Writer had a dream and now he has a published novel A HAPPY ENDING

July 13, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

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."

Except sometimes.

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.

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