Road Warrior 1/5/2005

If the autograph is a barometer for an artist’s success, you could say the use of a rubber stamp is a turning point.Patrick Carman used to sign all of his autographs by hand. They read sort of like a letter. Kids in line at the Walla Walla author’s book signings would be treated to a note that started: “Welcome to the Land of Elyon,’ followed by a personal message usually based on the two or three minutes of preceding conversation. That was when only 3,000 copies of his paperback fantasy “The Dark Hills Divide’ existed. Before second and third reprints and introductions to an estimated 20,000 kids. Before buzz about the youth fiction book – the first in the Land of Elyon trilogy – seized the attention of the world’s largest children’s book publishing company. Before the frequent use of pens started leaving those pink indentations in the side of Carman’s finger. On the verge of an unprecedented, nationwide tour that will take him from Seattle to New York on an RV with his wife and two daughters, Carman plans to go the way of the rubber stamp to help with the tedious autograph signing. The signature, along with the interaction with children that helped launch him as a regionally recognized author, will remain authentic. Scholastic Inc., which signed Carman to a six-figure deal reportedly between $200,000 and $350,000 for the trilogy, is throwing its weight behind the upcoming tour. Jeremy Gonzalez, Carman’s publicist and a Walla Wallan, said the company is running an unheard of number of books for a first-time author, at least 100,000 copies for retail sales in addition to about 300,000 for the school markets where Scholastic puts on book fairs. Scholastic has also committed about $200,000 for its marketing budget for “The Dark Hills Divide’ in youth magazines. It plans front-page features on its Web site and intends to make the Elyon Web site its most interactive to date. First step in the process will be Tuesday with the national re-release of “The Dark Hills Divide’ in hardback form. That version has been available at Book & Game Co. since last week after Scholastic tweaked and reprinted it. But Tuesday’s unveiling will presumably open the doors to Carman’s career as an author on a nationwide level and help answer the question everyone from newspaper reporters to the book’s publishers have been dying to know: Is Carman the next J.K. Rowling? Sitting across from the family Christmas tree two weeks before the re-release, Carman was flattered but skeptical about comparisons to the Harry Potter creator. He said, as if talking about a career installing dishwashers: “How famous do authors really get anyway?’ “It would be really easy to get caught up in all that. Being compared is a privilege and an honor. But I don’t believe all that stuff.’ What excites Carman the most is the opportunity to bring his family along for the journey. Most authors, he said, end up going on the road two to three weeks at a time while they promote their books. They take a break for a week or so, then continue with the tour. Carman and his wife, Karen, thought the separation and instability would cause the family some anxiety. So they approached Scholastic about touring in a different way. The parents will drive a 39-foot RV, stopping at elementary schools and book stores in 21 cities. By the time it’s over, Carman expects he will have interfaced with 100,000 kids throughout the whole process. Gonzalez will be along for part of the ride, too. Carman’s wife and kids will go for three of the four-month tour, then fly home. Carman and Gonzalez will drive the RV back from New York at the end of April. Daughters, Sierra, 9, and Reece, 7, will be home-schooled by their mom during the first part of the day. The rest of the time will be spent seeing the sites of the country as an educational experience. Riding in an RV will be a new experience for the girls, who don’t even ride the bus to their school, Prospect Point Elementary. Even more exciting is the chance to see Disneyland, Knottsberry Farm and Six Flags. “For the kids, every single city we hit will be new except Portland,’ Karen said. Stocked with a fireplace and television set, the RV has many of the comforts of home, except for space. The girls plan to stay occupied chronicling the trip as kid reporters for Scholastic. The girls were, after all, inspiration for the original book. “The Dark Hills Divide’ was based on a bedtime story Carman made up for his kids. Over a period of time, his nighttime saga had become so intricately woven he started writing things down: character sketches, maps, chronology. Carman admits he was never really much of a fantasy book fan to begin with. His favorites are classics and adult fiction. In preparation for the trip, he recently re-read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.’ “We’re going on the road,’ he said. “I’ve got these visions of that old rickety mattress.’ But Karen loves children’s books. And Carman says when he writes, it’s really for her and the girls. What he ended up with in his first try as an author was a classic good-versus-evil tale spun for kids between 9 and 12. The most notable difference between his story and those of his contemporaries was the main character, a strong female role model of 12 years old. That and the fact that Carman was able to sell more than 10,000 copies on his own with a $25,000 investment in the product, visit to 70 schools and 25 book-signing events throughout the state impressed Scholastic. “We were drawn to this classic fantasy for its strong female heroine, one of those unexpected heroes, like Frodo in `Lord of the Rings’,’ said Craig Walker, vice president and editorial director for Scholastic, in a prepared statement. “This, coupled with Carman’s incredible ability to connect with kids during his school and bookstore tours, makes him a perfect fit for Scholastic.’ Walker said the company expects the trilogy to be a major seller in 2005. But as the use of rubber stamps hint at the popularity of an autograph, another tool of popular culture also gives a clue of what may lie ahead. Carman`s book was spotted on eBay. Price tag: $200. “We just want to do Walla Walla proud,’ he said. “And we want to stay close as a family. I’m not counting on getting famous.’

Patrick Carman