If you do things right, for the right reasons, success will naturally follow. If you ever need a living example of this, look to Patrick Carman. A father of two daughters, Carman founded four successful businesses before turning his talents toward writing, and his first effort, The Land of Elyon, is ramping up to be a children’s market literary phenomen. And certainly, while the writing is well done, I can’t help but think that part of the success is reward for Carman’s efforts with the “Lifetime Mentoring Program,” a counseling organization for troubled youth, created by Carman, or for his family’s involvement with the Agros Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps developing communities in Central America.Whether it’s the raw talent or a gift from on-high, the final result is that The Land of Elyon (recently reviewed here at The Trades) is gathering increasing notice, heralding the arrival of a new, serious player in the market.The Trades was fortunate to be able to speak with Carman just after a charity signing event he had performed in Walla Walla, Washington, during the holiday wine tasting weekend. As I’m seeing on your website, LandofElyon.com, this began as a series of bedtime stories for your daughters. Author Patrick Carman with daughters Reece (left) and Sierra (right.) Yes. It started out as a story I told to my two girls–they’re now seven and nine–and I was telling it to them a couple of years ago. I would come home once a week and tell them a little piece of the story. At that time, it was really just about a girl who lived in this kingdom that was surrounded by walls, and she had figured out a way to escape, and every week she would escape and have some new outlandish adventure–meet some crazy person out there–and there would be some sort of moral lesson to the evening; and then we’d have an activity.I did that for a few months, and filled up a journal, and it wasn’t until a little while after that I took all that information and formed it into a book. How did it go from bedtime stories to journal notes and finally a book? Did someone prompt you to write it down, or did you have an idea that having notes might be useful?My wife wanted to have an evening out with her friends, so this started out just as something to do with my kids, and this seemed like a fun sort of diversion rather than going out to the movies or going out to fast food.As far as it turning into a book… I started out as an entrepreneur, and I’ve had several different companies, and what I always tell people is that I was sort of a frustrated artist up until I started writing, and a lot of the companies that I ran were formulated to do creative endeavors. And while the companies did fine, I felt frustrated, creatively. So when I got done taking all these notes and I thought about writing a book, I was, first of all, scared, which I think most people are when they sit down and try to write an entire book, but also, as soon as I started, it just felt like… I don’t know… kind of like when a person who is a natural artist starts drawing pictures and they actually look like real pictures. It felt like it was the right medium for me, the one I’d been looking for. Of course we all do lots and lots of writing, but lots of us never think about, ‘I wonder, if I tried to right a book, would it be any good.’Once I started, I didn’t really tell anyone besides my wife. I spent a lot of time on the first book–probably nine months for a first draft, which for the length of the book seemed like a long time to me. I just loved doing it. I understand you self-published this originally, but when you had first completed the manuscript, did you shop it around at all to existing publishers?I did. It got rejected by everybody. But we had all the librarians in Walla Walla, who were very excited about it, and then we had a bunch of teachers… all these people that I sort of felt, ‘Well, they must have some idea whether it’s trash or not,’ and they were all very excited about it. I was in a situation where I had sold a company and had a little bit of time and extra money on my hands, to where I was willing to risk a certain amount and put it out there myself.The thing that I think really made the difference for us was that we started going to elementary schools and I started speaking at assemblies. That started here in Walla Walla, a small town with six elementary schools, and through a series of networking, those teachers would call friends of theirs in the next town over, and the next town over, and pretty soon we were in Seattle. We’ve probably been to thirty or forty schools around Seattle. What seemed to be the magic equation was to go to about three schools a day, and talk to maybe 1200 kids, and do a really high energy, fun assembly about the book, and leave them a little coupon that would invite them to come to the book store that night and get a free autographed poster–and if they wanted to get a book, they could. We started having these outrageous events–hours and hours and hours, with hundreds of people buying books in one night. I think our biggest one was about 550 in one night.The northwest Scholastic representative, the sales guy, by chance ended up at Third Place Books, a very large independent bookstore… The woman who runs the community relations part of Third Place Books really got behind the book, and she started calling all of her friends in the publishing field, and then when he came in she said, ‘You just have to read this and take it back to New York and show it to those guys.’ That was Gene Smith, and he flew back to New York, and read it on the way back, and put it on Craig Walker’s desk. Craig Walker is the Senior Editor at Scholastic–there are two Senior Editors, him and Arthur Levine, the guy who does the Harry Potter books–and he loved it. And then everybody all of a sudden loved it. So they called and bought all three of the books in the series.As an author, that’s a huge thrill. And since then, it’s gotten–even by Scholastic’s own admission–a little out of hand as far as how big a deal they’re making out of it. So I’ve travelled around and visited with all the key accounts–Target, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Baker and Taylor–and everybody’s going to have floor displays and everybody’s buying tons of books.The tour–this is a little bit different than what they’ve done in the past–it goes for as long as four months. It will be a tour bus that’s skinned to look like the book, and myself and my wife and my two kids are all going to drive from Seattle to New York over a four month period. I’m going to blog from the road, so every week there’ll be an article and photographs from the road. My nine-year-old is really into filming, so she’s going to do a film segment once a week or two weeks for Scholastic News. It’s been definitely beyond my expectations and an awful lot of fun. Are all three of the Elyon books finished?They are! When they bought the first book, the first draft of the second book was already finished. The second book, when I had originally conceived it, Alexa had turned sixteen. As you might imagine, when I sat down with the editors, they both said, ‘Yeah, that’s not gonna work.’ In being so naive about the book business, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll get this book out and maybe it’ll take me four years to get another one out, and all the fans will be four years older.’ So I don’t know what I was thinking. At any rate, we had to pull that all back, so I pretty much had to write half of the second book over again. But that one’s done now, it’s all been approved, it’s in copy editing. The same guy who did the artwork for the first cover is now painting the second cover. The thi
rd book, I’ve just finished the first draft–and this is the last book in the series–about a week ago. As the series runs its course, do we ever find out who Elyon is?The second and third book are focused quite a bit more on that, so you’ll find out a lot more as the series progresses. The first book is a small, encapsulated story about this kingdom that she’s in. The second book takes off and goes all out into the other areas of this whole island, and you find out about who Elyon is, and that there are other forces involved in what’s going on, and Alexa gets wrapped up in the whole thing. So will the second and third books be larger in page count than the first?No, they’re the same. I can’t write that long a book, it would be too hard. I don’t know about you, but at least for me there’s a point when I feel where it’s time to start winding down. At 60,000… 65,000 words it seems like… it’s not that I can’t do more, it just seems like I can’t do more. The story is told. When Warvold built the walls… the threat that’s in the first book wasn’t a threat until after the walls were built. So I’m wondering, what was it that Warvold was afraid of, and is Alexa going to encounter that?Now see, you’re asking questions I can’t answer. You remember when they were in the forest council, and Alexa and the grizzly bear were talking about some of the stuff, and how Warvold had misunderstood some things? You’ll find out much more about Warvold the person and why the walls really were built, and what’s really going on in the second and third book. With three books out of the way, what are you going to do now? You’ve built several different business before, are you going to try something even more different next?I don’t think so. There are two things that I love about the things that I’m doing now. One is that I really enjoy writing. Some people find it so difficult, I just love to sit down and write. And I also really enjoy going into the schools–which is why I’m so happy to be involved with Scholastic, because they’re so involved in schools. For example, this tour, I’ll go to 200 schools, and they’ll all be assemblies, so I’ll get to talk to 75,000 to 100,000 kids. To get up in front of a group of kids for twenty to thirty minutes and just talk about writing and how important it is to read and the creative process–I just love doing that!I don’t think I’ll go back to Elyon–so many of the series now, kids are almost primed for seven books to ten books in a series–and this really feels finished with three; and yet there are certainly things we could do down the road. I don’t imagine I’ll go back to that any time real soon. I’ve got some other projects I’d like to do that are standalone books, probably two or three of those, and then maybe go back and try to do some other things with the Elyon stuff. Has Elyon been optioned for movie rights, as so many children’s books have been lately?Scholastic would prefer to let a title get up on its feet before they approach the media rights, and I agree with that. A lot of times media rights get sold and it just doesn’t do anything. What we’re hoping is that by the time we get back from the tour we’ll be able to do something with that, but who knows? It’s such a long shot.
Northwest young-adult novel writer on author’s dream track
A man can do only so much fishing.
Patrick Carman’s breaking point came 90 days in. And then, the Walla Walla-based author says, “I think I got bored.” Which is how he got out of the river and back onto a track that could make him that dream of all the world’s publishers: the next (and maybe we better just whisper what comes next) J.K. Rowling.
You know, of “Harry Potter” fame?
You can understand, then, why “bored” isn’t a word that people associate much with Carman these days. As the creator of a new series of young-adult fantasynovels, under the umbrella title “The Land of Elyon,” Carman is providing kids around the Northwest a world that takes them far from their everyday lives. Without their ever having to leave their bedrooms.
