It's not often that a bookseller has his own first novel to sell. But Burke's Book Store in Memphis, Tenn., is doing a brisk business with Talk: A Novel in Dialogue (Livingston Press) by co-owner Corey Mesler. He even booked himself a formal in-store autographing on August 23.
Mesler, who bought the 127-year-old independent with his wife, Cheryl, two years ago, has been a mainstay there since 1988, when previous owner Harriet Beeson hired him as manager and buyer. So far, he told PW, customer response has been very satisfying. Author Lee Smith's cover blurb calls the novel "refreshingly realistic, intelligent, sexy" and readers have been agreeing. Still, Mesler bristles when readers confuse him with Jim, Talk's middle-aged bookseller protagonist: "I guess I'm going to have to get a T-shirt made up saying 'I'm Not Jim!' "
Mesler explained that the experimental novel "is talky, as the title would indicate. It's in the form of unattributed dialogue by a group of friends—Jim is the only one identified. They talk about marriage, love, books and, as something of a joke, the best films of Heather Graham." The line-up of celebrity endorsers includes John Grisham, Robert Olen Butler and Frederick Barthelme, who raved, "...a real pleasure for book lovers and lovers of contemporary fiction. You'll be surprised how sexy a book of dialogue can be."
Not the sort of thing, in other words, that might be expected from a 47-year-old father of a teenage daughter and younger son. But when Mesler mentions the influence of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Vintage), his evolution as a writer begins to fall into perspective. "I've written poetry ever since I was at Memphis State, but never thought I had the time to write fiction until I read that title story," he explained.
Adapting Carver's sparse prose style, though, he has since had stories published in several literary journals and small magazines. His story about Memphis's explosive music scene in the '60s, "The Growth and Death of Buddy Gardner," published in the first issue of the new semi-annual Pindeldyboz, is anthologized in New Stories from the South (Algonquin).
Running a bookstore and writing isn't easy. Mesler said he grabs "stolen moments" to write; "When Cheryl and I bought the store, her gift to me was Fridays off for my writing, although I also squeeze in whatever other time I can find." The 208-page novel took him about a year. Then he saw an ad for Livingston Press (a division of the University of West Alabama) noting that the small house specialized in "offbeat literature." Mesler sent the manuscript to Livingston instead of trying to find an agent. According to Livingston co-director and editor Joe Taylor, roughly half of the book's 1,250 paperback/250 hardcover print run was sold by its publication date.
Burke's Book Store has an exclusive with this author. Requests for appearances at stores beyond Memphis have been turned down. "Corey don't travel," noted Mesler. "I wish I could, but can't because of my agoraphobia." Oh well, at least staying at home will give him more time to shop around his finished second novel.