What’s happened in the four months since you published Summer of the Black Chevy?
I’ve found that I did OK with my first attempt at a novel. Right before it goes on sale, you know, there’s that twinge of regret that the story isn’t good enough, that it won’t pull readers through, that it will be greeted with stony silence.
Did that happen?
To the contrary, it’s receiving positive reviews. Sure, some people read it and stay quiet afterwards and I figure it didn’t resonate with them and that’s fine. Nobody agrees on everything. Writing, like any form of the arts, is a subjective craft. Of all the compliments I’ve heard, I value two the most. The first is when people say they identify with the characters, reminding them of people they know. The second is that the novel takes them back to remembering the pendulum swings of their own teenage years. Nobody forgets growing up. For each person those memories might warm that heart or they might bring hurt. Summer of the Black Chevy explores both of those themes.
So this is a novel about your hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana?
Deer Lodge is the setting for this story, yes, but the novel is really a story about anybody’s hometown. We all come from someplace, right? I’ve driven past Sauk Centre, Minnesota, several times. You can’t overlook the sign on the highway that commemorates the author Sinclair Lewis. Did you know he won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature? Most of us read his novel Main Street in our English classes. Sauk Centre, coincidentally, is about the size of Deer Lodge. Small hometowns make for good fictional stories. I think it’s the intimacy that people appreciate and understand.
So now you’ve got Summer of the Black Chevy in every bookstore in America?
That was the goal of any author once and certainly mine. Times have changed. In the publishing industry it’s a volume business, which means it’s necessary to sell a ton of books to cover shipping charges and the deep discounts that bookstores want. Online sales have backed brick and mortar bookstores to the ropes. I wish it were different, because I love real bookstores, especially the indies, where you walk in and explore the stacks and it feels like a walk in the forest. Some authors, especially those with a national reputation, do very well in bookstores. The required discounts off the cover price can be humbling, though, and far too many books wind up on the remainder tables. Those are the books on tables near the door priced at 60 percent off or more. What you’re seeing is inventory clearance. I’ve read that we publish 1 million titles in this country every year. Most of them quickly wither like flowers in a frost. I’ve read repeatedly that successful authors must spend as much time marketing their book as writing it. Now I’m a believer.
So you don’t sell in bookstores?
I sell Summer of the Black Chevy in Browsing Bison Books in Deer Lodge, Montana. The locals say it’s a quality indie shop. I’ve also sold hundreds of copies of Jerry’s Riot through Old Montana Prison gift shop in Deer Lodge. It’s the definitive book about the 1959 riot and anyone who tours that historic prison will find my nonfiction account of that event spot on. I’ll sell in any bookstore that wants my books but they’ll have to dicker with my publisher on price. Any bookstore anywhere can order my books because they’re listed on the national sales database. My main market is online. My publisher, BookLocker, is the key source for anyone wanting to buy a book electronically. I also sell through the large online book distributors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In other words, it’s easy to find my books through a variety of means.
What comes next for Summer of the Black Chevy?
Broadening the market. The Internet is a powerful tool. It’s also a confounding one. I’ll continue to look for new readers. The best promotion for me is word-of-mouth compliments from people who read my books and want to share how they felt about the experience.
How often do you visit your hometown?
Not enough. I live in Minnesota so it’s no longer a weekend trip to get to western Montana. All of Montana is a magical place. I have this longstanding love affair with the Rocky Mountains. When I grew up in Montana I had no desire to live anywhere else. Now I’m in Minnesota but have a kinship here, too. My parents were born and raised in Minnesota. We came here on vacations to see my maternal grandparents. Now, when I go back to Deer Lodge, I see and hear my youth. I try not to romanticize those times past. Most of those growing-up experiences were good. Some weren’t. I think that’s how it goes for most people. That’s the point of the novel, really – that the difference between joy and heartbreak, between hope and grief, is sometimes a thin line.
Who’s your audience for Summer of the Black Chevy?
It’s a novel about kids. As I was writing, it occurred to me that I was reaching out to anyone who looks back on their youth with some wonder and some regret. It’s an easy story to read and I didn’t load it up with obligatory profanity found in so many novels today. I just wanted to tell a story without distractions. I speak to the hearts of all those folks who have left their teenage years behind but want to escape for a few hours and remember how it was. We underrate nostalgia today. People are bombarded with marketing messages day in and day out and they don’t know what to believe anymore. Technology governs our lives. Summer of the Black Chevy takes people back to their own real memories. More and more of us seek the touchstone of a simpler life.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)