Carman will sign copies of the first book in the series, “The Dark Hills Divide” (AmpedRadio Inc., 200 pages, $11.95 paper), on Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Valley Barnes & Noble. Today and Friday, he also will speak at six Spokane area elementary schools: Opportunity, St. Mary’s, Chester, Lincoln Heights, Sheridan and Greenacres.
It was in the bedroom of his two daughters, Reese and Sierra, that Carman began his initial journey into the Land of Elyon. He and his wife Karen had decided that she’d take one night a week for herself, leaving Carman with his daughters. And so he began telling stories, which was nothing new. “I’ve been a storyteller all my life,” Carman says.
Yet he wasn’t always a writer. Since graduating from high school in Salem, Ore., in 1984, and then Willamette University four years later, Carman has held only one day job, for a software company in Portland. But after a year, Carman took a leap and, at age 22, took a $20,000 loan from his college roommate’s parents and started an advertising agency. Nine years later he sold the business for enough money to allow himself to move to Montana and fish.
That’s when boredom set in. And so he went back to business, first designing a board game called Applause for Hollywood Video. Then he co-founded an Internet company that put regional newspapers online. “We got 200-some papers, and then we sold the business just before the whole (dot.com) thing cratered,” Carman says.
Now he does technology consulting. And, says Carman, everything that he’s done in his life has aided his “journey toward becoming a writer.” “I wouldn’t call the things that I did before this failed efforts creatively,” he says, “but Ithink they were an effort on my part to find the right outlet for my creative energy.”
So Carman’s “Land of Elyon” stories became more andmore complex. And while he was at first intimidated by the idea of writing an actual book, Carman began to keep a journal with plot lines, character outlines, maps and ideas about how things were going to end. “The DarkHills Divide” ended up going through 10 drafts. At one point, he was two-thirds of the way through when he trashed everything and started over.
The story that Carman ended up with was that of a young girl, 12-year-old Alexa Daley, who while spending the summer with her father in the walled town of Bridewell stumbles onto the reasons why there are suchwalls in the first place. They have to do with a presence in the dark woods that cover the distant hills. Pretty soon Alexa is caught up in aclassic tale of good versus evil. The question is, where does the evil exist: outside or inside the walls?
Carman’s ability to capture the plucky temperament of his protagonist, and at the same time create a world of strange and wonderful (and often threatening) creatures, has earned comparisons with C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books and even J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (though that comparison, even Carman admits, is a stretch).
But he wanted to make one big difference.
“If you look across the landscape of work that’s out there for young adults, there really aren’t that many where there’s a female heroine who doesn’t get bailed out in the end,” Carman says. “There’s always some other character, a guy usually, who helps her. Ireally felt like I wanted to write a book in which the world revolved around one really strong female character.”
The biggest surprise involving Carman’s work has been how an unknown author, with virtually no outside support, has managed to attract such large and enthusiastic crowds for what is essentially a self-published book (though a very professionally done work of self-publishing).
Carman began visiting elementary schools and doing signings late last winter. That’s how he managed to sell 125 books in his first signing at the Tri-Cities Barnes & Noble, and shortly after that sold 200 books in just two hours atSeattle’s Third Place Books. And when he last appeared at the Spokane Valley Barnes & Noble, in March, for more than two hours the line wasnever less than 30 readers long.
The attention for “The Dark Hills Divide” has been so enthusiastic, both by book buyers andbookstore owners, that Carman recently signed what he describes as a “six-figure” contract with New York-based Scholastic, the U.S. publisher ofthe Potter books. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Peter Rubie, Carman’s agent, as estimating the deal to be worth “between $200,000 and$350,000.”)
Carman’s Alexa is “one of these unexpected heroes, like a Frodo in ‘Lord of ” said Craig Walker, vice president and editorial director for the Rings,’ Scholastic. With one book down, a second one inthe can and a third on the drawing board, is Carman planning to write a fourth installment in the series?
“I kind of hope not,” he says. “I don’t resent authors who do that. I just look at series that have more than four or five books and I can’t imagine there’s that much to say. Three seems to be just the right number.” Besides, he says, “I’vegot some other stories that I want to tell.” In between fishing trips, that is.
Patrick Carman will sign copies of his young-adult novel “The Dark Hills Divide” (Amped Radio Inc., 200 pages, $11.95 paper) on Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Valley Barnes & Noble, 15310 E. Indiana Ave. For more information on Carman and his books, see www.landofelyon.com.