In his novel, "The Keeper of the Ferris Wheel," Jack McBride White chronicles the coming of age of a New Jersey teen-ager who learns about grief and love and courage during the Vietnam War era.
As an author, Mr. White's coming of age may have occurred the day the 18-wheeler backed up to his Baltimore County home and dumped 2,000 copies of his book -- published by Mr. White and his wife, and paid for with credit cards.
There were 66 boxes containing 30 books each. They were stacked, not neatly, in his yard, and it was about to rain.
"It was the only moment when I thought, 'What have we done?' " says Mr. White.
The author and his wife, Andrea Reid White, sold the books one by one to relatives and to colleagues. They sold about 200 of them.
But that was July 1993. Now the author has gone beyond coming of age and may have even come into his own. In 1994, "The Keeper of the Ferris Wheel" won the first annual Writer's Digest Self-Publishing Award and got a mention in a Washington Post book column. It was subsequently purchased by the Donald I. Fine publishing house and went on sale -- in stores -- last month.
"It has sort of been the work of a lifetime to get this published," Mr. White says. He grins.
Mr. White's mainstream literary debut comes amid a flurry of other self-publishing triumphs. In recent years, a number of books -- usually autobiographical, self-help or how-to volumes -- published initially by their creators have become marketing successes. For example, "Celestine Prophecy," published by Warner, and HarperCollins' "Mutant Message Down Under" went from being small, self-publishing efforts to national best sellers. Another, a children's book called "The Christmas Box," was on the New York Times best-seller list last year. Its author has since signed a $4.2 million, two-book deal.
Mr. White's break came after his impressive efforts to get his own book published were chronicled in the Washington Post column.
Two publishers contacted him; one made an offer. Donald I. Fine Inc. is a tiny New York company that boasts of being the first house in the United States to publish Ken Follett, to persuade Elmore Leonard to write non-western mysteries and to publish ++ John T. Lescroart, author of the thrillers "13th Juror" and "Certain Justice."
Mr. Fine says he initially contacted Mr. White because "the guy interested me -- his perseverance." He was even more interested after he actually read Mr. White's book. "I think it's a damn good novel," says the publisher.
But Mr. Fine adds, "Usually, tales of [self-published books] are very dreary kinds of stories. Actually, authors shouldn't do this: It costs a lot and it never works. They wind up with a few friends telling them how wonderful the book is and usually, it isn't."
Nothing much about Mr. White, 40, a technical writer, hints at bulldoggish tenacity. In fact, he's a laid-back fellow who has trouble providing directions to his own house, gives interviews in his gym socks, makes tea but forgets the tea bag, and scrambles important dates such as anniversaries and book signings.
The vagueness vanishes, however, when it comes to getting his work published.
A native of Philadelphia, Mr. White majored in creative writing at Pennsylvania State University, but got sidetracked, at least in a literary sense, during his 20s when he joined the Army. "I wrote a novel when I was 24, but when I joined the Army I threw it away," he says.
In 1982, he took up writing again and began spending every night working on "The Keeper of the Ferris Wheel," the story of Itchy Shovlin, a young man whose family is mourning the death of its eldest son in Vietnam.
In the book, Itchy, who is whiling away his last summer at home before leaving for college on a scholarship, becomes involved with anti-war demonstrators who want to shut down the local arms factory that employs his father. His rite-of-passage occurs as he juggles relationships with his remaining brother, who enlists in the Marines so he can go to Vietnam and avenge his brother's death, and a lovely but nutty anti-war protester.
So many years, and so many versions of the book have come and gone that Mr. White says he can't remember what his inspiration was.
In 1991, he found an agent who agreed to represent him. While she searched for a buyer, he began and completed his second novel -- a thriller set in Turkey. A few months later he met Andrea Reid, who would become his wife, through the personal ads of a local paper.
Things seemed to be going well for the would-be author.
But one month before the couple was to get married -- on Mr. White's 38th birthday, Oct. 20, 1993 -- his agent announced that she couldn't sell his first novel and didn't even want to try to sell his second.
Andrea Reid wept.
Mr. White announced that he couldn't attend his wedding because he was too discouraged to face his family.
A few days later, as the two sat slumped over their dining room table, inspiration struck: If no one else wanted to publish the book, they'd do it themselves.
That night they rushed to the library and checked out all the books on self-publishing. Mr. White attended his wedding and the couple began producing a book.
"One of the reasons I love Jack is he's so determined," says Ms. White, a free-lance copy editor of seemingly boundless energy who describes the entire experience as "a fun project."
Mr. White polished and refined. Ms. White designed and edited. They asked her sister's former boyfriend to photograph the book cover. And they charged the nearly $10,000 it cost to produce the book on their credit cards.
"Nine months later, just like a baby, we had these 2,000 copies," Mr. White says happily.
"Of which we still have about 1,800 in our closets," she adds.
Still it was worth it, they say. Between the self-published bookthat did sell; $1,000 in prize money from the Writers' Digest; and the money they got from selling the novel to Donald I. Fine, they have nearly recouped their $10,000.
These days, Mr. White usually works as a technical writer three 10-hour days a week at FileTek in Rockville -- a schedule that allows him to spend large blocks of time writing fiction. This summer, however, he is taking paternity leave to be with his 3-month-old daughter.
Donald I. Fine, Inc., although uninterested in Mr. White's second novel, has first right of refusal on his work-in-progress -- a novel about the aftermath of a murder committed in 1969 during a soccer game.
And, adds Mr. White, "if 'The Keeper of the Ferris Wheel' does well, I could end up ahead!"
Jack McBride White is scheduled to appear at Bibelot bookstore in Pikesville at 7:30 p.m. July 26 and at Borders Books & Music in Towson at 7:30 p.m. July 29.
FROM 'THE KEEPER OF THE FERRIS WHEEL'
Charlie shrugged and winked at me. He looked around, but didn't seem to see what he wanted, and we sat on a dirty bench together. Charlie got out his penknife and started poking at his palm, and I looked at the scar on his arm, the one that said !B Patrick.
"I wish you weren't going," I said.
"They'd have drafted me."
"But the marines do all the dirty work."
"It's all dirty work, but it's what I want to do."
"Do you believe anymore, Charlie, the way we used to believe, I mean about the America and the flag and all, like when we were kids?"
Charlie snapped the knife shut and stuck it in his pocket. He ran one of his fingers over the scar, just like he ran his hand over Patrick's name on the memorial way back on the Fourth of July.
"I remember when we were kids," he said. "You were always sick a lot, and me and Patrick used to hang around together on our bikes. He always had this little flag on his handlebars. It was always falling down and he was always standing it up. Just this little flag and a horn, the kind with the big rubber thing you squeeze. I can picture him straightening out his flag and honking that horn, and every July Fourth, he would hang a flag out his window. Remember?"
"Yeah. Sure. He used to hum that song when he stuck it out there. You now, about oh beautiful for spacious skies."
"Yeah, and whenever I see a flag I think of Patrick, and whenever I think of Patrick I see a flag. Maybe the war's all wrong. It probably is, but it don't change the way I think about things."
J- From "The Keeper of the Ferris Wheel," by Jack McBride White