If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to let Mormon Matters readers know about a recent interesting development in Mormon literature that I’m involved in as a publisher (definitely on a nonprofit basis):
“The news that Coke Newell’s novel On the Road to Heaven won Best Novel at the new Whitney Awards could have interesting implications for the LDS market,” writes literary reporter Kent Larsen at Mormon culture blog A Motley Vision. “Since the novel also won the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel award earlier this year, Newell’s work is clearly the consensus novel of the year.”
Many LDS authors and publishers are referring to the new Whitney Awards as the Mormon literary equivalent of the Oscar, and at least one professional has suggested that this award be nicknamed the “Orson,” in honor of 19th-century Mormon apostle Orson F. Whitney, after whom the awards are named because Elder Whitney prophesied that Mormonism “will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.”
Newell finds it strange to win the two top Mormon literary awards, because he never even intended to write for the Mormon market. “I started my writing career as a journalist,” he says. Born and bred in the Colorado mountains, Newell joined the LDS Church in his late teens. Following up on a private dream in the early ’90s, he ended up getting hired by LDS Church headquarters, where he wrote stories for the national media as a member of the Public Affairs department for more than a decade.
Along the way Newell sold several books to national publishers, including a book on Colombian journalists and the drug cartels (Dying Words, Red Mesa, 1991), a tongue-in-cheek guide to the changing American West (Cow Chips Aren’t for Dippin’, Gibbs Smith, 1996), and a leadership parable for parents (Journey to Edaphica, Booksurge, 2006).
In 1998 New York publishing powerhouse St. Martin’s Press approached Newell to write a book for national audiences on the doctrine and history of Mormonism, to be a trustworthy insider’s guide for non-Mormon outsiders. Marketing commitment from the publisher and industry praise for the book propelled Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism and its writer into sudden notoriety as an author. To date, Latter Days has sold more than 30,000 copies and is still in print after eight years.
Until recently, Newell knew next to nothing about the LDS literary market. “Outside the works of General Authorities and scholars,” he says, “I’ve never read Mormon authors or Mormon-market books. I read Stegner and Kerouac and Thoreau.”
Attempting to interest New York publishers in a manuscript for which he felt “a great passion,” the lightly fictionalized story of his conversion from Colorado mountain hippie to Mormon missionary in Colombia, Newell found little interest in the Big Apple.
Enter Zarahemla Books. In mid-2006, author and editor Christopher Bigelow launched this small Mormon publishing firm to fill a void in Mormon publishing. “I don’t like the safe, sanitized, predictable stuff put out by most LDS publishers,” Bigelow says. “I wanted to start publishing more earthy, realistic stories that still ultimately affirm the Mormon faith, often in unusual, unexpected, unconventional ways.”
Bigelow quickly realized that Newell’s On the Road to Heaven represented exactly the kind of book he was looking for, and he eagerly published it in August 2007. Widely praised and now amply recognized by both readers and critics, the novel sets itself up for a sequel with its final line. “Only time will tell which road I choose to take next,” Newell says.