Hanni and I head to the Arkansas Literary Festival this weekend – we’re doing one session for children, then sitting on a panel called Dogs and Their People.
With us on the panel? None other than Sonny Brewer.
I first met Sonny Brewer at an Arkansas Literary Festival years ago. I was in Little Rock with Mike and Hanni for the 2004 festival to promote Long Time, No See.
. The Saturday night gala that year was at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and festival organizers were kind enough to arrange for a volunteer to drive Mike, Hanni and me to the event. An author named Sonny Brewer was supposed to come with us, too. But he was late getting to the car. It was hot in Little Rock, and Hanni, Mike and I were squished in the back seat. I was very eager to get to the Clinton Library – it was relatively new at the time. I wanted to spend as much time there as possible. But we had to wait. For some guy named Sonny Brewer. We waited. I was wearing pantyhose. It was hot. Nuff said? I was ready to blow my stack when Sonny finally showed up. The minute he opened his mouth, all was forgiven.
“Sorry, y’all,” he said with a whimsical southern drawl. “I lost track of the time. My name is Sonny, glad to meet you.” He shook our hands. Hanni even gave him her paw.
We got stuck in traffic – of course – but I didn’t mind. It gave Sonny time to tell us his story.
Sonny had opened an independent bookstore in his hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, in 1997. “I was nearing 50 back then,” he said. “Owning a bookstore had been a lifelong dream of mine.”
After seven years in business, Over the Transom Books was still in the red.
Enter Jill Connor Brown with some queenly advice. The author of The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love met her husband Kyle Jennings in Sonny Brewer’s bookstore, and she and Sonny have been friends ever since.
“Jill told me I oughta try selling my book,” Sonny told us, explaining he had already started writing a novel back then, pounding the keyboard late at night when his wife and two young boys were asleep. “She said I had nothing to lose by sending it out, and who knows, if I got a book deal, the money might help prop up the bookstore.”
After mailing 20 pages of his manuscript to a New York agent, Sonny set up an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer for the next Thursday. “The agent called on Wednesday,” he said with that lovely southern drawl of his. Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, wanted his book. They were offering an advance. “I cancelled the appointment with the bankruptcy lawyer.”
Poet of Tolstoy Park came out in 2006. And Over the Transom Books? It’s still up and running. In order to have more time to devote to writing, though, Sunny turned over most of the day-to-day bookstore operations to an employee.
“It has just been a magical, kind of crazy, enchanted trajectory,” Sonny told me a year later, when he picked Hanni and me up at the airport for a trip to Alabama. His second novel, also based in Fairhope, had been published by Ballantine already. He’d just returned from LA. Talking with Billy Bob Thornton. About the screenplay for Poet of Tolstoy Park. “I’m black and blue all over from pinching myself so much!” he laughed.
The book he’ll be touting on our dogs and Their People panel is his latest: Cormac, the Tale of a Dog Gone Missing. Like his first two novels, this book is also set in Fairhope, Alabama. But this one is inspired by Sonny’s dog – the book is based on a true story of how Cormac went missing for almost a month, and was found more than a thousand miles away.
I’m looking forward to sitting on a panel with Sonny this Saturday–I just hope he shows up on time!