All questing young gents (and lasses) experience it. That moment when parents have feet of clay, childhood idols come tottering down from their totems and imaginative fancy turns to thoughts of the more corporeal realm.
“He put off the faith of his childhood quite simply, like a cloak that he no longer needed,” wrote Somerset Maugham in ‘Of Human Bondage.’ And that epiphany is the starting point for one Tobias Henry, an innocent with a burgeoning awareness of the ‘Dirty Parts of the Bible,’ and the fundamental contradictions between theism and physical fact in author Sam Torode’s first novel.
From the moment he arrives in St Louis by train, and “the last ember of my childhood faith flew out the window and disappeared into smoke,” Tobias’ travels are about desensitizing himself to dogma but searching for self-determination and meaning in a baffling world.
A confused creationist, Tobias is spurred by a chance reading of the Song of Solomon where some excellent racy bits of the Bible reside, and begins to question his childhood mores as feverishly delivered by his fire-breathing father.
Where were the dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark? The Bible has breasts in it!? If Adam and Eve were the only man and woman on earth, from whence sprang their daughter-in-law? A question famously asked by Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Monkey trials.
Tobias comes of age and awareness during the Great Depression raised by a Baptist preacher with the burning specter of hellfire and damnation ever-present. But when his Bible-wielding father falls from grace, in an ignoble incident involving a flock of dysenteric birds, Tobias is sent on an odyssey of discovery and demystification that drives him through foreign lands and lore, from Remus, Michigan to Glen Rose, Texas toward his own ‘salvation’ who presents in the form of an Ophelia-esque Sarah in her “wine-colored dress.”
Armed only with a fusty map, his less than worldly wits and a loss of faith at the place where Higher Thought conflicts with the High Church, Tobias travels by boxcar and sheer Homeric fortitude to reunite with his father’s prodigal family down South. “Remember this, my boy,” says Craw, who adopts Tobias en route and initiates him into the ministry of wander, “the two greatest men who ever lived – Jesus and Socrates – were both hoboes.”
The ‘Dirty Parts’ has been described as Johnny Cash convenes with ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ At the place where Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companionship and the Twain shall meet, which is an awful lot of Southern hospitality to return. But the ‘Dirty Parts’ delivers with some laugh out loud humor and campfire theorizing in a fresh reading of an old world testament to more things than have been thought of in our philosophy.
Along the way, there are boxcars and bloodletting, rifle-toting gals, saints and sinners, apostasy and postulation, hobo propheteering, liquor, libertines, loose women and treasure maps, cussing and cursedness. It’s a rollicking good tale with a homespun, squarely dancing, down with the ho’s edge, and a touch of magical realism with a gentile arc. Never sacrificing his sense of wonder, Tobias comes to terms with that old time religion and experiences a more Darwinian form of life. A baptism by forces of nature that reconciles his doubts and galvanizes his understanding of human frailty, fate and faith.
For Sam Torode, the ‘Bible’ creator’s own five year voyage, and the trials and tribulations in “getting the chance to get my book past the gatekeepers into readers hand’s” is a trippy parable of its own to be told, sadly familiar to the first time writer and one he recounts in full on the widely read blog, A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing at http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2011/01/guest-post-by-sam-torode.html
If not losing faith when toyed with by those in high places is the lesson to be learned, then Sam Torode is a cum laude graduate in the Job-bing arts.
After 100 rejections from large houses to small presses, and funded by the ubiquitous credit card master, Sam tried his hand at self-publishing in paperback only to sell a less than priceless 10 copies. A New York agent bravely took up the charge, and touted the ‘Bible’s’ charms to no joy at the end of 360 days. Whilst editors loved the manuscriptural take, the marketing departments could not see the how, where and why. Penguin passed on it. Twice.
