Evan S. Connell, novelist, poet, short story writer, and bestselling author of Son of the Morning Star, Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge, Deus lo Volt! and The White Lantern, among other books, died on January 9 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., following several years of declining health. He was 88.
Connell’s career enjoyed something of a revival when Jack Shoemaker published his Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, in 1984. The book sold 30,000 copies in hardback and was made into a TV miniseries in 1991. “It was #2 on the New York Times bestseller list for a long time, in between Leo Buscaglia’s Loving Each Other at #1 and Lee Iacocca’s autobiography at #3,” Shoemaker told PW. “Then we sold the paperback rights to Harper for $400,000. It was an enormous deal for us.” North Point’s previous bestseller, West with the Night by Beryl Markham, had been published the year before, and firmly established the press as a player in the industry. “When Son of the Morning Star came along for us, we felt confident that we’d get the publicity, and that sales would follow.” They did.
The success of Morning Star, and of the Berkley, Calif.–based North Point Press, was instrumental in the early days of the small press revolution. Michael Coffey, current co-editorial director at PW, was editor-in-chief of Small Press magazine at the time. “It was a book many literary small press people pointed to as proof that success could be had. Before North Point landed two bestsellers, most small press folks settled for chapbooks and very small press runs. Son of the Morning Star, in particular, changed all that.”
The book’s success, however, turned out to be a mixed blessing for North Point. Said Shoemaker: “My former partner, Bill Turnbull, described the situation as ‘having happy problems.’ Evan’s book had to be reprinted several times, and that was expensive. We wouldn’t have been able to keep up were it not for the deep pockets of one of our investors.” When the subrights money arrived from Harper, things changed dramatically for the press. “We geared up to have a larger staff and an increased budget, so suddenly our annual nut was a lot bigger,” Shoemaker said. “It did us in.” North Point closed in 1992.
However, even that twist of fate was instructive to small presses. Bruce McPherson, a longtime small press publisher, recalled that North Point’s success “was cheered from the sidelines by many independent small presses, but it very quickly dawned on us that fortune wears two faces, and that signals from the marketplace can be difficult to read.”
After the demise of North Point came Shoemaker & Hoard, and Connell was one of the key authors on its list. By then, Shoemaker and Connell were close friends, and would remain so to the end. In 2007, Charlie Winton founded Counterpoint Press in Berkeley, an amalgamation of Avalon, Shoemaker & Hoard, and Soft Skull Press. Connell followed Shoemaker to the new company, which keeps several of the author’s books on its list and will publish a new edition of Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach in Carmel in February.
Shoemaker, who is now Connell’s literary executor, said of his friend: “Evan will be remembered as one of the most significant architects of creative nonfiction in this country.” The family has not yet decided about Connell’s literary papers yet, “but I know we will make a decision in the next little while about that,” said Shoemaker.