Basically Angela Davis-Gardner thought her career was finished. A slow, meticulous writer, she had published her first novel, "Felice," in 1982, and her second, "Forms of Shelter," in 1991, just about the time the mainstream publishing industry began retreating from literary fiction.
Davis-Gardner spent the next 10 years working on a novel, "Plum Wine," that focuses on an American woman, Barbara Jefferson, living in Tokyo in the 1960s. Jefferson's surrogate mother Michi dies, leaving her a collection of plum wine bottles wrapped in rice paper covered with calligraphy that details Michi's life from the early 20th century through World War II. Barbara works with a translator to unravel the plum wine writings, and so reveal a story of human relationships and the horrors of war.
Sounds like a natural, right? The publishing industry didn't see it that way. Davis-Gardner says, "I wore out three agents, who tried unsuccessfully to sell the book." She began throwing away the various versions of "Plum Wine" she had written through the years.
"Then came a ray of hope," she says. A librarian from Missouri found, oddly, a section of the manuscript on an airplane. The librarian read it and wrote to Davis-Gardner to tell her the book was wonderful.
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Re-inspired, Davis-Gardner tried again to publish "Plum Wine." She sent the book to an acquisitions editor she knew at the University of Wisconsin Press. He sent it out to two writers to read. One, Rebecca Brown, championed the book, citing its literary quality and its relevance -- the questions about the nature of war reverberated from World War II through Vietnam into Iraq.
The editor told Davis-Gardner that the press would publish the book but didn't have the budget to print the full 400-page manuscript. She would have to cut 100 pages.
Davis-Gardner cut 80 pages, and although the cuts were made for monetary reasons, the compressed revision was more focused. In 2006, the University of Wisconsin Press published 1,000 copies of "Plum Wine." Davis-Gardner received no advance.
The story would have ended there, were it not for Nancy Olson, the owner of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
Olson had been friends with Davis-Gardner for some time. As the owner of an independent bookstore, she wanted to help both her friend and a small university press by carrying the book. But after she read it, she said, "I was blown away. I liked Angela's other two books, but this one was so far beyond them in terms of depth, complexity and literary quality. It was one of the most beautifully written books I'd ever read."
And, she said, the revision made the book salable. "That's what made it perfect," Olson said. "There wasn't a word that needed to be changed. It wasn't bloated."
A hardcover book published by a university press presented a good opportunity for a paperback resale to a larger publisher, Olson said. So she called Liz Darhansoff, author Kaye Gibbons' agent, with whom Olson had been friends for two decades (they met at an award ceremony for Gibbons' "Ellen Foster" at Darhansoff's penthouse in New York).
Olson also wrote to owners of other independent bookstores, sending a copy of "Plum Wine" with a handwritten note saying, "Please read this; it is so beautiful."
The book began to sell. Quail Ridge Books, along with other independent bookstores around the country, recommended it to their customers.
"That's what the independent bookstores can do," Olson says. "We can handsell. The publishing world is so mundane, full of thrillers, erotic vampire novels, genre books. It was great to have a high quality literary book to push."
Davis-Gardner says she believes Quail Ridge recommended the book to almost every customer who passed through the store. And the support was effective. With 1,200 copies sold, "Plum Wine" is the second best selling book Quail Ridge has ever had, behind "Cold Mountain."
Darhansoff felt so strongly about the novel, she was able to put it out for auction. The editor who purchased the book also bought the paperback rights to Davis-Gardner's first two novels, out of print for years, and packaged them with a deal for Davis-Gardner's next novel.
Now Davis-Gardner can finally take time off from her teaching job at N.C. State University to concentrate on her new novel. "Plum Wine," which is being sold at BJ's and Target as well as independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble, has gone through seven printings and sold 57,000 copies.
But had it not been for Olson, Davis-Gardner believes the book would have sold the 1,000-copy press run and nothing more.
"That's the problem with the industry," Olson says. "These days you need to know someone to get a book published."
She points out that Barbara Taylor Bradford just received a $20 million contract for three novels. As thrilled as Olson is with Davis-Gardner's success, her excitement is tempered by Bradford's $20 million contract.
"How many good writers," she wonders, "went unpublished to support that one contract?"