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"Literature as a Spectator Sport"

An Interview with Sonny Brewer

by Pam Kingsbury

 
 

Sonny Brewer owns Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, and is board chairman of the non-profit Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He has played an active role in the literary culture of Fairhope and Alabama through the bookstore's Thursday Author Evenings, the annual Southern Writers Reading, and two widely praised anthologies. Though he may claim that he views "literature as a spectator sport," Sonny Brewer is the coach of the game on his field.

The bookstore's name has several origins. At one time Sonny Brewer lived on a 1942 36-foot Chris-Craft, docked on Fly Creek in Fairhope. At that time, Brewer wrote a syndicated newspaper column called "Over the Transom." The column's title described the manner he turned in his column (i.e., a boat's "transom" is the beam attached across the back-end of the vessel).

"Over the Transom" is also a fitting name for the bookstore and Brewer's literary imprint. In publishing, the term "over the transcom" refers to an unsolicited manuscript. Vintage doors were capped by narrow, hinged windows called transoms. Publishing lore says that unagented manuscripts were slipped over the transom and into the publishing office.

Sonny Brewer is editor of the acclaimed annual anthology series Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe: Anthologies of Southern Writers (Volume III is in the works, due out August 2004). His publisher, MacAdam/Cage recently announced that Brewer will be the editor of a new anthology, The Alumni Grille, also due out in August 04.




Do you want to create a series of yearly anthologies like The New Stories From the South?

I’ll do the Stories from the Blue Moon Café anthology for as long as readers want it. This whole thing has been organic, if you’ll forgive a flower-child his metaphor. I mean, a respectable publisher, without solicitation or query, made me an offer to publish the collection. And again. And I’m hard at work on Book III, due out in August, like the last two. And, here’s something for your readers: when I whined to David Poindexter, my publisher, about having to drop out some names from the third collection, those writers who’ve been there consecutively in the first two, and what about another anthology, in quality paper format, called The Alumni Grill Book of Stories, Essays and a Poem or Two Šwell, you guessed it. It'll be out in August right beside Stories from the Blue Moon Café III.

Were you surprised by the response to the first collection and how did it come about?

I was surprised that it caught on in a popular market, among non-academics. Anthologies seem to do well with the college crowd, both the teachers and the students. Then here’s the Blue Moon stories selling to the beach crowd. Publishers Weekly called us “eclectic and unpretentious” and I think that¹s the why of our popularity. The book came about when I tossed out the idea of getting the writers who¹ve been on the program at our Southern Writers Reading conference in November of every year to hand in a story for a chapbook collection from the conference. There was a publisher, David Poindexter of MacAdam/Cage (San Francisco and Denver) in the audience when I spoke the idea. He came up to me afterwards and told me to save my money, he’d like to publish the story collection. That was easy.

You have several careers -- independent bookstore owner, literary events organizer, editor, writer (have I left out any of your vocations?), how do you find the time? And how do the careers play against one another?

Well, sleep tends to get in the way. I read that Einstein taught himself to get by on about four hours sleep a night, simply because he was so excited to get back to his work. I love everything I do. (Including carpenter work; I once owned a construction company with more than a dozen men working for me. So, I'm forever tearing out walls, adding windows and doors, what have you.) And everything I do plays not AGAINST each other, but WITH each other. Even sawing wood. Remember the Indigo Girls tune with the line: “Gotta get out of bed, get a hammer and a nail. Learn how to use my hands, not just my head. I’d think myself in a jail!” I need the grounding experience of hand and back work to keep from some kind of meltdown.

What did you learn in editing the first collection that made editing the second collection easier for you?

Timing. Getting two and a half dozen writers on the “same page” so to speak is a little like, as Rick Bragg said at the Lemuria Bookstore (Jackson, MS) debut of the very first Stories from the Blue Moon Café, like sweeping baby chickens across a rushing stream with a frazzled broom. It's all about getting the stories in on time, and meeting deadlines for copy and manuscript submissions. I know an editor who spent five years pulling together stories and just about went nuts doing it. I like a short deadline. Then you ain't got time to dawdle. I close the door, pull down the blinds, take the phone off the hook, and get it done. And, and this is really important, I have exceptional backup from my bookstore manager, Martin Lanaux. He’s great!

To your knowledge, has anyone adopted the anthologies for academic courses? Book groups?

Word on the streets is that every Southern Lit class in America will be studying from our book. Just kidding. Only wishing. I heard some ladies discussing our Blue Moon book, actually, about how they could do a collection of different stories and different writers with some poems and essays thrown in for good measure and keep everybody on point in a brief evening meeting. Somebody'll figure it out, though.

What have you learned as a bookseller that helped in marketing the book?

The marketing, I’m talking about a national strategy, is done at the publisher’s level. We hand sell them in my store. It's easy. We pick the book up, say something like isn’t this a beautiful cover, and “Oh, look. There's a picture of our store owner right on the back flap of the dustjacket!” Gets ‘em every time.

Would you like to talk about your experience as a bookseller? What sells? The influence of handselling on the business?

