(Not) Only Irish Need Apply
Dermot McEvoy -- 1/29/01
A flurry of titles pops up on or around St. Patrick's Day, creating a "Green Season"

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What hath Frank McCourt wrought?

In Irish literary circles, he is often referred to--only half facetiously--as "Blessed" Frank McCourt. McCourt is on the pathway to Irish literary sainthood not only because of the tremendous success of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis--which are both still riding high on the New York Times bestseller list--but because what he has meant to other writers laboring in the Irish-interest market.

"Frank McCourt unknowingly managed to tap a nerve in the Irish-American community," said Doubleday senior editor Amy Scheibe. "Angela's Ashes dared to tell the truth about how resilient and hardscrabble a culture this is, and I think the culture was at a point where it needed to hear it."

"God bless Frank McCourt," said Hyperion senior editor Maureen O'Brien. "He showed publishers what should have been apparent all along--that Irish Americans are a voracious bunch when it comes to book buying; they have reading and writing in their blood."

Someone who heartily agrees with O'Brien's sentiments about reading and writing in the Celtic bloodstream is Whitbread Book of the Year Award winner Christopher Nolan, author of the novel The Banyan Tree, which Arcade will release in trade paperback for the first time in April. Nolan, left mute and spastic through an accident at birth, writes with the help of his "unicorn," a device strapped to his head that allows him to punch out words on his computer. From Dublin,
Two Dublin novelists:
Nolan and Binchy
Nolan e-mailed PW with his opinion on this most recent Celtic literary renaissance: "I believe that when an Irish-American begins to read a book by an Irish author they begin sensing that they know in their very gut what the writer is trying to tell them. They may be third- or even fourth-generation American and fresh in successes in the States, but the truth is that deep within their psyche are voices and descriptions of Ireland which can only be stratumed when the mind is formed in exile."
As St. Patrick's Day approaches, PW has noticed that nearly 50 books of Irish interest are scheduled to be published on and around March 17. The titles run the gamut from the well known to the obscure. Here's a general overview.

Right up there in sales with McCourt is Dublin's Maeve Binchy. Binchy's latest novel, Scarlet Feather, will be published in March by Dutton. Chicago plays a part in the book, and Binchy will be visiting the Windy City to do media and a satellite TV tour--and to march in the St. Patrick's Day parade. Close behind both McCourt and Binchy in popularity is Nuala O'Faolain, whose Are You Somebody? was a bestseller for Holt in 1998. Her first novel, My Dream of You, will be published in February and is backed by a 17-city author tour and a 125,000 printing (Book News, Jan. 15).

With an estimated 45 million Americans of Irish descent, there is a large market waiting to be tapped. Amy Scheibe of Doubleday is the editor of Irish America: Coming into Clover: The Evolution of a People and a Culture by Maureen Dezell. Dezell, a staff writer for the Boston Globe, takes a hard, funny, cynical look at Irish-Americans that will make many want to burn their tickets to Riverdance as they reassess their auntie's lace curtains. And how will Doubleday sell this book? "Well, said Scheibe, "there is the 'Green Season,' as it's called in marketing circles, also known as the month of March. I think most books of Irish interest try to publish then in order to reach a high visibility. But as this is a diverse culture with a large population, there are many creative and fun ways to promote."

Another reason for the surge for the interest in things Irish is simply the quality of the writing. So thinks Terry Golway, New York Observer columnist and author of For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland's Her s (Touchstone): "I think the reason Americans are so interested in Irish history is because it's finally being told in a readable, popular style. For so long, Irish history was the province of academics and Fenian memoirists. And neither group gained a reputation for storytelling. Now, we have academics who know how to tell a story, and a cadre of Irish-American journalists who've become interested in their past."

Irish history is portrayed in so many ways this spring. In biography, three Irish icons are examined. In Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (Free Press), Robert A. Slayton takes a sympathetic look at the first Irish-Catholic to run for president of the United States, and reveals Al Smith's biggest secret--that his father was Italian! James Joyce: A Passionate Exile (St. Martin's/Dunne) examines the nomadic ramblings of arguably the greatest writer of the 20th century. In this photo-filled book, the noted Joycean scholar and lecturer John McCourt--no relation to Frank or Malachy--takes readers on (what else?) a literary odyssey,
Celtic threesome: Marriage, rebellion and New Age.
following Joyce from Dublin to Trieste to Paris and, finally, to the city of his death, Zurich. And for film fans, there's Searching for John Ford: A Biography (St. Martin's) by Joseph McBride, a well-known scholar of the man who directed The Informer and The Quiet Man.
As for historical fiction, there's Morgan Llywelyn's latest, 1921 (Forge). Tom Doherty, president and publisher of the Tom Doherty imprint at St. Martin's, told PW that this is "a novel of the struggle of the Irish people for independence and its separation into two nations, south and north." The first novel in this series, 1916, is now available in paperback.

In a completely different category is Irish Wedding Traditions: Using Your Irish Heritage to Create the Perfect Wedding by Shannon McMahon Lichte (Hyperion). Here is a book that covers everything about Irish weddings except where to apply for an annulment.

