Spokesman Review, 5/28/04

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” (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. 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’ve got some other stories that I want to tell.” In between fishing trips, that is

Patrick Carman