A small bookstore in Southern Virginia is packed when Graham Taylor pulls up, a half-hour late, to autograph copies of his first book, Shadowmancer.
”Sorry, so sorry,” he apologizes. Because of a heart condition, he must travel by train — from New York to Virginia Beach for an appearance on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — and it has taken all day.
A neatly dressed woman approaches, holding her young son’s hand. She has arrived late, too, and the store has sold out its stock of Taylor’s book. She is disappointed. She wanted so much to read it to her son, who looks barely old enough for Dr. Seuss, and she is persistent.
Taylor, dressed in the rumpled costume of the author-on-tour — dark clothes with tennis shoes — listens empathetically while the bookstore owner, glancing frequently at the impatient crowd inside, taps her toe.
Taylor has the chauffeur pop the trunk and lifts out his enormous plastic suitcase, laying it on the street. Beneath his souvenirs, his shirts and his socks, he unearths a copy of his unlikely runaway hit, a book dubbed by the British media as the ”Christian Harry Potter.” He signs it for the woman, shakes the boy’s hand, and prepares to face the rest of his public.
”Oh, well,” he tells his publicist. “That was the copy I was saving for Pat Robertson.”
Life has taken a surreal turn for Taylor, 44, the vicar of Ravenscar, a small parish on England’s Yorkshire coast. Two years ago, he sold his beloved motorcycle to self-publish the book he wrote on his days off. He expected to sell a few hundred copies.
Last week, he came to the United States, already a millionaire, touring to support the American publication of his book. He stepped off the Queen Mary II to learn Shadowmancer was No. 4 on The New York Times Children’s bestseller list.
He spent the next day being interviewed by CNN, Entertainment Tonight and the Today show’s Al Roker. Tuesday: bookstore signing in Virginia. Wednesday: Pat Robertson (book or no book) and then back to D.C. to dine with booksellers. Thursday: Philadelphia. Friday: New York. Ad infinitum until he sails home to his wife, Kathy, and his three daughters, Hannah, 16, Abigail, 13, and Lydia, 6.
”It’s not an easy thing being an international bestselling author,” he says, without a smidgen of irony.
He can cry all the way to the bank. Last year, his job as an Episcopal priest earned him 16,000 (about $28,000). This year, sales of foreign and movie rights to Shadowmancer, have brought in a cool 12 million (about $21 million).
A PATIENT MAN
He is hungry and tired when he sits down inside the Virginia bookstore. But he talks easily with each customer, inscribes each book personally, shakes hands, and poses for photographs, for the next hour and a half.
”Even though I was knackered, you have to do that,” he said afterward. “These people are paying $14.99 . . . .”
”$16.99,” his publicist corrects him.
“Anyway, you have to be affable. If they’re prepared to queue, I’m prepared to sign.”
He feels pressure not to disappoint. His U.S. publisher, G.P. Putnam & Sons, paid a $500,000 advance and printed 350,000 copies.
The book that has made it impossible for Taylor to leave a London restaurant without being assaulted by the tabloid paparazzi is — by Taylor’s own admission — not high literature.
“It’s not rocket science; it’s a thriller. I want people to keep turning the pages.”
And it’s not the kind of book you’d expect from a man of the cloth. Set in the 1750s on the Yorkshire coast, Shadowmancer is a dark and often frightening tale about two children who help an African teenager on a quest to retrieve a valuable, Biblical icon that has been stolen from his tribe. The mission pits Kate, Thomas and Raphah against Obadiah Demurral, the murderous, rapacious owner of the local mine, who is a sorcerer and — the local vicar.
An unusual vicar — like his creator. Taylor grew up poor, dropped out of school, and worked for CBS Records promoting punk rock bands before finding his calling as a police officer. Ginger-haired and Irish by ancestry, Taylor worked for 10 years as a cop, while taking theology classes in his spare time, becoming ordained while still an officer. It was only after a brutal beating left him nearly dead that he hung up his nightstick for good.
The idea for Shadowmancer formed after Taylor said in a talk that he believed the Harry Potter books were being marketed to kids too young to understand the message. He felt the balance of power in the Potter books tilted too much toward evil.
”So a parishioner challenged me to write my own children’s book,” Taylor said. It took nine months. When he finished it, he paid 80 quid (about $80) for a critique through an online editorial service.
”I got an absolute slicing,” he said. The devastating verdict convinced him he’d never find a mainstream publisher, so Taylor sold his Yamaha and had the book printed up himself. One parishioner sent a copy to her uncle, David Reynolds, the former head of Bloomsbury, the U.K. publisher of the Harry Potter books. Reynolds got Taylor an agent, who sold the book to Faber & Faber, a prestigious British publisher.
Those first self-published editions of Shadowmancer, with a cover price of about $10 — have sold for upwards of 4,000 to collectors.
”Most of my parishioners have at least one copy,” Taylor said.
Indeed, part of Shadowmancer’s success lies in its embrace by church-goers, who have found contemporary relevance in Taylor’s allegorical story about an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. Though Taylor says he did not set out to write a story with an overtly Christian message, the symbolism is heavy.
Raphah prays to ”Riathamus,” a Jesus-like figure, telling Kate and Thomas, ”If you hear his call and answer him, he will share your life and live with you always.” Riathamus also appears to Thomas (who begins the book as a doubter) in visions, giving him a sword to defend himself, and urging him on. A fair description of Shadowmancer might be “Sunday School on a roller-coaster.”
Taylor has written a second book, Wormwood , coming to the United States this fall, and is working on a third. He is still tending his flock in Ravenscar, though he has asked to be relieved of his parish duties in October. He’ll remain a priest, but won’t have a parish.
When he signs the last book in Virginia, the bookstore owner, thrilled at the turnout, and at how solicitous Taylor was with each customer — even the people who tried to press their own manuscripts on him — thanks him profusely.
Taylor listens as she gushes and finally gets a word in, ”Bless you,” he says.
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