on amazon as an eBook and in paperback. Sales are on a plateau at this point, but That Was Tomorrow is still alive, and as long as people are reading it, old Fairhope is too.

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