Iowa City author Larry Baker takes new book on tour to Solon’s library
IOWA CITY– Larry Baker, Ph.D., is a college instructor, former Iowa City councilman, and a fan of Flannery O’Connor. He has traveled the country and the world as the son of a military man, operated a drive-in theater in the 1960s and adopted two children from Korea. In more than one biographical sketch, Baker mentions that as a theater owner, he was stabbed, shot at, beat up by a motorcycle gang, and sold sex education materials during intermissions. His employment history includes sportswriter, hotel clerk and house detective, restaurant manager, Pinkerton security guard, ad agency writer, standardized test writer and master-of-ceremonies at a strip club.
Baker once even found a dead woman in the toilet at his drive-in.
It is Baker’s mélange of extraordinary experiences, pragmatic outlook and perpetual sense of humor that make him, perhaps above all, an award-winning author.
Baker’s fifth novel, The Education of Nancy Adams, was released in March by North Liberty’s Ice Cube Press. Though Baker’s other novels have earned critical recognition– his first, The Flamingo Rising, was published in 1997 and was Iowa’s selection for the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in 2010– Baker has chosen a more conventional method for marketing his newest work.
He is taking it to the readers.
Baker scheduled a local spring book tour that took Baker to the community libraries in Ames, Ely, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Decorah, Monticello and Solon, to conduct readings and sign copies of his new novel, ahead of its national release this month.
“There are more libraries than bookstores in Iowa,” Baker said. “I go to bookstores, I might have three people show up. I’m not John Grisham. I understand that, so this is a way to slowly introduce the book to readers.”
For his Iowa tour, he chose to print only 200 copies, the only hardbound editions of this book that will ever be available. Once the book is released nationwide, it will be sold in paperback through Amazon, bookstores and Ice Cube Press. The ebook version will be different yet.
The Education of Nancy Adams is the story of a 38-year-old widow– sarcastic, smart, educated at Notre Dame– who has been dulling the ache left by regrettable, childless marriage and the loss of her spouse by drinking excessively, spending exorbitantly, and shooting things. She is unexpectedly called to teach in her hometown high school in Florida, where she was previously besotted with her former history teacher, now the school’s principal. Nancy Adams finds herself living in her childhood home, confronting ghosts from the past– literally and figuratively– and re-learning to navigate the emotional turmoil, sexual tensions and social mores of high school, now 20 years older, 20 years wiser and 20 years more jaded.
The Florida Literary Arts Council chose The Education of Nancy Adams as Book of the Year, inviting Baker to take his new work on tour throughout Florida.
It’s Baker’s presence in these reading tours that will likely sell more books than any advertising campaign, for when he offers up the back stories, inside jokes and insight into his writing process, it creates an instant connection between reader, author and characters. Baker often discloses which of his many colorful characters are based on real people he knew, real people he admires, and actual incidents from his own life– quirky, uncommon and most always amusing, especially delivered in Baker’s droll and engaging style. With these revelations, Baker makes his audiences privy to details that bring a sudden, surprising intimacy to his characters and his works. It’s like being let in on all the private jokes.
Recurrent in Baker’s novels are the emotional ups and downs of his protagonists and their complicated pasts, and Nancy Adams is no exception. Baker’s characters may meander lightheartedly through the re-telling of a childhood incident or misguided escapade, and then, without warning, cuff the reader with a gut-wrenching tragedy that may instigate mild gasping or even swearing aloud.
One Kirkwood student who attended his Solon reading said in Baker’s classroom, when he tells stories to illustrate events in history, “we go from laughing to serious in a matter of seconds,” she said.
Baker’s second novel, Athens America, is less humorous and more controversial, in that it is a fictional work inspired by real events that occurred in Iowa City in 1996, when a young artist was shot by police after being mistaken for an intruder in his studio and parents’ place of business.
“It’s written from my perspective while I was on city council. I perceived it very differently than the public did. I was fascinated by the public’s anger, paranoia and the way they related to the incident,” Baker said. “It took me five years to let that settle and then write about it.”
Baker said Nancy Adams incorporates both humor and angst to reach a reader’s emotions.
“It’s high school; how can you not? It’s the funniest thing in the world, and it’s also the most painful thing in the world,” said Baker. “Yes, there is one scene where people will call me up and say, ‘how could you do that? Why did you write that?’ and I say, ‘because I like to get these phone calls.’”
Also common among Baker’s books is a central theme of education, though not always in a classroom setting, as in Nancy Adams.
“The whole thing is about layers of education, people learning about themselves and learning from each other,” said Baker. “The most common human experience is the sense of alienation, and it beings when we are young. You feel somehow ‘I don’t fit in, that other people don’t get me.’ This book is about (Nancy) feeling alienated from her past, and from this new world she just got into, but by the end of the book, she has a new identity and she fits in a way she never anticipated.”
Baker has now published three books with publisher Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press.
“He is wonderful,” said Baker. “He lets you have creative control. He’s a one-man operation, and has been very successful. I’m very lucky to have him.”
Semken offered praise for Baker as well.
“I admire Larry Baker’s commitment to writing. I wish other writers would notice both his attention to the craft of writing as well as his desire, once his books are published, to share what he’s written,” Semken said. “If there were an award for hardest working Iowa author, he’d win hands down.”
The Education of Nancy Adams is available through Ice Cube Press, www.icecubepress.com, and Amazon.com.