After four decades, Howard longtime friends and would-be authors see dreams come true

Columbia Flier
"Steve's about the best friend I have on the planet and I knew he was going to publish a novel, I...knew it."

They met in 1972, two Howard County boys who joined the Mt. Hebron High School cross country team after seeing Frank Shorter in the Olympics, and immediately hit it off.

They competed with each other in high school and against each other in college, ran thousands of training miles together and lived together for awhile after college. They both pursued successful careers in journalism, occasionally writing for the same Baltimore-area publications, and both also yearned to publish books.

They remained fast friends over the years, supporting each other's writing hopes and dreams, serving as best men at each other's weddings and keeping in touch even while living on opposite sides of the country for the past 20 years.

And this spring, within a couple of months of each other, Bryan Denson and Steve Kelly fulfilled their shared, lifelong ambitions when both had their first books published.

"It's freakish," said Denson, 57, who left Maryland in the late 1980s and now works as an investigative and federal court reporter for the Oregonian, in Portland. "Steve's about the best friend I have on the planet and I knew he was going to publish a novel, I absolutely knew it.

"I am convinced this is some sort of divine doing that ultimately the two of us would end up publishing books within six weeks of each other — and in our late 50s, for heaven's sake. … There is ultimately a happy ending for both of us."

"It's weirdly serendipitous," said Kelly, also 57 and a former news editor of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier, who still lives in Columbia. "I think both of us have always been people with strong wills and a lot of endurance. … We were distance runners and that's kind of what we shared in that way."

In his book's acknowledgments, Kelly thanks Denson, his "generous best friend" and "the first person who ever told me that my wanting to be a writer wasn't a stupid idea."

Kelly's novel, "The Language of the Dead," is being published this month by Pegasus Books. It's a murder mystery set in southern Great Britain in the summer of 1940, a time when Germany, having conquered France, was relentlessly attacking Britain by air.

The book is based in part on an actual case, the 1945 killing of a Warwickshire farmhand, who had been rumored to be involved in witchcraft and was found with a pitchfork in his neck and a scythe in his heart. Although a then-famous Scotland Yard Detective, Robert Fabian, was called in to investigate, the slaying remains one of Britain's most infamous unsolved murder cases, Kelly said.

Denson's book, "The Spy's Son," is the non-fiction account of CIA officer Harold James "Jim" Nicholson, who was convicted of espionage in the late 1990s. While serving time in an Oregon prison, Nicholson recruited his son, Nathan, a disaffected Army veteran, to smuggle messages to the Russians.

Denson's story on the father-son spy duo first appeared as a series in the Oregonian and he expanded it into a book after hundreds of hours of interviews.

The book is due to be published early next month by Atlantic Monthly Press.

Tortuous path to publishing

For both authors, the path to book publication has been a slog.

Kelly wrote four books before "The Language of the Dead," none of which has been published. The first was a memoir about his father, a World War II veteran who was wounded in Normandy.

After he tried and failed to interest an agent in the book, Kelly wrote a murder mystery set in the early days of Columbia, which suffered the same fate as his first effort. After that, he wrote a coming-of-age novel, which he didn't even consider worth trying to sell.

Discouraged, Kelly started writing a novel about the hunt for Bigfoot, the huge, ape-like creature of folklore. "I told my wife I was sick and tired of being rejected and I'm going to write something people want to buy," he explained.

Before he finished that book, however, he returned to an English murder mystery he had started earlier. Realizing he was on to something — and with plenty of free time after being laid off from his newspaper job — Kelly dropped the Bigfoot book and spent months writing and then rewriting the mystery.

On weekdays, after he dropped his two young daughters off at the school bus stop, he'd head to Mad City Coffee, just around the corner from his Columbia house, and spend hours writing on his laptop.

When he was done, he liked what he had. "I felt like I'd crossed the Rubicon sort of, like I'd finally done it after those false starts," Kelly said.

He made a list of 100 agents who handled mystery writers and began sending out query letters. About one-third of the way through his list, he struck gold when an agent said she was interested in representing him.

Six months later, in early 2014, his agent called with news he'd waited decades to hear: A publisher wanted his book.

"I'd wanted to be a published, important writer since I was 14 years old, and here I am, in my late 50s, and finally I get a book published," said Kelly, who now works as senior editor for Today Media Custom Communications, in Baltimore. "And with Bryan, it's the same idea."

Indeed, although his best friend's story differs slightly.

Denson has worked at newspapers across the country, where he has regularly published lengthy investigative pieces on subjects ranging from the large number of black teens in Houston killed by gunfire to flaws in Social Security's disability benefits program. But although he'd wanted to write books his entire adult life, "The Spy's Son" is his first book.

Until a few years ago, he said, he wasn't sure he was up to it.

"I finally reached a point in my life that I felt I had the chops as an investigator and as a writer to write a book," he explained. "I'm not the world's greatest investigator and I'm also not the world's greatest writer, but I'm very good, I think, at putting the two together. "

In 2009, he said, he wrote a book proposal about a notorious antiquity thief that he was confident would sell. It didn't. And the same day he realized it wouldn't, his wife at the time told him she wanted a divorce.

That day of bad news, Denson said, convinced him that the next story he covered that he felt was worthy of a book, he was going to push hard to get published.

That story soon appeared when, in his job as federal courts reporter for the Oregonian, Denson got a tip about Nathan Nicholson's case coming to court. He covered the hearing and soon realized this was not just a spy story but a gripping family saga — in short, a story worthy of a book.

This time, he was able to interest a publisher; he got his book deal.

'They both persevere'

Ken Katzen, who coached Kelly and Denson in cross country and track at Mt. Hebron and has kept up with both of them, said he was delighted to hear that his two former students would have books published by major publishing houses this spring.

But not surprised.

"They both can write extremely well, and they both persevere — they always have," Katzen said in an email response to questions. He described the pair as "very dedicated, hardworking athletes" and "good people," and added: "Neither has lost the sense of possibility as they have aged, and that is amazing and wondrous."

Katzen, who retired from teaching five years ago and still lives in the county, said he planned to attend planned local readings for both newly published authors.

"I miss teaching and coaching, largely because of people like Steve, Bryan and their teammates," he said.

The pair of runners Katzen coached more than four decades ago — "skinny nobodies," as Kelly calls the pair, who dreamed endlessly of writing books — both believe they have more in them.

Kelly is working on a follow-up to "The Language of the Dead," set a year later and featuring many of the same characters. He's hoping it will be only the second in a series.

Denson has pitched a half-dozen ideas for additional non-fiction books to his agent, "all with a nexus to crime and punishment," he said. He's trying to decide his next book project.

Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures has expressed interest in making a movie out of his spy book.

Whatever his future holds, Denson is pretty sure of one thing: While he read most of his best friend's books as manuscripts, offering suggestions and advice, he doesn't expect to do that in the future. The one book he didn't read, he explains, was the one that got published. He's since read the book and pronounced it "terrific."

"I'm glad I didn't read it because I would've jinxed him," Denson said. "I told Steve, 'I'm never, ever going to read another of your manuscripts.' "

Steve Kelly will be reading from and signing his book on April 18 at 2 p.m. at the Ellicott City Barnes and Noble in the Long Gate Shopping Center, 4300 Montgomery Road.

Bryan Denson will be discussing and signing his book on May 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St., N.W., Washington.

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