Dan Pope had every intention of becoming a lawyer. The West Hartford native graduated law school, passed the bar and began practicing the trade. There was only one problem: he always knew, deep inside, he was a writer. Not just a weekend hobbyist but a serious slinger of words. The true measure of his talent was revealed when he was accepted by and then graduated from the gold standard of writing schools, the Iowa Writers Workshop, in 2002.
"On the faculty at the time was Frank Conroy, author of the classic Stop Time, Marilynne Robinson, and Ethan Canin," said Pope, who has taught at Trinity College and teaches now in the MFA program at WCSU in Danbury. "I was lucky that I got to work with all of them."
Since that time, Pope has published one acclaimed novel, In the Cherry Tree, a coming-of-age story set in a fictionalized suburban Connecticut neighborhood in the 1970s (think Elton John, riding bikes, masturbation, fart jokes) that garnered enthusiastic notices upon its publication in 2003, including one from the Hartford Advocate. Pope's second novel, Housebreaking, will be published by Simon & Schuster next spring.
"Housebreaking is set in the same fictional Connecticut town and same fictional street as In the Cherry Tree," he said. "Two families are coming to grips with various problems. It's considerably darker than the earlier novel."
Precisely because Pope knows how hard it is to get a first novel published, he has now added another occupation to his resume, alongside lawyer, writer and teacher: publisher. With the March publication of Kevin Dowd's The Fourth of July, Pope has inaugurated his imprint, Roundabout Press, which will be solely devoted to works of fiction by up-and-coming writers.
"The idea behind Roundabout is that publishing in New York is changing the equation," he said. "The same four conglomerates publish everything. Another merger is in the offing, so it may be down to three conglomerates. They produce great books but they also allow way too many to fall through the cracks.
Pope, whose own business model includes using the crowdsourcing potential of Kickstarter to raise some of the funds needed to publish The Fourth of July, can't get over the talent pool that he sees going untapped.
"There are so many good young writers and it's such a tortuous process to get the agent, the endorsements and the referrals," he said. "And then to endure the endless stream of rejections. There used to be an expected process of rejection with something good eventually happening. All of this leaves out the types of book we want to publish."
Such as, The Fourth of July by Kevin Dowd. Pope has known Dowd since the 1970s when the pair were in a high school rock band together. Dowd, who also lives in West Hartford, runs his own company, Atlantic Computing, which builds wireless networks, mostly for schools.
"Dan, his brother and I would stay up all night playing music — until his father began yelling," said Dowd. "We played out too, though we never practiced enough to be any good."
The pair still get together and play, including last year's attempt to write and record a song in one evening, the lyrics composed entirely of pick-up lines (e.g. "Hey baby, what's your sign?" or "Do you come here often?").
That same spirit of mischief infuses Dowd's novel, which is set along the shore on a fictional island based on a lifetime of summering with his family at Niantic. The main characters, the ones around whom most of the action revolves, are Jack Smith, an aging rogue, and his estranged wife Martha, a high-maintenance hysteric with a one-track mind. Were this a film, the parts would be played by Chevy Chase and Catherine O'Hara. Jack returns to the island for the holiday weekend in 1974 (think Mungo Jerry, no cell phones, no texting, no Internet) to nurse the psychic wounds of middle age, little suspecting that all hell would soon break loose.
"To make the story work, I needed some distance and slower lines of communication, like we counted on then," said Dowd. "Mail, limited phone service, a ferry — without them, the story would have taken a couple of minutes of elapsed time when one person called another's cell. That'd be no fun at all."
Jack's home base is a three-story ramshackle beach house that's partly autobiographical.
"My grandfather bought a summer place in Crescent Beach, Niantic in the late 1920s. My family spent our summers there," said Dowd. "My father and most of my siblings live there year-round now, but I moved back up to West Hartford because I have children living there. My heart's still at the shore."
Indeed, Dowd is a champion sailor, a pastime inextricably linked to his Niantic past.
"There's a small yacht club, Niantic Bay Yacht Club, where I serve as treasurer and actively participate in sailboat racing. It's a humble club that produces international champions," he said. "The setting for the novel is a place like NBYC, but I was really envisioning the facility that preceded it on the same piece of land in the early 1900s. It was a social club adjacent to a crib dock with ferry service from New London."
Adding tension to the novel's humor is the presence of many desperately available women whose charms alternately entice and repulse Jack Smith.
"That's part of the island thing, maybe," explains Dowd. "When the pool of eligible mates is geographically restricted, and in a time when there were no matchmaking sites, dating becomes a rummage through the broken toy bin."
Dowd utilizes multiple narrators, a device with built-in risks, not the least of which is confusion. But it works for the telling of The Fourth of July, all of which takes place over the course of a week at the peak of summer.
"I didn't map anything; it was iterative," he says. "I enjoyed taking each character's perspective and finding intersections with the other characters... When I laughed at my own mischief, I knew I had something."
To Pope, the appeal of Dowd's book is in the mood and time frame he's re-created. Fellow Connecticut novelist Rand Richards Cooper has praised The Fourth of July, saying it reminded him of "such gin-soaked comic classics as A Confederacy of Dunces and The Ginger Man."
"It's hard to write a funny book," said Pope. "It's easy to write sad and tragic but the list of really funny books is pretty short. Humor is hard to sustain over 200 pages."
Dowd's previous publications are technical articles and books, one on supercomputing and another on computer networks, which within their limited circle are highly respected.
"The connection with Roundabout was happenstance," said Dowd. "Dan and his students established the press, and then set out looking for manuscripts. I had a work of fiction hanging around, partially complete and with no path to publication. They liked it. We got together."
Roundabout's future books will include a collection of stories by a writer from Uruguay and a novel by Jim Sidel, whom Pope met in Iowa.
"Small presses seem designed to fail, always printing only a few books," said Pope, whose press run for The Fourth of July is 2,000 copies. "But we have been sending them out and I think if enough people see the book, good things will happen."
The Fourth of July
by Kevin Dowd, Roundabout Press, 149 pages, $9.95.
A party to celebrate the book will be held April 26th, starting at 6:30 PM
At the Niantic Bay Yacht Club, 8 Shore Road, Niantic
There will be dinner by Slippershell, a signed copy of the book, a reading, and a fire on the beach, weather permitting
$25 pp, BYOB. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 24th. Seating is limited.
Niantic Bay Yacht Club (courtesy Kevin Dowd)