That's the Spirit

Author Dwight Fryer gets down to business.

My whole mantra when I go to marketing these things is: Do all you can but be nice to folks."

And that's what Dwight Fryer does and what Dwight Fryer is: a Memphis author who knows how to market "these things" (his novels) just as sure as he knows to be nice about it. Those twin traits are written all over his speaking schedule. >>>

Just this month, for example, he's promoting his second novel, The Knees of Gullah Island (Sepia/Kimani Press), but it won't be in Memphis, where he's already done a round of book signings, book-club meetings, and author interviews. He's in Wichita, Kansas, where he once lived. One day, he's scheduled to address a high school group. (The topic: "Learn, Do and Be Nice — Building a Career and a Life One Step at a Time.") The next day, he's speaking at a youth luncheon. (The topic: "Fidelity, Friendship and Faith.") And the next, he's signing at a Wichita bookstore, and you can bet he'll be promoting not only his second novel but also his first, The Legend of Quito Road — the novel that last year earned Fryer a nomination for Outstanding Literary Work from a Debut Author at the 38th NAACP Image Awards.

Lucy, the town just north of Memphis, was the primary setting for that debut book, a boy by the name of "Son" Erby was its lead character, and the making (and marketing) of white lightning during Prohibition in the Jim Crow South was the main action. The recipe for white lightning? It ran in the family, and The Knees of Gullah Island, a prequel to Quito Road, tells us how — how Son's grandfather, Gillam Hale, a free person of color in Maryland, went from freedom (and with a recipe for whiskey) into bondage in Virginia and how his wife and children were sold into slavery and scattered. But it's also where we follow Hale on a trip, in 1883, from Lucy to Charleston in search of his lost wife and family. The Gullah culture of South Carolina's Low Country is what he discovers.

You can still taste and hear traces of that culture in and around Charleston — in the cooking and speech of the descendants of slaves. And according to Fryer, he finds traces of that culture in his own family.

"My mother pronounced 'shrimp' swimps. I just know, there's no doubt, my family, my DNA came through there."

So in 2005, Fryer went "there" — Charleston — for two weeks of research.

"Charleston," he says, "I did not know. It's a different culture, very diverse. But I wanted to take readers there. So I had to ask myself: How did a black person in 1880s Charleston think? What is this Low Country?"

Those are questions that Fryer, who grew up in Grand Junction, Tennessee, didn't have to ask of the customs and settings for The Legend of Quito Road, a road you can still find in north Shelby County, near where Fryer and his wife Linda live.

"I grew up in what I like to call 'Tennessippi.' I know West Tennessee and Mississippi, and even though I was born in the 1950s and a lot has changed since the '30s [when Quito Road is set], a lot hadn't. It was the 'past' I knew best."

The past has been his subject ever since. Fryer is now two-thirds of the way through his original "vision" — a trilogy of novels that follows an extended family through time. His third and final book in the series — a sequel to Quito Road that's due, he projects, in 2010 — will follow one member of that family from Tunica into Arkansas and the "black"-gold oil town of El Dorado in the 1920s.

How, though, does a full-time FedEx employee (and ordained minister) become a part-time writer of fiction? It started in a business class at Christian Brothers University, where Fryer was a graduate student and where a teacher told him that his paper on the economics of drug dealing had the makings of a great story.

"Moral arguments aside," Fryer says, "it got me to thinking: If a boy sells drugs today, what would his granddaddy have been selling yesterday? I thought: moonshine."

The idea behind The Legend of Quito Road was born. Now it was time for Fryer to get down to business, together with a business plan. But it's not what you think. Fryer explains:

"I've always considered myself a story-teller, and I've written business cases for corporations over the years. A good business case tells a story — a story about the customer's needs and how a business can satisfy those needs, the pro's and cons, the risks. Some of those cases certainly sounded to me like a good novel.

"So I went to writers' conferences. I read books on writing. I joined a writing group in Memphis called the River City Romance Writers. And there I was: Everybody else was writing romance novels, and I was writing a decadent little tale about a boy who makes moonshine after his religious daddy showed him how.

"When I moved to a job in Wichita, I got serious about writing. But that's also where I discovered, in 1998, that I had cancer. I'm healthy now. It's been nine years, and I'm getting more 'robust' — have to buy a whole new set of clothes, in fact."

And he'll soon be having to look for an agent as well. Or, to use Fryer's word, the "right" agent. That's the challenge: an agent who will not only be interested in Fryer's fictional work but his nonfiction too, because it's what he's working on in addition to that third novel. It will be an inspirational book, speaking from experience, on personal "travails" and perseverance — as a man of faith; as a part-time writer; and as a full-time international marketing manager for FedEx, a job Fryer isn't about to give up:

"I owe a great allegiance to the Lord — and to FedEx. Keep my day job? You bet I am! It's taken me 25 years to get this job.

"And as for the writing . . . I can't do it every day. Maybe two to four hours, two or three days a week, depending on how I'm feeling and what's going on. It's been a blessing, but it's been a lot of work. The response from readers, though . . . It's been pleasing, humbling.

"But I tell you what: I went to a book club recently to discuss The Legend of Quito Road. I won't say which club, but one of the ladies showed up with a pint of moonshine. They talked about the characters they loved. They talked about the character they loved to hate. That book club — they got way into the spirit of it."

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