Friday, October 12, 2012


For a while, between 1996 and 2003, I was extremely fortunate in being able to publish, in fairly rapid order, the four books of my Hiwassee series--novels blending fact and fiction about the history of my father's family from the middle of the Civil War through the end of the 19th century.  During that period I was busy, happy and confident; my new and fulfilling career as a novelist seemed to flourish.  While I did not break big, I did earn a reasonably good reputation and some of my work won recognition at both the regional and national levels. These successes--though unrewarding in terms of money--allowed me, temporarily, to push aside the awareness that my productive years would inevitably be cut short; for I was 58 years old when my first novel appeared.

After the publication of Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, the final book of the Hiwassee series, my interest turned to the history of my mother's family and I discovered, to my delight, that on her side I was descended from a Scottish immigrant named James Johnson who had joined the Continental Army in May, 1781 and served in the Southern Campaign of Major General Nathanael Greene.  I decided to write a novel based on the history of that campaign as it might have been experienced by Private Johnson of the First Continental Light Dragoons and his opposite number, the army commander General Greene, thus giving the reader a bottom-up/top-down account of the war that established our independence.

The Revolutionary War was a subject entirely new to me.  I had not anticipated the time and effort that would be required to research and write accurately about the topic.  Nor did I realize how hard it would be to sell a novel whose subject, I knew, was of little interest to the reading public at large; nor again, the time that would be required to find a publisher who would not only take the book and put it into print but vigorously market it against the prevailing indifference.  Nearly five precious years were consumed by that process. 

Nor the Battle to the Strong finally appeared in 2008; I was immensely proud of it.  It was beautifully printed, bound and illustrated.  It garnered praise from Dr. Dennis Conrad, editor of the latter volumes of The Papers of Major General Nathanael Greene; from John Buchanan, author of The Road to Guilford Courthouse, the definitive account of the Southern war; and from Robert Morgan, a highly-honored fellow Western North Carolina author who had also recently penned a novel, Brave Enemies, about the Revolution.  I thought it my finest work to date and believed that its message about patriotism as envisioned differently by Americans high and low was timely and profound.  I set out on tour to peddle it with high expectations, but by and large the results were disappointing.  In the end the book did not do well.  Yet the work of it had consumed stores of energy and imagination that I began to realize could not be replenished.  Age was taking its toll.

Nonetheless I had already embarked upon a sequel, to be called The Sunshine of Better Fortune, which would carry the stories of Greene and Johnson through to war's end.  Unfortunately it turned out that the last year and a half of the Revolutionary War in the South was poorly and inconsistently documented, forcing me to enter upon a grueling process of original research as well as writing.  By the time I completed the manuscript, last December, I was running on empty.  I thought it a good book, perhaps not as fine as its predecessor, but still one of which I might be proud.  And I very much wanted to round out the story I had begun with Nor the Battle, and to make what I thought was an important final point about the different and contradictory ideas that had animated the various participants in the Revolution. 

Though the publisher of Nor the Battle had urged me to write the sequel, to my crushing disappointment he soon returned it to me, unread.  All the time I had been working on it the market had radically changed.  Vampires and fantasy and erotica were all the rage; commerce was king; my publisher could no longer afford to put forth serious material that would not fetch back substantial rewards.

I was 73 when The Sunshine of Better Fortune was rejected.  And I had not been idle during the years between 2008 and the turn of 2012.  Not only had I churned out Sunshine, I had also written two other books, a novel, Blood Offerings, and a work of nonfiction, Season of Terror, both about the Espinosa serial killers in CivilWar-era Colorado Territory (discussed in earlier posts on this blog). Happily the University Press of Colorado accepted Season of Terror; it is to be released next July.  But so far Blood Offerings has had no takers and this, combined with the death of Sunshine and my alarming realization that time was running out for me, began to dim the lights of my life.

The final blow came when, about the time Sunshine was returned, I was notified by the publisher of Where the Water-Dogs Laughed that this, my favorite novel of the Hiwassee series, was to be remaindered.  That meant--as one can readily see by checking a used hardbound copy of my labor of love may be acquired at the cost of one cent, plus shipping.  A brand-new copy may be had for $4.98 and a "collectible" copy, whatever that is, for $22.32.  Thus may be cheaply purchased the culminating volume of my series of novels about my Price ancestors. 

It's true that I have made arrangements on my website (see the "Books/Fiction" Page at to sell personalized copies from my private stock at $15, for as long as they last).  But in the world of commerce my beloved characters Oliver Price, Will Price and Lillie Carter, Hamby McFee, Captain Irish Bill Moore, the timber titan G.G.M. Weatherby and his daughter Cassandra, her lover Absalom Middleton and his hard-luck old man, and, above all, the possibly mythical giant bear Yan-e'gwa striving to restore the balance of the world, all these and more were instantly rendered next to worthless.

This, I think, was what pushed me into the pit.



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