Trying for a foothold in book world

Published twice with few sales, Arnold novelist bets on a fledgling publishing house


Ronald Damien Malfi's portfolio sounds impressive. The twice-published Arnold author will release his latest novel Monday and another in January. A major Hollywood production company bought the movie rights to a third.

The reality is more harsh. Malfi, 29, has sold only a few hundred copies of his first two books. The Hollywood project, noted with fanfare in Variety in 2004, is in limbo. Far from the dizzying heights of national distribution, his latest book, The Nature of Monsters, will be considered a success if its fledgling publisher sells a few thousand copies.

The Georgia-based publisher, 5 Story Walkup, chose The Nature of Monsters as its first release and hopes it will bankroll future projects, said co-owner James Cosby-Wolf.

"The entire company rests on what this does," said Adam Knave, the other co-owner of 5 Story Walkup.

In the meantime, Malfi works his day job as an information technology specialist with the U.S. Department of the Interior. He writes as often as he can, while his wife, Debra Malfi, finishes a doctorate in psychology.

Ronald Malfi, a Towson University graduate, uses Maryland as a backdrop for his world of fictional characters in The Nature of Monsters.

The 350-page book follows Robert Crofton, a Kentucky native who moves to Baltimore to be near his best friend, prizefighter Rory Van Holt. Crofton becomes involved with Van Holt's socialite friends in Annapolis and enters into a messy love quadrangle that changes his life.

Malfi sprinkles in references to real-life surroundings, like the Speakeasy in Canton, although he changes the names of others. For example, McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar in Annapolis is known in the book as the Emerald Fountain.

Malfi moved to the area 20 years ago, when his father took a job with the U.S. Secret Service. Now retired, Ron Malfi Sr. helped his son write the book Triggerfish, in which a Secret Service agent harasses a FBI informant at his peril.

Robert Evans Productions, founded by the former head of Paramount Pictures, optioned the book and in 2004 started developing the novel into a movie. The company's former president had pushed the movie project forward, but now it is in limbo, according to studio officials.

Malfi shook his head and smiled when asked about the movie at a conference held by the Web site Horrorfind at the Hunt Valley Marriott. The author seemed out of place at the Aug. 12 event, which celebrated films, books and movies in the horror genre. People in ghoul masks and capes strode through corridors decorated with plastic skull heads. Malfi, in a T-shirt and shorts, had come to pitch an early release of The Nature of Monsters.

In fact, Malfi was not in his element anymore. After writing The Space Between and The Fall of Never, he felt hemmed in by the horror genre, Malfi complained on a horror-writer Web site in 2003.

Knave, a fellow author, commiserated. The friendship that developed led Knave to publish Malfi's new book, which does not fit into any defined niche, Malfi said.

"To be honest, I consider this my first book," Malfi said. "This, to me, is where I'm at."

Malfi grew up trying to emulate Stephen King's style in his short stories. In The Nature of Monsters, Malfi tried to mirror the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. That means the dialogue is a bit stilted in parts, Malfi acknowledged.

"The story almost became a parody or tribute," Malfi said. "It will read like it [takes place] in 1920, but it's modern."

Cosby-Wolf of 5 Story Walkup read the manuscript in 10 hours.

"It has the kind of twist in the end that makes you rethink everything you've read," Cosby-Wolf said.

Malfi's next novel, Via Dolorosa, comes out in January, published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, another small independent publisher. Raw Dog, which specializes in horror titles, published Malfi's first two books.

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