Someone recently asked me about the viability of opening a used bookstore in Tuscaloosa, near the University of Alabama campus. I said, “But you don’t like to read, and, therefore for you to not be able to handsell books you love and know would be a violation of the Laws of Nature and you’d be asking for big trouble to even attempt it.” That’s what the best of the independent bookstore can offer their customers. KNOWLEDGE AND LOVE OF BOOKS. A book, after all, it’s not just another bag of pork skins, you know.

Talk about promoting both volumes of BMC.

The fact that Stories from the Blue Moon Café is going to be a multi-volume series, with a new book added each August, makes it a self-feeding kind of market situation. Somebody’ll see the third book in the series for the first time, and they will want to go back and get the first two. Likewise, a reader who enjoyed the first anthology is definitely going to buy the second and subsequent editions. Then, Penguin’s New American Library imprint is bringing them out in paperback for about half the price of the hardcover. The first one is due out December 2.

You live and work in an area with a thriving literary community. Talk about the importance of supporting local and regional artists.

I believe it is a rule, a golden rule, to reach out and open doors for other writers, for new writers, who have talent. Everybody wants to write, God bless ‘em. But not all can make words come alive, rendering human experience with such bone and blood that the story sits in the middle of your chest and won’t let you up till you've hollered. When those writers come through my office, I’m going to kick down doors to get them a chance. It’s hard. One writer I know says the publishing business is a conspiracy of liars and fools. It’s not. But it seems that way sometimes. Delays can be so maddening. It’s rough. But so is telling somebody they don’t have it as a writer. But you've got to do this thing honestly, and without equivocation when a real writer is banging around in the neighborhood. Somebody’s got to reach out to them. The best writers do it for other writers. They reach back and take a hand, because somebody reached back and took theirs.

Talk about the connections Alabama authors have made through your relationship with MacAdam Cage.

I published Frank Turner Hollon's first novel, an Over the Transom Books imprint. Cost a lot of money. It’s a huge risk. The recently retired editor at LSU Press, whose name I cannot call just now, said that while the market for exceptional fiction is infinitely vast, it is also infinitely mysterious. You simply cannot, no one can, predict how readers will take to a book. And if readers don’t like a book, it ain’t gonna work. No amount of money can buy a book into a reader’s heart. But it worked for Frank Turner Hollon, and I was able to pass along his contract to MacAdam/Cage. He is now on his fourth novel with them, and a fifth book has already been handed in by Frank. Then I was able to get a contract for Michelle Richmond's Dream of the Blue Room; then Suzanne Hudson’s In a Temple of Trees; then Joe Formichella’s Wreck of the Twilight Limited; and Dayne Sherman's Welcome to the Fallen Paradise (Dayne's a Louisiana boy.) I’m stomping around trying to get the fine folks at MacAdam Cage to not let Donald “Skip” Hays slip through their fingers. Joe's and Dayne’s manuscripts I’ll be editing very soon now.

Is your book under contract and would you like to discuss it?

David Poindexter had read my novel, Like Light Around a Bend in the River, and said MacAdam/Cage would publish it. But I wanted to see if I could play for another team, so to speak, where my daddy ain't the coach. The folks at MacAdam/Cage are just so nice to me, and I wondered if it wasn’t just because of my work for them on Stories from the Blue Moon Café, and the new authors I was finding for them that agreed to publish my own novel. So I told David I wanted to go see if anybody else would call me to play on their team. Interestingly enough, under the advice of my agent, she wanted to shop not that completed novel but a second novel I was working on called The Poet of Tolstoy Park. She sent out three chapters: I’ve completed eight of maybe twenty-three chapters, along with an six page proposal. It was the proposal and three chapters that landed me a two-book deal with Ballantine, a Random House imprint. My new editor wants the completed manuscript this spring. I’ve got some work to do if you figure I’ve also got two novels to edit for Dayne and Joe, the third Blue Moon book to compile and edit, and must guide The Alumni Grill Anthology into the hands of a guest editor (I will be the series editor, and pass each new book to another writer to stand in as editor of that one book; William Gay and Suzanne Kingsbury have agreed to edit the first Alumni Grill collection) then, you can see I’ve got my hands full. That’s why I’ve got to pass on working with any more new writers right now. Plus, I own a bookstore, and a dog, and have two little boys and a wife. And since it’s coming up on midnight as I finish typing this interview, I reckon I might ought to get a little shut-eye. I need my strength. I’ve got walls to tear down.  


Over the Transom
Open: Tuesday thru Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm
 
9 North Church Street
Fairhope, Alabama 36532
phone: 251-990-7980
e-mail: letters@overthetransom.com

 

Stories from the Blue Moon Café II:
Anthology of Southern Writers
Edited by Sonny Brewer
MacAdam/Cage, 2003
Hardcover, $25.00 (362 pages)
ISBN: 1-931561-43-5

      Southern Scribe Review

 

 

Stories from the Blue Moon Café:
Anthology of Southern Writers
edited by Sonny Brewer
MacAdam/Cage, 2002
$25.00 (385p)
ISBN: 1-931561-09-5

     Southern Scribe Review

 

 

© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved