Coke Newell’s semi-autobiographical novel and publishing momentum

Dallas Robbins has already posted an announcement about three new titles from Zarahemla Books over at This Mormon Life. I have read one of the new books — Coke Newell’s semi-autobiographical novel On the Road to Heavenand highly recommend it. The plot itself doesn’t break much ground. It’s the typical conversion/missionary novel thing with a large dose of romance. But the writing itself is fantastic. I especially like the nature writing in the beginning as the mountain hippie protagonist explores the meaning of life through a mix of nature love and Eastern philosophy. It introduces some aspects in to Mormonism that are often missing, exploring where some of the stuff that was swirling around during the ’60s meshes with LDS doctrine (and where it doesn’t so much).

I haven’t ready Doug Thayer’s memoir Hooligans: A Mormon Boyhood, but I’m a big fan of his fiction. I continue to be puzzled by the fact that Thayer’s work isn’t published (or even stocked) by Deseret Book. But whatever. Go support Chris Bigelow and Zarahemla and by this book. I’m betting that this is going to become a Mormon classic (in some circles).

I don’t know anything about Jessica Draper or her cyberpunk novel. But I do like that with this and Brother Brigham, Zarahemla has shown that it’s willing to publish genre fiction.

I know Chris Bigelow — we’ve been e-mail correspondents for the past 5 years or so and from time to time I give him feedback on projects he’s involved in*. I don’t know the specifics of Zarahemla’s finances, but I’m pretty sure that his ability to publish future titles depends on selling the current ones. Since October of 2006, Zarahemla Books has published:

  • Brother Brigham, a unique “supernatural” thriller (that’s not really supernatural because it’s plausible within the realm of Mormon folk doctrine)
  • Kindred Spirits, one of the first novels to focus on a demographic trend that I would guess has increased in the past 15 years or so — a young, single educate Mormon woman living in an urban non-Western city (Boston in this case)
  • Long After Dark, one of the best short story collections in the canon of Mormon literature
  • On the Road to Heaven, an autobiographical novel by one of the most influential converts in late 20th century Mormon American — Coke Newell
  • Hooligan, a memoir by the godfather of Mormon literature
  • Hunting Gideon, an ambitious attempt at Mormon postmodern, cyberpunk

In that time, it looks like Signature Books has published only one creative title — a poetry collection in March of this year. The newest fiction title I can find on their site is from March 2006. And as far as I can tell** the only other titles that have been published in the past year are all genre works — the romance or historical fiction or mystery/thriller novels. There may be some other memoirs out there, but none that have the literary interest as Thayer’s.

I’d like to see Zarahemla sustain its publishing momentum and be able to come out with 2-3 new titles every six months. I hope you all join me in adding to that momentum. And this is not to focus only on Zarahemla Books. It’s just that, as far as I can tell, it is the only publisher trying to publish the ‘literary yet not apostate’ or ‘genre but with a twist’ type of fiction that I find to be the most interesting and satisfying reads in the world of Mormon literature.
* For example, I think I once e-mailed him (or maybe it was Todd Robert Petersen) some rather snooty comments about The Sugar Beet and yet made no offer at all to help with the endeavor.

** I could be horribly wrong about this. In fact, I’d be happy to be horribly wrong about it because that means there are some titles out there that I should be tracking down. I also haven’t included young adult fiction in this. Not because I don’t value it, but because I don’t know the Mormon publishing side of it well enough because I tend to stick to national titles.

14 thoughts on “Coke Newell’s semi-autobiographical novel and publishing momentum”

  1. I heard Tom Kimball say over the weekend that Signature Books only publishes one novel a year, I imagine there is very little money in it – so everyone needs to get out a support more good LDS fiction – including me, otherwise it may eventually die a slow death.

  2. Yeah, Signature does seem to publish one novel and one book of poetry a year. Good for them for continuing to publish creative work. Whatever one may feel about their other titles, their track record on fiction is quite good.

    At the same time, it’s hard to really get much going with fiction with so few titles.

    One thing you have to give Covenant credit for — and I think most of the credit really goes to the authors — is that they have a stable of authors who they publish regularly, who read and support and publicize each others work and who all have a similar ethos about writing and Mormon fiction. A school. A movement. A cadre. I’m not sure what you’d call it, exactly, but it seems to be working.

  3. There is another press out there publishing “literary but not apostate” ficiton: Parables. Last year Parables published Arianne Cope’s _The Coming of Elijah_ (Winner of the 2006 Marilyn Brown award); Eugene Woodbury’s _Path of Dreams_; and Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s _In a Dry Land_. My novel in stories, currently titled _Bound on Earth_, is scheduled to be published by Parables this winter. I’m hopeful, as a writer and a reader, that ventures like Parables and Zarahemla will find success. I know another publishing company that was connected with BYU, Palmyra Press, published four promising literary titles in 2005 but hasn’t published since. I’m not positive, but I would guess this is due to lack of response from the buying public. And Palmyra even had distribution in Deseret Book and Seagull and the support of BYU.