It seemed the ‘Dirty Parts’ was to languish in the Type A desert of writer rejection. Classically schooled in the arts, Sam was fiercely anti-Net as a publishing platform, and had never considered an e-book format as a distribution method, instead banishing the ‘Bible’ to the bottom drawer for the better part of a year.
As a professional book designer and lover, accomplished artist and collector of antique volumes, it’s understandable that the then Kindle skeptic initially approached the device and its promise of readership glory with all the wariness of a sole singed shepherd faced with a blazing, impossibly chatty bramble.
But after the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest revealed that the ‘Dirty Parts’ Kindle excerpt was being downloaded more than the work of the competition finalists, it appeared that word of mouth had spread The Word and the word was good. Very good indeed. Posting 80 reviews to date, the flock came reading, dubbing the ‘’Dirty Parts’ with 50 five star ratings and another 20, with 4 stars.
This, despite Sam steadfastly refusing to actively campaign online, and even e-tailing the book at 2.99, a hefty 2 dollars above the average e-book ‘cover’ price. Experimenting with the 99-cent bracket drove sales high into the hundreds per diem. Currently back at the full price, ‘Dirty Parts’ is still being downloaded at a rate of 100 per day and from January to March of 2011, has sold well over 17,000 copies. A desert exile no longer.
A re-kindled Sam has seen something of the promotional light, and has created a lovely, atmospheric video trailer that has all the cinematic hallmarks of a Coen Brothers epistle to promote the book, and a dedicated web site: dirtypartsofthebible.com where it can and should be viewed.
And as for e-pubbing, his reluctance has (mostly) been converted. His next book will be of the Kindle kind. He awaits the muse. In the meantime, Sam is painting, pondering and parenting four kids in Nashville, Tennessee.
Both Sam’s and Tobias’ adventures are inspirational tales and an object lesson in keeping the faith in one’s ability and creative conviction. It seems that all good stories, dirty and otherwise are (at least partly) contained in the Bible. The rest is what you make of it.
Lani Steinberg: Given the book’s themes and title, I suppose the obvious question is your own spiritual upbringing. Was your early life especially theological in nature and nurture?
Sam Torode: My family went to church three times a week, so I was definitely steeped in the Bible. In Sunday school and youth group, they’d give out prizes for memorizing Bible verses. There are a lot of strange things that come out of this kind of upbringing. For one, I learned all these ancient Jewish stories, and thought of myself as a child of Abraham, yet I didn’t meet a real Jewish person until I went to college.
‘Dirty Parts’ is largely based on the Book of Tobit and the story of Tobias and Sarah, and you also reference your grandparents’ marriage in the Author’s Note. What was it about both their stories that captured your narrative imagination?
I think the Book of Tobit is one of the unknown gems of world literature. It’s a bizarre and delightful love story, which is part of the Apocrypha in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, but the Protestants threw it out five hundred years ago. I wanted to write something based on that story, and then I also wanted to write something about my grandparents’ stories of growing up in Texas during the ’20s and ’30s. Then, I realized I could combine the two ideas into one book. So I decided to do with the Book of Tobit what ”O Brother Where Art Thou?” did with the Odyssey—re-imagine it in this new setting.
Reading the Song of Solomon was an epiphanous moment for Tobias, as an innocent, he discovers that there’s: “no greater revelation than finding breasts in the bible.” Have young lads changed much in their pursuit of topography?
I think every Baptist boy shares that same shocking experience of discovering the Song of Solomon for the first time. I even remember my younger sister going around the house, belting out verses from the Song of Solomon just to see my parents’ reaction – she knew she couldn’t get in trouble for quoting Bible verses.
That holds true even in today’s culture. It’s not that breasts are shocking, but that they’re in the Bible.
Actually, writing the novel rekindled my interest in the Song of Songs, and I went on to write a short nonfiction book about it. (http://www.amazon.com/Song-Songs-New-Version/dp/1449505856) The Song’s history is fascinating–how it originated, how it made it into the Bible, and how it was interpreted over the years. My research made me believe that it was written by a woman, which would make it the only biblical book with a female author.
