Question: "Was it hard to find a publisher?"
Answer: "It was excruciating," says Memphian James Williamson, well-known architect and first-time author of a new novel called The Architect . "First you have to find an agent. Then the agent begins forwarding the rejection slips" — until, if you're lucky, the agent finally forwards an acceptance letter. In the case of The Architect , which took Williamson five years to write and to shop to literary agents and possible publishers, that letter was from a small publishing house in upstate New York. But, as Williamson describes it, his troubles didn't stop there: "Shortly before publication [the publisher] died, so I had to start over." >>>
That's when a friend of Williamson's, journalist John Branston, told him about Cold Tree Press in Nashville, which picked up The Architect immediately. Happy ending? Quite. According to Williamson, Cold Tree's been "great" to work with.
Branston, a writer for Memphis magazine and its sister publication Memphis Flyer , knows Cold Tree well. The print-on-demand publishing house brought out his collection of magazine and newspaper reports, Rowdy Memphis , in 2004. The year before, Cold Tree published Lucius , the collected writings (edited by Shirley Caldwell-Patterson) of Memphis lawyer and activist Lucius Burch. And in 2007, it published Memphian and first-time novelist Charles Wilkinson's Ghost of a Chance and a collection of pieces by a Memphis writing group titled The Compass Club Writers .
But Cold Tree's publication of Memphis writers hasn't stopped there. In late 2007, it was local agent Royal Stewart who recommended Cold Tree to first-time author and native Memphian Kelly Fischer. And as with Williamson, it's been a good match. Unlike Williamson, it's been a double-header: two children's titles by Fischer in the space of a year.
Don't look for child's play, however, in The Architect . Do go into it for an insider's look at how architects design and do business and how buildings get built — in this case, the fictitious Center for Southern Culture on the banks of the Mississippi and the fictitious St. Mary Magdalene Church in north Mississippi.
Both projects are the work of a Memphis architect named Ethan Cotham, who's got his work cut out for him both personally and professionally. As for the Center for Southern Culture, that includes competition from Cotham's former mentor, philosoph-ical differences with a successful develop-er, unreasonable demands from a citizen review board, skullduggery in the form of an unscrupulous contractor, and seismic unrest from the New Madrid faultline. And as for St. Mary Magdalene: See to it (Cotham has to) that the imposing bishop in charge gets what he wants, and what he wants is to keep a conservative (and wealthy) parishioner happy with the new church's design.
You recall the novel The Fountainhead and therefore think you know of the trials and tribulations of being an architect? "Grossly exaggerated" is how James Williamson de-scribes those trials as portrayed by author Ayn Rand, and it's one reason he wrote The Architect .
"People have a very strange idea of what architects do," he says of the profession's combination of artistry and practicality. "Architects are caught in the middle between two worlds — the artist's world of pure ideas with its motivation to express oneself, and the marketplace, where economics, codes, and conventional esthetic ideas rule the day. I wanted to offer a more balanced picture that accurately portrays the struggle that goes into making buildings — the joys and the frustrations."
With more than 30 years in the business, Williamson knows those joys and frustrations first-hand. After graduating college from what was then Southwestern at Memphis in the 1960s and after serving in Vietnam as a naval officer, he trained at the University of Pennsylvania's school of architecture, where he had the good fortune to learn from an American master: Louis Kahn. In Memphis, he worked for architect Francis Mah, and by the late 1970s and on into the '90s, he worked out of his own office (in partnership with Louis Pounders) on the restoration of the Orpheum theater, the addition to downtown's Tennessee Club, the Ballet Memphis building off Germantown Parkway, and the redesign of Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Midtown. Today, he works for Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in addition to serving as an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Memphis.
But as for Williamson's early love of literature? He credits that to his mother's reading to him as a child from the Bible, Greek mythology, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , and The Yearling .
The writing life? It starts early too, before Williamson heads for the office.
The nuts and bolts of a good novel? A good story, Williamson says and adds: "Beyond that, I believe the job of the novelist is to critique society — to present life as it is and then to offer an alternative vision of what it might be."
This The Architect does, but for another alternative vision, consider the happy forest-dwellers Beatrice Birch, Peter Pine, and Wally Willow and their friend, Polly Poplar, who can be a real grouch. What's Polly's problem? She's too tall and pointy to breeze through life the way her friends do. So Beatrice, Peter, and Wally set to work turning Polly into a real swinger thanks to the wind.
Or consider: The Moon is throwing a party with glacier drinks and moonbeam cookies for snacks, and he's having the stars for guests. But he forgets to invite the Sun, the one who helps him brighten the night sky and the one who's known to have a fiery temper. But guess what. In the end, the Moon doesn't forget to invite the Sun, and no one's feelings are hurt. In fact, the Sun decides to shine her way the whole day long.
Simple storytelling to be sure, but lessons to be learned just the same, courtesy of the storyteller, Kelly Fischer, who's been working with children since founding her own Montessori school in the heart of Bern, Switzerland, in 1991.
How does a native Memphian go from a family of eight brothers and sisters (including local TV reporter Janice Broach) to being the head mistress of a school in Europe teaching 2- to 6-year-olds? Easy if from your own student days at what was then Memphis State University, you, like Fischer, move to Switzerland to study management, meet a Swiss man on your second day in the country (then marry him), study the Montessori method in London (with a side stay in Paris learning French), have four children of your own, and then turn to penning children's stories.
"I just started writing. What can I say? I've always been a good storyteller, and I've always loved watching the children respond to what I create," Fischer says.
Readers can now respond to Fischer's Polly Poplar Plays Dress Up and The Moon Throws a Birthday Party , both books charmingly illustrated by Memphis College of Art graduate Michelle Duckworth.
Local readers have already responded. In Memphis this past December to publicize the books, Fischer read to students in local schools, contacted area bookstores, worked with the Woman's Exchange, and made plans for future projects here in town. The public's response so far, in Fischer's words:
"I can't even tell you. Between the children and the adults, it's been fantastic, amazing. I don't know how I'm going to come down off of this. What more fun could I be having?"
Apparently a lot, because, according to Fischer, it's time. Her school in Bern has been bought by a group of educators from Germany — though she's kept a 25 percent stake in it — and she's ready to devote more time to writing. What's more, her third children's title is set to appear in May. The publisher, no surprise, is Cold Tree Press. M