P ts have always played a major part in Irish society and it's no surprise that this spring there are some heavy-duty names being published. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has two of them: Electric Light by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and P ms 1968-1998 by Paul Muldoon, one of Ireland's most prominent younger p ts. There's also Conamara Blues by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins/ Cliff Street), author of Anam Cara.

With p try there has to be music, so maybe it's time to have A Drink with Shane MacGowan by MacGowan--founder of the Irish rock band the Pogues--and Victoria Mary Clarke (Grove Press). And for a comprehensive look at Irish music and musicians, from the Chieftains to the Clancy Brothers, there's Celtic Music: A Complete Guide by June Skinner Sawyers (Da Capo).

Talk of revolution, p try and song automatically turns one's thoughts to a snug pub and a creamy pint of Guinness. Pete McCarthy had a similar notion, and the result is McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland (St. Martin's/Dunne), which is one man's hilarious journey around the Emerald Isle in search of namesake pubs and his Irish roots.

This spring, there's also a handful of books that can only be described as "New Age Celt." These include Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine Your Life Throughout the Seasons by Mara Freeman, whose publisher, Harper San Francisco, calls her a "modern Druid," and, from Chronicle, The Celtic Book of Living and Dying: An Illustrated Guide to Celtic Wisdom by Juliette Wood. And speaking of Celts, Sterling has The Celts by John Davies, a tie-in to the six-part A&E series scheduled for this spring.

On the literary front, there's Emerald Germs of Ireland by Patrick McCabe (HarperCollins), best known as author of The Butcher Boy, which was recently made into a movie. His new novel will be promoted with an author tour. And old favorite Andrew Greeley is back with Irish Love: A Nuala Anne McGrail Novel (Forge/Doherty).

Where d s Irish-American publishing go from here? "The Irish-Americans are a sizable minority," said Tom Doherty, "and as a group, they have made substantial progress since the days when signs on Boston businesses read 'No Irish Need Apply.' Better educated, with more discretional income, the Irish-American of today reads more than his immigrant forebears, and, finally, you don't have to be Irish to like a good Irish story."

Booksellers Bow to Queen

When Three Rivers Press shipped 12,000 copies of Jill Conner Browne's The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love a year and a half ago, few dreamed it would become a regional handselling favorite and would require 15 reprints. After selling a little more than 250,000 copies, Browne is back with a sequel, and this time the publisher's regional reps and Southern booksellers are determined to make her latest, God Save the Sweet Potato Queens, into a national bestseller.

Thus, the full-page ad in Publishers Weekly on January 8. The ad urged booksellers to read the book themselves, and to put it into the hands of reading groups. The ad was signed by 11 bookstores, including Malaprop's in Asheville, N.C., Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Ky., and Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.

"Jill's appearance at SEBA galvanized our sales force to meet with booksellers about creating word of mouth for the second book," said Philip Patrick, Three Rivers' associate publisher. "The first book was a true handselling phenomenon. It really struck a chord in the South. When we got the second book, we started brainstorming how it could become a national bestseller." The reps
The Erma Bombeck
of the 21st century?
decided to enlist the help of those who were already experts on promoting Browne's ode to women in the prime of their lives having the time of their lives.
"Our reps asked us if we'd be interested in creating a letter of support," said John Evans, owner of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss. "We gave them input and they later faxed us a copy of what they came up with and we all signed off on it." Evans, who has been pals with Browne for more than 15 years, has sold more than 4,000 copies of SPQBOL in his store. "She's really clever; really funny in real life. I remember when she was writing for the local weekly entertainment rag The Ditty-Wah-Ditty, under the name of Betty Fulton. She created this alternative personality and used a high school annual photo above her columns. I'm not sure if it's a picture of her or if she just found the photo."

"We did fabulously well with the first book," said Lynn Roberts, manager of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "We sold over 1,000 copies and this is a small store in a small town. We didn't realize it would be such a big seller. She's sarcastic and caustic, but in a good-natured way. It's definitely a book that leads to multiple purchases."

"It's one of our biggest gift books for women. Women buy a copy and then come back and buy it for others," said Sally Brewster, general manager and buyer at Little Professor Book Center, Charlotte, N.C. "We've sold more than 250 copies. It's one of the easiest books to sell. It just sells itself. Just look at those covers and you know you're going to have fun. She's the Erma Bombeck for the 21st century. Her books are all about enjoying life to the fullest and not being ashamed of anything. I got to meet her at SEBA and she really is the Queen--not the sense of the Queen Mother, but a homecoming queen."

"The new book just came in and people are snapping them up as soon as they see it," said Tom Campbell, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C. It's possible that many fans are being driven into stores by the Web-savvy author. Browne has a Web site ( as well as a cheerfully low-tech newsletter, which she sends to fans to keep them updated on the book tour and how their purchases will benefit her ("I would like very much to be able to schedule that much-needed, long overdue face-lift for next January and, well, it's just gonna take a full-out effort on everyone's part to make it happen," she writes. "So do your part. I know I can count on y'all!"). "Jill Browne is not shy," Roberts told PW. "I'm sure people will hear about God Save the Sweet Potato Queens, and we're going to keep plenty in stock."
--Kevin Howell