The Dirty Parts of the Bible makes much of myth, mysticism and fact and the worlds in between. Craw tells Tobias that some truths are far too large and expansive to be couched as factual narratives in their telling. Was this version of Apocrypha inspired by your reading of Andrew Wyeth’s artistic vision where you quote him on your web site: “You don’t have to paints tanks and guns to capture war?”
Wow, that’s a deep question. I don’t know if there’s any connection between the novel and my love for Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Not consciously, at least.
I’m definitely drawn to myth and mysticism. These days, I have very little interest in religion – I overdosed at a young age, obsessed over it way too much in my teens and 20s, and writing the novel helped me process that. But I think the key thing is wonder. The religious impulse has led to a lot of bad things, like abuse of authority and threats of hellfire, but at its best, it’s a response of wonder at our amazing universe.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books about evolution and the cosmos. “Finding Darwin’s God,” “Why Evolution Is True,” “Your Inner Fish,” “Reinventing the Sacred,” to name a few. It’s fascinating stuff for me, because I’m very skeptical and logical on the one hand, but I’m also an artist, and I believe that there’s much more to life than what can be quantified by science.
Craw’s ‘resurrection’ from the boxcar fire, Tobias’ ‘baptism’ in the river whilst searching for catfish, the hovering threat of snakes in Eden, assorted whores of Babylon, temptresses, Malachi’s blindness and return to sight… How important was allegory in conceiving some of the more literal biblical references?
Some allegorical elements came into the plot because of the Book of Tobit. Others came in because life itself is often allegorical.
For instance, I never thought of the snake in my book as an allegory, but you did. The only reason there’s a rattlesnake in my story is that Texas is full of rattlesnakes. Sometimes, a snake is just a snake!
You’re a book designer by trade and ‘Dirty Parts’ is intensely visual. Did your art and design background help you ‘see’ the words on the page?
I was an art and literature double major, so I’ve always been split between visual art and writing. It has led to an enjoyable way to make a living – in publishing. I’ve worked mainly as a book designer for the past 10 years. From about 1999-2005, I also wrote essays and a couple of short books for the Christian market. A lot of that I now regret. That’s one good thing about the visual arts – I regret plenty of things I’ve written, but I’ve never regretted a painting or book cover design.
“Dirty Parts” is my first novel, and it was a very visual project from the start. I collected a lot of magazines and artifacts from the 1930s, which helped inspire me. I tried to include a lot of strong visual images in the writing, imagining how it would look as a movie. And I started working on cover design ideas very early on, just because it was fun.
You also produced a video trailer for ‘Dirty Parts,’ which is very cinematic in scope, a kind of capsule short film and an unusual way to promote a book. Do you envision a film version of ‘The Dirty Parts?’
I would love that. I imagined it as a movie the whole time I was writing. Glen Rose, Texas, would be a beautiful setting for a movie, and I really want to see Samuel L. Jackson as Craw.
As an unrepresented writer, you actually experienced a vertical production arc: packaging and content, and with the e-book, distribution and marketing. Does the first time author have to wear as many hats to get noticed?
My art and design background helped, but you don’t have to be a designer to self-publish. You just have to hire a professional designer and make sure your presentation does justice to your words.
How important is self-promotion/social networking for a writer in the online marketplace and how is this distinguished from engaging your readership, which you obviously enjoy?
Being good at marketing and social networking definitely helps. I shy away from selling myself and I think Facebook is an evil plot, so promotion is more of a struggle for me.
How did the writing medium differ from and/or satisfy your creativity in terms of artistic process and execution?
It was the most satisfying creative project I’ve worked on. It took 3 or 4 years from the initial idea to the end, so just to finish was a big accomplishment.
Even when it seemed like no one would ever read it, it was worthwhile because I enjoyed writing it.
