Republishing A Lost American Classic or Why I Love My Job
There are a lot of things I love about being the associate publisher for MysteriousPress.com. I love publishing the digital backlist for authors like James M. Cain and James Ellroy. I love discovering and obsessing over writers like Charles Williams and Dennis Lynds. I love working with fantastically-talented debut authors. As I told my boss six months into this job, I'm going to work here until I die or he fires me.
There's really only one thing about this job that's disappointing: We are constantly acquiring rare books to turn into eBooks, and no matter how much I want to read them right on the spot, I have to ship them off to be digitized. And it's not a speedy process.
Now matter how much technology advances, publishing is not a swift-moving industry.
This is the very definition of a First World Problem—that I don't get to read books as quickly as I want to read them. Most of the time, it's no big deal. But occasionally we sign an estate or author I become fixated on. Like I did with They Don't Dance Much by James Ross, a book I didn’t even know existed until just recently. In fact, it seems most people don't know it exists.
We're hoping to change that.
MysteriousPress.com was conceived by Otto Penzler as a digital imprint, made possible through a partnership with Open Road Integrated Media.
The idea was, it wouldn’t be economically feasible to re-print dozens of books from authors like Brian Garfield and George Harmon Coxe. Instead, we’d release them as eBooks, with some print-on-demand options mixed in. It was a great way to take classic books and bring them to a new generation of readers.
Otto being Otto, the godfather of the mystery genre, all he had to do was knock on some doors, and the contracts began to flood in. We started with rights to authors like James Ellroy and Ellery Queen, which is not a bad foundation to build off.
Things were going so well we moved into doing short print runs, which allowed us to do frontlist fiction. We’ve put out paperbacks from debut authors like Mike Mayo and Anthony Quinn, and seasoned scribes like J. Robert Janes and Jerome Charyn. These are real-deal print runs, available to bookstores through Ingram, one of the world's biggest book distributors.
As for the backlist titles, whenever we sign a new author, we have to track down his or her books. That means working with the agent, the author or estate, old book collectors, and sometimes pulling from Otto’s own extensive collection.
A lot of the stuff we're publishing I've heard of, at least in passing. But sometimes we get a book that I know nothing about, like They Don't Dance Much.
When Otto first told me we had acquired the rights to the book, he compared it to James M. Cain and Horace McCoy. He called it one of the best southern noirs ever written, and that Daniel Woodrell would be doing the intro for us. Noir fiction is my jam, so immediately this appealed to me.
There was a bit of mystique to the book, too: Despite being hailed by authors like Woodrell, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O'Connor, and William Gay, it never reached a wide audience. And it was the only book Ross ever published.
All this set my antenna to: I must read this book.
We need two copies of every book we bring in. The first is cut up and scanned, and then translated into a new document using optical character recognition (OCR) technology. The second copy of the book is used to check the scanned copy for accuracy. When we get those two copies in, they almost immediately go out.
Yes, cutting up a book sucks, but it’s a small price to pay for bringing these stories to a wider audience (though the process has prevented us from publishing some of the rarer books we have available to us).
Original copies of They Don’t Dance Much were tough to come by, but we eventually found them and sent them out. And I developed an obsession with it. Here's a guy who's been praised by some big authors, so how have I gone this long without hearing his name?
I started poking around on the ‘net. It took me a few weeks to find a reasonably-priced copy, but I managed to track one down. The jacket was torn but the book was in good condition. I take the jackets off hardcovers when I’m reading them anyway.
The day the book came I cracked it open. I barely put it down until it was done.
James Ross was born in North Carolina and worked as a newspaper reporter for the Daily News in Greensboro.
His first novel, They Don't Dance Much was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1940, with a print run of about 2,000 copies. It did not sell well. It was later reissued as a Signet pulp paperback in 1952, though it was abridged.
The novel gained a little steam when Southern Illinois University Press reissued it as part of the Lost American Fiction series in 1975 (and that's the edition I have)—though again, the print run was small, with only about 3,000 copies produced.
In 1948, Ross attended the Yaddo writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. That's where he met Flannery O’Connor, who was working on her first book, Wise Blood. O'Connor recommended Ross to her literary agent, saying that he "wrote a very fine book."
Raymond Chandler was also a fan. He wrote about the novel in two letters. In one, he presumed Ross must have continued to write books under a pseudonym, given his talent. In another correspondence, he called the book a "sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town.”
Though it's the only book Ross ever published, it's not the only one he ever wrote. In an interview with Philippe Garnier, he said:
I am always a little embarrassed when people ask me why I only wrote this novel. In fact, I not only wrote another, but two—which were rejected by editors…. I wanted to write short stories; that’s what I liked. But the things I sent to editors were never published in newspapers or magazines. It was Caroline Gordon, a fellow novelist who lived at that time in Greensboro…who suggested to me that I first write a novel to make myself better known.
