There's a first for everything, and yesterday was the first time I'd reached a writer on his cell phone while that writer was out shooting.
Rick DeStefanis lives near Olive Branch, Mississippi, but when I caught up with him, he was south of Tunica, the levee on one side, the Mississippi River on the other. Hunting? That was a fair-enough guess given that DeStefanis, an avid outdoorsman, wrote The Philosophy of Big Buck Hunting.
No, he was shooting pictures, because in addition to being a writer, DeStefanis is a nature photographer. But the subject this afternoon wasn't camerawork or whitetail deer. It was his novel The Gomorrah Principle: A Vietnam Sniper's Story (available in hardback and paperback and on Kindle), which came out last year thanks to Amazon's publishing service, CreateSpace, and no thanks to a traditional publishing house. That's a route DeStefanis — born in Memphis; reared in Whitehaven; a paratrooper and small weapons specialist in the early '70s; FedEx manager for 22 years; retired G.E. regional manager — tried.
Thing is, DeStefanis was wrong to say sorry. It's his right to write whatever and however he wants. But he was correct in pointing out that The Gomorrah Principle doesn't fall neatly into either of two marketable genres. For the audience for thrillers, it's got a sharp-shooter named Brady Nash, who in 1967 joins the U.S. army in Vietnam to track the suspicious death of a boyhood friend who fought there. That plot line is rich in possibilities, among them army-trained snipers, covert activities, and CIA-sponsored killings.
On the literary side, it's got, in addition to a major romantic entanglement and country-music subplot, spot-on descriptions of the natural landscape, be it the Tennessee hills or Vietnam's war-ravaged cities and countryside.
And behind it all, there's the "Gomorrah Principle." That's the author's own term for an animal — a coyote, say, or a deer, or a man — who is most vulnerable when, in flight, it takes as if by instinct a look back, which puts the coyote, the deer, or the man into a gun's crosshairs for a clean kill. If by Gomorrah you're reminded of the fate of Lot's wife, you get the idea.
"Yeah, I came up with what I call the Gomorrah Principle," DeStefanis said, "because when you hunt, that's one of the things about wildlife. A lot of times, you jump a deer and the deer will bound away and then it'll stop out there, and you say, 'Sorry about that, fella. You shouldn't've stopped.' I've seen coyotes do it too, just about any wild animal."
DeStefanis has also seen a good story go the way of waterboarding. That's how he describes prose that's overblown, too eager to impress. He likes to keep things straightforward, lean. And that tendency is perhaps what the writing faculty at the University of Alabama saw in him when DeStefanis returned to college to earn his degree in business. He already had plenty of credit hours. There was room for electives, so DeStefanis studied English literature and writing. This was back in '86, after DeStefanis had spent years doing railroad work. When he resigned from the railroad ("I was never home — a well-paid hobo") to return to school, according to the author, "My wife said I was crazy."
Many would say DeStefanis was lucky — lucky to have trained as a marksman (one good enough to train others) but to have arrived in Vietnam when U.S. involvement was winding down during the process known as "Vietnamization." According to the author:
"I traveled halfway around the world, landed in Vietnam, and they said to me, 'You're deactivated.' It was one of those wallflower things. I missed the dance. Didn't see combat."
But he did meet members of the U.S. and South Vietnamese military who would later inspire The Gomorrah Principle.
"When I was training these folks, some were special forces and army rangers, and these people would talk, talk about a lot of things … 'loose cannons' we'd call them."
An uphill battle is what you'd call getting readers to try a debut novel by an unknown writer. Ask Rick DeStefanis.
"I really thought it was a Field of Dreams thing: You build it, and they will come," he said.
But, these days, you write it, you also sell it:
"I published The Gomorrah Principle before I thought about doing any type of marketing myself. I didn't know any better. You're supposed to be into all this pre-selling and stuff on the Internet, Facebook, and whatnot. After three months of the book being out, I thought, Well, nothing's happening here. Maybe I need to do some research, and, lo and behold, the thing you've got to plug for is reviews.
"On Amazon or anywhere, people look at a title and the number of reviews, and if the book doesn't have 20 to 30 of them, they won't give it a second look. It's been a pretty intense process for me getting those reviews."
At last count, The Gormorrah Principle had 11, nine of them five-star. But there could be more to come — perhaps multiple stars, definitely novels.
"I had my plan laid out to retire with the purpose of getting some writing done," DeStefanis said. "I'm 63. I wrote Gomorrah in the late '90s, and I've got four or five more novels, one of them a modern Southern gothic. But those novels are still in manuscript, and they're sitting in a drawer. A couple have good potential, and I'm working on a prequel to Gomorrah. The novella I wrote for my senior project in college … that's another thing in the drawer and it'll probably stay there."
Which means DeStefanis probably won't be showing it to the Memphis writers he's thinking of joining in a writers' group. Group criticism? DeStefanis can handle it.
"I was in local writers' groups for a long time, and I'm ready to get back in with some good authors for good feedback. I enjoy abuse. It doesn't bother me."
Rick DeStefanis said that with a laugh, then he signed off. There was still time for maybe more shots in the late-afternoon light. •
Rick DeStefanis will be reading from and signing The Gomorrah Principle at The Booksellers at Laurelwood on Saturday, January 25th, at 2 p.m. For more on the author, visit rickdestefanis.com and facebook.com/Rickdestefanisphoto.