Is there a touch of irony that longtime Wichita novelist Gaylord Dold’s newest three books are being published as e-books but that he doesn’t maintain a home computer?
No, said Dold, best known for his 10 crime fiction volumes about Wichita’s hard-boiled, baseball-loving, loner detective Mitch Roberts – it’s practical.
“I’m pretty (tech) savvy. I have a MacBook Pro. I’m not a Luddite,” he said. The Riverside resident goes to the downtown library to check his e-mail.
“I’m still deciding whether I want the Internet to come into my home. … It’s probably just a matter of saving 50 bucks a month.”
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But Dold, whose previous 17 books were all published the old-fashioned, New York-based, paper-and-binding way – most through St. Martin’s Press – is enthusiastic about the possibilities of digital book publishing.
“Trust me, nobody treasures books more than I do. I love the bound book. I never want to get away from them completely. That’s what I was used to for 23 or 24 years. This is a lot different, but it suits me now,” he said of his new publisher, Premiere Digital Publishing of Los Angeles.
“This whole new direction I took has more to do with age and ambition, and the freedom as a writer,” he said, noting that he started looking beyond New York after disputes with an editor over the publication of his book “Six White Horses” in 2002.
“I felt I didn’t have enough control over my career. This (digital publishing) is a little experimental, but it has the potential of being very satisfying. It’s faster, the royalties are higher because there is no overhead, and the books last forever.”
The three new e-books just released by Premiere represent a bit of a departure from what Dold fans are used to. Two are crime fiction – “The Nickel Jolt” and “Same Old Sun, Same Old Moon” – featuring a new hero, ex-Marine intelligence officer Jack Kilgore. These stories are set in Florida rather than Wichita and employ a more sophisticated tone than the author’s old gumshoe days.
The third is “The Swarming Stage,” Dold’s first foray into science fiction. It’s set in the late 21st century in what is left of ravaged Los Angeles, where climate change, water scarcity, genetic engineering and “international villainy” have taken their toll.
It’s also a love story, Dold said.
“It’s a cautionary tale. But it’s a love story because we have to hope, don’t we?” Dold said. “People are the worst aspect of things, but people are also the best aspect. It’s about how we all want to escape to a perfect place.”
Dold’s move from traditional publishing to cutting-edge technology didn’t come overnight. It took about seven years, beginning with his break from his old publisher.
“I went out and looked for what I laughingly called a ‘real job,’” Dold said. “I just thought that I had to have a regular check, to have somebody pay health insurance and Social Security. But I never stopped writing. I wrote these three books and put them back in the drawer. It was tempting to jump back into the familiar routine, but I wanted to concentrate on my work. I wanted to write for myself without thinking about publishing.”
The “regular job” he found was as grant writer for Derby’s USD 260, where he drew praise for securing $4.2 million for projects over seven years, including $1.2 million to modernize Cooper Elementary and $400,000 for establishing a pre-engineering program for about 900 students from sixth grade through high school. Dubbed “Project Lead the Way,” it’s what Dold describes as “my baby.”
He retired, somewhat reluctantly, this spring, with plans to devote more time to travel, fly fishing, his garden, his piano and guitar, and to indulge his love for dogs and horses (although, sadly, he admits he rides “poorly”).
“I had a fabulous opportunity with a whole new career. We did a lot of great things. That took the pressure off a kind of tightrope job,” he said. “But I’m 66. It was time to retire. I was itching to get back to being just a writer.”
Dold didn’t plan to be a writer. He was a chauffeur, a theater usher, a lawyer, a volunteer mentor and a law professor before he finally put pen to paper.
Born in Lawrence, he spent his preschool years in Wichita before moving with his parents to Southern California, where he grew up in the small-town, citrus-grove atmosphere of Fallbrook, which he loved and still returns to for visits with friends. After junior high, his family moved back to Wichita and he graduated from East High.
After six years at the University of Kansas, additional studies at the University of California and a year at the London School of Economics in 1979, he ended up with four degrees and set out to practice law.
“Like so many people of that time, I had left Wichita never to return,” he said. “But in 1983, I got a job offer with a federal magistrate in Wichita. I came back and I’ve been here ever since.”
Despite Dold’s degree and experience, the legal profession just wasn’t enough.