Ross went on to be a respected literary agent. He died in 1990, leaving behind a 318-page manuscript for a novel called In the Red, and a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul.
The process of publishing a book involves a lot of little pieces leading up to a whole. The first thing I do is fill out a brief on the cover. These are notes for the designer to use, to give them a sense of tone and theme.
Up on the banner for this article, you'll see three covers that have been used for this book. The one of the right is the jacket from the Southern Illinois University Press edition. In the middle of the Signet abridged edition, and on the left is our new cover. I loved the starkness of the Southern Illinois cover, and in the brief I made it clear: Get us close to that.
The moment the new cover came over, it felt right. And the way it looks up there doesn't do it justice; I just got the paperback edition in the mail, and it's just as stark, but a little more aggressive, and I'm looking forward to seeing it sitting next to the register, upstairs in The Mysterious Bookshop.
After the cover, I have to review the descriptive copy. Open Road delivers great copy, but sometimes when you’ve read a book, you see things the copywriter didn’t. I got in and made a few tweaks, and this is what we came up with (because, I'm realizing, I haven't even talked about the book's plot yet):
Jack McDonald is barely a farmer. Boll weevils have devoured his cotton crop, his chickens have stopped laying eggs, and everything he owns is mortgaged—even his cow. He has no money, no prospects, and nothing to do but hang around filling stations, wondering where his next drink is coming from. As far as hooch goes, there is no better place to go than Smut Milligan’s, where Breath of Spring moonshine sells for a dollar a pint.
A bootlegger with an entrepreneurial spirit, Milligan has plans to open a roadhouse, and he asks Jack to run the till. The music will be hot, the liquor cheap, and the clientele rough. But the only thing stronger than Milligan’s hooch is his greed, and Jack is slowly drawn into the middle of Smut’s dalliances with a married woman, the machinations of corrupt town officials—and a savage act of murder.
Ross' prose is both sharp and laconic. Lush with detail and stark in its representation of the human spirit. From page one, the book is shaded with a foreboding sense of dread—you know these people are on a collision course with tragedy. It's just a matter of how they get there.
Ross rejected comparisons to Cain, incidentally—he said he hadn’t even read Cain’s books when he wrote They Don't Dance Much (one of Cain's best known books, the slim noir masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934). Ross was more comfortable with the comparisons critics were making between him and Ernest Hemingway.
The first few paragraphs of the book give a very clear example of his style:
I REMEMBER THE EVENING I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn. I stuck my head inside and said, ‘You got a customer, Rich.’
I heard Rich push his chair back. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. He hustled out. There was a long yellow pencil stuck over his right ear.
‘Yes, sir, Mr. Fisher; how many, Mr. Fisher?’ he said.
Charles Fisher looked over his shoulder. ‘Fill it up,’ he said. Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.
But there's one paragraph I love, that shows off the economy of Ross' writing, and his talent for weaving the book's North Carolina setting with a remarkable ability to distil human nature onto the page.
You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
Yet, no matter how strong the writing, no matter how much acclaim it got in the writing community, it never took off.
Besides Chandler and O'Connor, William Gay squarely credits the birth of rural noir to Ross (a genre dissected by Keith Rawson here). In the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Chattahoochee Review, Gay wrote:
As far as I’m concerned, this book is where dark Southern fiction began, and any writer who works in the field owes Ross a debt of gratitude, whether he or she has read They Don’t Dance Much or not.
And then there was Woodrell. In a New York Times review of a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including Cain and Jim Thompson. He went on to say:
James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned, though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot.
That accolade is what spurred Otto to ask Woodrell to write the introduction to the book. Again, something we knew was coming, and had to wait for, and when it came in, it did not disappoint. It perfectly—and, in accordance with my feeling about intros, briefly—hits at the heart of how the book's underdog status is "eerily in keeping with the ethos of the novel."
If this piece comes off as a little indulgent, it is. I don't spend a lot of time at LitReactor talking about my other job, even though they're a bit related. Crossing streams, and all that.
But the feeling I got when I opened the mail and pulled out a paperback copy of Ross' book, with the new cover and the new intro and the back cover copy I helped write, that's why we're all here, isn't it? We're looking for that next story that's going to reveal something to us, about the author, or about ourselves, or about the world we live in.
They Don't Dance Much is a book that deserves to be read and discussed. It feels oddly contemporary for a book that was published more than 70 years ago, and to my mind, should be revered in the same breath as The Postman Always Rings Twice and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
It's an incredible honor to publish this book, and bring it to a new generation of readers. And it was definitely worth the wait.
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