    Those of us who care about quality LDS lit should really try to support these fledgling presses, or else they will disappear. (And, okay okay, I want people to buy my book when it comes out too :-).

  4. “I continue to be puzzled by the fact that Thayer’s work isn’t published (or even stocked) by Deseret Book. But whatever.”

    Especially since on their website DB displays Stephanie Meyer’s vampire novels prominently, promoting them as “best sellers.” LDS publishing and bookselling is something of a Twilight Zone experience.

  5. Oh, forgot to say–I read On the Road to Heaven, too, and also recommend it. I especially enjoyed all the mountain hugging and insight into the era Newell portrayed in the first part.

    One thing I see about Zarahemla that interests me as a writer–they promote their wares aggressively for the size of their outfit.

  6. Of course, “they” is pretty much just Chris Bigelow. How he does it all, I don’t know. But kudos to him and to Beth Bentley at Parables.

  7. Thanks for this nice write-up, Wm. I’m curious to see how this new crop of three Z. titles does, because it’s pretty much make-or-break for how aggressive I’ll be in the future. For one thing, the money is now all gone, and it must be replenished by sales. And then there’s the time factor; my own writing has pretty much come to a standstill. At one point a few months ago I was going to cut my losses and cash out of Z. but then I decided, “What the hell, I’ll let it play all the way out,” thus the new crop of books.

    I’m astonished how hard it is to get stores and individuals to buy books. I guess traditional books are somewhat in free fall in today’s culture, yet there are more books published than ever. Very tough business, and I thought I was going into it with my eyes all the way open. But I’ve had some fun and some satisfaction too, and maybe something will catch on enough to keep it going.

  8. Thanks for the update, Chris.

    I think a big part of it is that this middle way that a few of us are advocating for just doesn’t have an audience. It seems like those Mormons who might be culturally inclined to support such work either are more interested in history and doctrine and/or use their leisure time and money devoted to culture on non-Mormon-related works.

  9. I have to agree with Chris on how difficult it is to interest LDS bookstores in literary fiction. At my own booth (Mormon Arts and Letters – another “new” publisher with a literary bent), its hard enough to just get the bookstores to acknowledge that you even exist! They seem to walk down the aisles with some kind of tunnel vision, looking neither to the left nor the right, undoubtedly headed to some booth they already buy from.

    I plan to write a post or two in the next few days about the convention and what I’ve seen new there (from the perspective of someone who has attended 8 of the last 10 years), but on incident is perhaps illustrative of the problem. I think I may have offended one woman, owner of an LDS bookstore in California, as I discussed with her whether or not LDS bookstores should carry academic and literary books. She, of course, claimed that these books do not sell. I suggested that the reason that they don’t sell is because LDS bookstores don’t carry and promote them, and those interested have given up trying to find academic and literary works in LDS stores. She abruptly turned and walked off, perhaps offended at the idea that she was at fault.

    While I wasn’t trying to say that she was personally at fault, I do think that this is the core of the problem.

    I’ll post more in a few days — after the convention is over.

  10. I think you’re exactly right in comment #9, Wm. A guy at Sunstone made the point that even an avid reader usually gets to only 10-20 books a year, unless the person is an unusually fast reader. There is so much compelling stuff available at the national level that it’s very hard for someone selling Mormon stuff to displace that.

    As for me, I probably read only about 1 out of 6 books I buy with the best intentions, probably only 5-10 total titles per year, and the novels I like most are mainstream literary titles, not Mormon books. So how can I reasonably expect others to give precious reading time to Mormon stuff, unless it’s essential doctrine/history that’s actually good for your soul in obvious ways.

    Oh, well. I wonder if this will ever change in a significant way or if Mormon literature will forever remain mostly a few-hundred-copies-per-title ghetto.

  11. Was there a Zarahemla Books table at Sunstone this year? I looked once, and meant to go back and actually ask someone if you were there Chris, but didn’t make it. I was hoping to avoid shipping costs, not that it’s that big a deal.

    I would bet that I read around 80-100 books a year, but I guess I’m a fast reader, and a constant reader.

  12. The bookstore vendor at Sunstone carried all the Zarahemla books, but we didn’t have our own table.

    All our books (except not quite yet Doug Thayer’s new memoir) are available on Amazon.com at 32% off cover price and free shipping on orders over $25, and we match these same prices and terms at http://zarahemlabooks.com.

  13. Thanks, I must have just missed those particular books in the store. I didn’t end up with as much time there as I would have liked.

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