Salt Lake resident Kenny Kemp is a man of diversity. He is also a self-promoter — big time.
He has been an illustrator, musician, actor, film director, screenwriter, contractor and attorney — but his biggest dream has always been to be a novelist. And until he recently got a contract offer from HarperSanFrancisco for six figures, he has received very little encouragement.
His first novel, self-published, is a lyrical afterlife romantic adventure, "I Hated Heaven." It is the story of Tom Waring, who promises his wife before he dies that if there really is an afterlife, he will come back and tell her about it. His request to return, however, is denied, so he has to risk his "very soul" to keep his promise to April.
The novel went through three printings and has sold 15,000 copies, but it is primarily because Kemp has spent considerable time promoting it. Since most self-published books sell poorly, Kemp has been stuck in a predictable rut.
Until he wrote "Dad Was a Carpenter," first an essay and then a small book, he seemed doomed to literary obscurity.
But Kemp entered the little book in the "Writer's Digest" annual contest and was awarded the grand prize for self-published books.
In a Deseret News interview, Kemp said he thinks the book appeals to "people who have experienced loss." "Dad Was a Carpenter" is a personal story about his relationship with his own father but peculiarly lacking in sentimental overload, even though Kemp's dad died from Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS).
"Everything I needed to know about life I learned in Dad's garage," Kemp said. "I called the book 'Dad was a Carpenter,' even though he was actually a pharmacist because it's a good metaphor on how a parent should raise a child. I'm 45. I grew up thinking my dad was a lackluster, ordinary person. In my late 20's, I realized he was an amazing guy. I'm embarrassed about that now."
Although Kemp is a member of the LDS Church, he never mentions his specific faith in the book. It was his success with the Writer's Digest contest that opened up larger opportunities. "When the award was announced in the August issue, it was read by at least a dozen literary agents. The next day, I started getting phone calls. I'd never had an agent before. I was a little skeptical. But the book won in two categories — 'inspirational' and 'memoir.' "
Joe Durepos, an agent based in Chicago, quickly called him. "He was pursuing me as if I were the head cheerleader. I checked him out, and people said, 'If I died, I'd like him to raise my kids.' Then we had a bidding war between several publishers, and HarperSanFrancisco won out. A young editor there fell in love with the book. There will be 50,000-70,000 in the first printing, about three times what they usually print for a hardback. It comes out in May. They redesigned the book, improved the cover and changed almost nothing in the text. I've never seen any of the horror stories I've heard about publishers."
When reached for comment in his Chicago office, Durepos said he liked the book immediately. "I thought it was like 'The Greatest Generation' meets 'Tuesdays with Morrie.' It was an unaffected, non-sentimental way of doing it. He has cut away the needless stuff to get right to the feeling. Kenny is a really good writer. He's a pro. The book is sentence perfect, one of only a few books that really resonates. I expect it to be a best-seller, even an enduring classic."
Durepos says it is "unheard of to publish a book this fast. Usually it takes 12-18 months to get into print, and the publisher's bringing it out in May. That's because the book is in such great shape."
Gideon Weil, Kemp's editor at HarperSanFrancisco, said he intended to "thumb through the book" when he received it from Durepos, but "I read the whole thing and passed it on to others here. I called Joe and said, 'We love it, let's beat other publishers to the punch.' So we became the lucky publisher. The book has enormous potential, both subtle and powerful. It's an amazing book. It's well-crafted. It's nice when something like that lands in our laps fully formed. It will be a big Father's Day and graduation book, with continued sales afterward."
Kemp, who still has trouble believing this is happening to him, says, "My dad was a great man and he didn't know it. This is the biggest joy of the whole thing. "
He is flattered by some who have compared his writing to that of Richard Paul Evans, but he thinks his own work is "more hard-edged. Evans opened the door to self-publishing as it never had been before. Now a guy like me can get a book on Amazon.com that looks like it was done by a major publisher. People don't say, 'Hmm, this book is done by Putnam!' They just like the book."