Many many years ago, in the dim recesses of my past, I was a writer. This isn’t to say that I no longer am, but at the time it was one of the real defining characteristics of my life. I published a relatively sizable zine (16-24 pages, large format, bimonthly) that was distributed around the country. At its peak, about 300 people paid (!!!) to receive it. All told, I did that for about six or seven years.
One of the things that I loved about it was… well… being connected. Or at the very least, being able to fake it. If I wanted books, I’d call a publisher and get review copies sent over. If I was interested in talking to someone – a researcher working on potato-starch based plastic, or an author whose book I liked – I’d call up their office or their publicist or whatever, and scam an interview. It was a good life. Heady stuff.
The authors were always my favorites.
I loved writing, so it’s natural that I’d love talking to other writers. (Or talking period, as anyone who knows me can testify. But that’s another matter.) A few stand out as people who were genuine encouragements to me. Bodie Thoene, and her husband Brock. Good grief. I interviewed them, what, three? Four times? My best friend Nate said at the time that I should just call them columnists. They didn’t just answer questions – they encouraged me in my work and my dreams.
Because I was a Christian, I ended up getting tight with a number of the publishers that dominated the Christian Publishing Industry (complete with initial Scare Caps) at the time. In the late 80’s early 90’s pre-Left-Behind world, it was like a big, competitive, but ultimately amicable family. An amicable family that marketed its products to 35-65 year old women in potpouri-scented stores next to porcelean Jesus figurines and precious moments plaques. There was a lot of really, really horrible stuff. Prairie romances with chaste heroines and chaste heros who learned to look to the heavens when Indians attacked. ‘Young adult fiction’ about kids so perfect they’d have apoplectic fits of guilt about leaving a shirt untucked. Inspirational books full of homilies and Chicken Soup For the Conservative Suburbian Soul filler. Novels so flattened by the author’s desire to be theologically correct and perfect that any vestiges of humanity had been sucked from their characters, leaving empty Heinlein-esque sock puppets.
But there were gems. Real, true gems that stood out from the crowd. I discovered them because, crackhead book addict that I am, I read everything these publishers put out. It was printed on wood pulp and I could get my hands on it, so bam. I’d read it. And I’d sift out the chaff and every once in a while, discover an author that made me jump up and shout.
Nancy Rue’s Home By Another Way, with its amazingly on-target sixteen year old protagonist Josh. She captured the self-righteous assurance of a high school guy growing up disillusioned with youth group culture, but still too sheltered and self-centered to understand the complexities of the world beyond it.
Steve Lawhead, who spent a decade or two as the single credible author of science fiction in the Christian market. Dream Thief wove Hindu mysticism, alien civilizations, and classic scifi political mechanations together. And his Empyrion Saga shamed many of the ‘secular’ authors I’ve read. He didn’t write as a Christian trying to preach via stories. He was just an excellent writer who happened to be a Christian.
T. Davis Bunn was one of those stand-out authors. A gem. He was a mover and shaker in the international business world, living large in tailored suits. He decided that he had to write. That God had even told him to. Not in some sort of ‘Here, write the next book of the Bible’ sort of way. More like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re wired for, this writing gig. Don’t ignore it.’ So he did. He ditched the business world, as a relatively new convert to Christianity, and started writing.
When I stumbled across his books, I dug them in a big way. His dialogue was tight, the plots were interesting, and he clearly knew how people worked and did his research. He got hooked up in the Christian Publishing Industry, and Bethany House started publishing his stuff. (They were the only ones really focusing on fiction in those days. Most of the others put out a few novels, and lots of theology, nonfiction, etc.) His first two novels were political thrillers. Really good stuff. New author, but he was already better than the vast majority of the stuff being put out. His characters were real, imperfect, and three-dimensional. His third book followed the life of a fusion jazz guitarist. Good stuff that. And then, a spectacularly lush trilogy set in the world of the London antiques trade. I loved that series. It was amazing.
It was also doomed.
Remember the potpouri-and-Precious-Moments image I mentioned earlier? Yeah. That’s the Christian bookstore market, for the most part. It doesn’t mesh well with morally complex literary fiction and imperfect, flawed protagonists. Most of the authors I really loved tended to do badly in that world, and T. Davis Bunn was no exception. His best novels sold the fewest copies. Even though the editors at Bethany knew he was a great author, well… they couldn’t just fund books for fun.
So they paired him up as a co-author with Janette Oake, author of innumerable prairie romances and ‘historical fiction.’ She wasn’t a bad person. I hold no ill will towards her! Honest! But the stuff she wrote was formulaic, and it was pulp fiction. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but seeing T. Davis Bunn paired with her was almost painful. Of course, they sold something like a hojillion copies. Janette Oake had that kind of name recognition in that market.
At one point, I was attending a writers’ conference, and discovered T. Davis Bunn was teaching one of the sessions. I was stoked – his tragic pairing nonwithstanding, I still really respected him. During the session, though, he explained to people the hard lesson that he’d learned – you have to be marketable. And in the Christian publishing world, literary fiction has nowhere to go. The numbers just aren’t there. It was painful to hear, even if it was true. Here was one of the guys who’d written what I still consider three of the best books in the Christian world in the 90’s, and he was explaining that they had been failures. That his ‘success’ had come when he took a back seat to an ‘established name’ who could pull in the numbers.
I haven’t seen anything by him for years – not shocking, really, since I stopped publishing the zine in ‘94 or so, and I didn’t keep up with the publishing news after that point. But I’ve thought of T. Davis Bunn since then, wondering if he regretted the way things had gone. Wondering if he’d ever gotten a chance to break free and spread his literary wings again.
This evening, I was walking through the Barnes & Noble new releases section. So many new authors, so many established ones. All doing what they love (or what pays the bills). I snagged a copy of William Gibson’s new novel, and an interesting looking paperback expose of the diamond industry’s dark underbelly. And then – I blinked – I spotted a new political thriller. Hardback, proudly bound and published by Doubleday.
Winner Take All. By T. Davis Bunn.
“A cracking good thriller,” says Publishers Weekly. “His dialogue is racehorse fast, and the tale zips along without any lulls,” says the New York Post. “The Story is irresistable. There’s little to stop the reader from going for an all-nighter with his book,” says the Gannett News Service.
I stood, blinking, and grinned.
I’m smiling now.
I picked up a copy, too. I’m looking forward to it.