When I first started Atticus Books, nearly four years ago, my intention was to discover debut novelists. As I became familiar with the small press terrain, I began noticing this unforgiving crack between commercial and literary fiction, a layered netherworld of talented story craftsmen like Nathan Leslie. Writers like Nathan whose prose — like a finely tuned engine — quietly and vigorously gets you to where you need to go.
Why, you ask, did Nathan Leslie’s work stand out for me? The simple answer is when I first read Nathan’s debut novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, it struck me that I was in the presence of a storyteller. I was in the presence of what we as publishers and readers and entertainment gluttons so voraciously crave: clean, fluid, inventive, unpretentious, visual storytelling.
In the oft elitist world of fine literature, there is no higher compliment (nor more scrutinous standard) than for a contemporary author to have his work compared favorably with an iconic master.
Make no mistake about it: Tommy Twice is a Dickensian character straight out of a timeless fable. And when you narrate a tale from the eyes of an orphan boy, you should expect darts and daggers. Raised eyebrows. (Tsk-tsk. Eye rolls.) After all you made a fatal decision to have your protagonist’s every step and comical misstep compared to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. How could you be so brazen?
But Nathan, by the sheer will of his distinct voice, pulls it off. Seamlessly. Organically. Unconventionally.
When I finished reading the first manuscript draft of Tommy Twice in a couple of days, I fast wrote an email to Nathan telling him how I found the read to be a breeze and Tommy to be a thoughtful, authentic, ingenious creation worthy of novel-length treatment. I told him how I got a kick out of the eccentricities of Tommy’s aunts and how I wasn’t sure at first if I “bought” the over-the-top description of his Aunt Tess, but then how I found that the more I read, the more I appreciated the tale’s quirkiness and symbolism.
Then in my note to Nathan, amidst all these compliments, I dropped what I’m sure would have been a stink bomb to a less experienced, less confident writer. I told Nathan that I was let down at the novel’s end. I thought it too abrupt.
I asked him to consider refining, if not changing, the ending. I asked to see in the book’s conclusion the same punch and vivid detail that the rest of the book so ably delivered.
I told Nathan that I hoped he would be receptive to some of the tweaks and enhancements that I was suggesting. I understood, I said, that a completed manuscript brought to the writer a deep sigh of relief, so I didn’t want him to look at this as an unwelcome chore, but an opportunity to strengthen it. Moreover, I told him his commitment to revisiting the ending would indicate his interest in signing with Atticus Books.
Forty-nine minutes after I sent the message, Nathan responded that he was in a rush and on his way to teach class but that he completely agreed with my thoughts on this (that the novel deserved a better ending). He’d be delighted to revise it, he said.
Smart man, that Nathan.
The next couple of days Nathan and I exchanged emails discussing both a feasible turnaround time on the revision (3 months) and ideas surrounding a new ending. Almost as an afterthought, he mentioned a “potentially inventive idea” but he didn’t elaborate. I left it there, trusting his writer’s imagination would take us both to a place that we needed to go.
Two months and one week later, Nathan sent me the revised manuscript, with a “choose-your-own-ending” closure, reminiscent of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series from the 1980s. He told me that he thought the revised ending adhered closest to the eccentric/tall-tale/playful vibe he was going for in the book. He now had constructed 5 possible endings for the reader to choose: One, a revision of the previous ending, and four totally new possible endings or “choices” for the reader to make, with the last “choice” a nod to the tall-tale nature of the book. As most yarns and tall tales have some moment where the author “winks” at the reader and casts everything in doubt, this last “choice” was Nathan winking.
Two days later I sent Nathan a letter of intent to publish his book. As far as I was concerned, he had nailed the landing! It’s amazing what a writer can achieve when he allows his or her imagination to be poked.
To this day, Nathan’s sly decision to expose the inside of the writer’s craft to the Tommy Twice reader never fails to receive reviewer comments. Some love the choose-your-own-ending; others question or even despise it; but the truth is, it stirs an impassioned reader response and that emotive reaction alone is a measure of success, in this case, a writer’s acceptance of a challenge. Nathan saw my bet and raised me an orphan. He took me to a place that I needed to go.
Editor’s Note: Nathan Leslie will be reading from The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice at the 7th annual Western Maryland Independent Lit Festival on Oct. 11 at Frostburg State University. This publisher’s introduction to Nathan will kick off his reading.