“Little by little, I gravitated toward criminal law, which seemed to offer more glamorous and action-packed opportunities than the old grind-it-out prospects of business law, divorce or, worse yet, real estate,” Dold said.
As he describes it, he represented bank robbers, counterfeiters and low-level drug dealers sporting snakeskin boots and brandishing flashy firearms who seemed incapable of telling the truth even when it was in their own best interests. They were a colorful, bizarrely compelling, if sociopathic, lot.
And the light bulb suddenly went on in Dold’s head. He could become a writer. Of crime fiction, naturally. Well, why not? He was in his mid-30s, but it wasn’t too late to reinvent himself.
“I started typing one day. I wrote a little introductory chapter that was not necessarily intended to be a book. I just kept imagining one thing after another until 250 pages later, there seemed to be a novel there,” Dold said.
He wrote at night and on weekends because he still had his day job as a lawyer. He would read manuscripts to friends at dinner parties. He felt pleased with himself, thinking all he had to do was let some publisher get a mere peek at his golden prose and his writing career would take off.
“I thought I was off to the races and would soon be driving my own ‘gold Cadillac’ (like the song), with girls in the front and girls in the back and – way in the back – money in a sack,” he said.
Then he got his first rejection letter. Then another. And he realized he had to get real.
“My first three books were overblown exercises in ridiculous stupidity,” he said, noting that, with help from his first New York agent, Philip Spitzer (who also represented such best-selling authors as James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly), he embraced the virtues of editing, revising, rewriting and, yes, cutting.
“What I learned was never be too impressed with your own work.”
After getting back on course, Dold created tough-talking, seen-it-all Wichita-based detective Mitch Roberts – named in homage to his favorite actor, Robert Mitchum – and produced 10 books of his noirish adventures, from “Hot Summer, Cold Murder” in 1987 to “Samedi’s Knapsack” in 2001. By special arrangement, all 10 of this series – including “Snake Eyes,” “Muscle and Blood” and “A Penny for the Old Guy” – also will be available as e-books from Premiere.
Dold won’t say that Roberts is any sort of alter ego or wish fulfillment fantasy, but he will say that he and Roberts share a lot of the same interests, from baseball (the detective lives near Lawrence-Dumont Stadium) to chess to alone time to clear his head.
As his writing found a following, Dold dropped back from full-time lawyer to part-time and then took down his shingle entirely when he got an offer to help found Watermark Press with Wichita book dealer Bruce Jacobs in 1988.
“I learned a lot about how to make a book, from the art to the design to the budget to writing the cover blurbs. It was a valuable, formative experience,” he said.
Dold became managing editor for the small, select press, which published about 12 titles a year for nearly a decade, including “Leaving Las Vegas” by John O’Brien, which was later made into an Oscar-winning movie with Nicolas Cage.
“We were not a vanity press,” Dold said. “A few of the authors were from Kansas, but we were nationally recognized.”
Besides the Mitch Roberts novels, Dold authored a number of travel guides, including “The Rough Guide to the Bahamas” and “Moon Handbooks: Dominican Republic,” based on his own travel experiences through the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Western Rockies.
His novels have been published as far away as England, Japan and Brazil. His “Schedule Two” was named the best crime novel of 1996 by the Portland Oregonian, and his legal thriller “Devil to Pay” was considered one of the 10 best crime novels of 1998. He also published “The Last Man in Berlin” in 2004, set in pre-Nazi Germany of the 1930s.
Currently, Dold is working on a second science fiction novel, preliminarily called “The Kindergarten,” and a memoir called “Jack’s Boy.” The former is about a neuroscientist doing dream research among hard-core gang members in a California prison of the future. The latter is a look-back on how Dold became the person he is. Ultimately, he says, it may never be published, depending upon what he discovers.
He’s also researching a nonfiction book about fly fishing and is dabbling in the popular YA (Young Adult) market.
Dold readily admits that the commercial crime fiction he became known for “isn’t great art.”
“But it’s still hard to create something out of nothing on a blank white page. After all these years, I’m a lot better because I’m writing for myself. I’ve freed myself from the hard-boiled, formulaic style. I’ve found my voice. What I do now, I consider my best writing.”