Let’s talk a bit about your own multi-year odyssey from the beginning of the writing process to the current analytics where you are selling around a hundred of copies a day and attracting scores of glowing reader reviews. You said that trying to ‘shop’ the manuscript to traditional publishers like Penguin, whose marketing department ultimately shot it down was like “tossing your heart into a meat grinder.” Did you at any point ‘lose faith?’
Yes, at some point I felt like I couldn’t take any more rejection, so I didn’t look at it for a year. Then an ad for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards caught my eye, and I entered for the heck of it. I ended up making it to the top 50. If not for that, and the positive feedback from the readers who downloaded my excerpt, I would have given up again.
As well as a professional book designer, you’re a book lover and early edition collector and you quote Ruskin from Sesame and Lilies: “valuable books should be within the reach of everyone, printed in excellent form, for a just price.” Is this inherent appreciation for traditional literary form and format why you resisted the call of the Kindle?
Being such a fan of old, musty books, I dreamed of “Dirty Parts” as a hardcover.
But, after sending a few hundred letters to New York and not finding a publisher, as we discussed, I entered the manuscript on Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards competition. I was actually very annoyed to find that the contest was entirely Kindle-based, so for people to judge my work they needed either a Kindle or a Kindle app on their computer.
When the contest was over, though, I noticed lots of people were still downloading my excerpt on Kindle, even though it didn’t win. So I posted the whole book to Kindle.
It took several months to get traction, but so far this year alone [from January to March 2011], it has sold over 17,000 Kindle downloads. Which is a huge shock. So, I’m definitely very pro-Kindle now.
Kindle opens up a whole new world for beginning and self-published authors, partly because you can sell your book for as little as 99 cents. Readers are much more likely to take a chance on a 99 cent e-book than on a $10 paperback.
There’s terrific humor throughout the book from the dialogue to the descriptions (I’m thinking of the Chickensaurs in helping to elucidate the discord between physical science and religion that plagues Tobias). How influenced were you by Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain, to whose work ‘Dirty Parts’ has been compared, who can rend an apparently simple observation with an often ever-so-slightly arch turn of phrase?
Thanks! I didn’t set out to emulate anyone, but I love Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain, so I’m glad that comes through. There are some things in O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” – like the man in the gorilla suit – that are making me laugh just to remember them. With Mark Twain, I’ve always enjoyed his essays more than his fiction. He has a short essay on masturbation that’s absolutely hilarious.
I also love Garrison Keillor’s storytelling, and his voice. I wish I talked like Garrison Keillor.
How does living in Nashville, TN inform your own writing?
I actually wrote most of the novel while I was living in Wisconsin. So I’d scrape snow off the car and try to get it to start in sub-zero weather, then drive to a coffee shop and write about Texas. It was a great escape.
Warmer weather was a big reason for moving to Nashville. Of course people think of the country music first, but it’s a friendly community with all sorts of creative people. I love it.
Would you e-publish again as a first port of call, and if so, do you think that will that alter your writing style given the digital medium?
If I write another novel, I’ll definitely publish it straight to Kindle. It wouldn’t affect my writing style, as I always write my first drafts by hand and then type them up. But with e-books, there is a temptation to publish quickly without a lot of editing – that’s what I’d have to watch out for.
What is on the page for your next literary foray and will it be set in the South?
I have some vague ideas for other stories, but nothing I’m working on yet. My main creative outlets right now are book design and a weekly painting group I’m part of.
Also, I’m a single dad with four kids, whom I’m with for half the week, so that’s my main thing in life. Writing another book isn’t a high priority.
Up until a few months ago, it would have seemed crazy to write another novel, knowing it would take at least a year’s worth of work and probably never be published and read by anyone. Now, with the success of “Dirty Parts” on Kindle, it’s a lot more feasible. So I’m open to inspiration again. I’m just waiting for the right muse.
Purchase The Dirty Parts of the Bible: A Novel from Amazon