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A free-lancer's life is paying off in book titles

November 13, 2006
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

Jay Feldman thought it would be easy. The very first thing he wrote for publication was published. An editor asked him to write the piece. And he was paid for it.

In a free-lancer writer’s life, anyone of these three things is great, but to have all three happen at once, right out of the gate, is a miracle.

And like most miracles, you can’t count on them occurring with any regularity.

After his friend’s music magazine failed, Feldman found that there are problems with writing non-fiction. In addition to the afore-mentioned issues, you must have something to say.

“I thought I had things to say about music but I ran out of ideas,” he told a group of students at a University Extension class in Sacramento last week.

“So I turned to baseball and began churning out stuff and collecting rejection slips,” Feldman said. The team he loved to write about was the 1947-57 Brooklyn Dodgers.

In due course, he took a part-time job at UC Davis while he tended to his free-lance career, writing for Sports Illustrated, selling a TV script, and writing a play.

“It’s really hard being a free-lancer,” he said. “You have freedom, but you pay a price.”

Then came a happy accident. While writing a historical novel (“Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream”), Feldman heard about an earthquake that occurred near St. Louis almost 200 years ago.

“And from the back of my mental filing cabinet an idea formed,” he said. “I realized it couldn’t be a novel because it was too far-fetched.”

So he took his time – four to five months – and wrote a 110-page proposal for a non-fiction book that became “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes.”

After a few false starts, his agent sold the book in 2002 to Simon and Schuster. It was published last year.

“They gave me a healthy advance and I spent two years writing, weaving together five story lines to create a complex tapestry of the time and the frontier,” he said.

Feldman said his research included trips to Madrid and Seville, Spain; taking a barge trip down the Ohio River, driving both banks of the Mississippi River for long stretches, and learning more than he thought he’d ever have to know about the science of earthquakes and steamboats.

Feldman spent much of his book tour visiting cities in the New Madrid area – St. Louis and Memphis – where interest in his book was naturally high.

“It’s an inevitability that another series of quakes will occur,” he said. But this time, the quakes will create far more death and destruction than they did on the 19th century frontier. The warning bell has sounded.

But let’s go back to Feldman’s fiction, “Suitcase Sefton.” Earlier this year, his novel was published.

The baseball novel is set in 1942 when a scout, Mac "Suitcase" Sefton, discovers a once-in-a-lifetime talent in Jerry Yamada.

The left-handed pitcher is everything a scout could want with one drawback: He’s being held indefinitely in a Japanese-American internment camp, and he’s not even certain that he wants to play professional baseball.

Sefton determines to find a way to free Yamada and convince him to play for the New York Yankees.

Sefton’s interest in Yamada and his family changes from professional to personal when he accepts an offer to join the Yamadas for tea in their primitive quarters in a converted army barrack.

I wonder which book was more satisfying personally – the publication of the non-fiction book or the baseball book? Somehow, I’ll bet it was the baseball book even though Feldman cheerfully admits that non-fiction is where the money is.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

For More Information, Visit These Links:
Wikipedia entry about The New Madrid Earthquake

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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