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PRIDE OF ILM: Taylor Brown on launching his new book during a pandemic

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It’s a day writers dream of: You’ve finished the hard work of writing a book and white-knuckled through pre-publication reviews. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, you are ready to welcome it into the world. But what happens if your book’s publication day comes and you can’t leave the house to promote it? That’s the reality facing author Taylor Brown, whose fourth novel, “Pride of Eden,” was released March 17—right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Pride of Eden’ author Taylor Brown. Photo by Addie Jo Bannerman

“Pride of Eden” tells the story of Malaya, a former soldier and anti-poaching ranger, who comes back from Africa to work at a Georgia wildlife sanctuary run by an eccentric ex-jockey and Vietnam vet, Anse Caulfield. Though the novel spans Africa, Baghdad and a remote island off the Georgia coast, it was born here in Wilmington: Brown, who moved to Savannah in 2019 after eight years in ILM, wrote the majority of it while sipping coffee at Lucky Joe’s on College Road and Bespoke downtown. (He was such a fixture at the latter, he earned his own plaque next to the bar.)

Brown was meant to embark on an ambitious, 14-stop book tour on March 15, but had to cancel due to travel concerns. Still, he’s making the most of it.

“I sweat blood for this book, fought tooth and nail for the right words,” he wrote on Instagram, “and I don’t want to see it buried before it has a chance to find its roots.”

encore caught up with Brown via email to find out how he’s adapting.

encore (e): What ways have you found to promote your book in lieu of travel?

Taylor Brown (TB): As you might imagine, social media has turned out to be huge in this situation. Of course, I’d much prefer to be out in the world, visiting my favorite bookstores and talking to readers in person, but I feel fortunate to have this other way to help get the book out there. For writers 20 years ago, that wouldn’t have been an option. Today, the opportunities are pretty staggering.

On publication day, with the tour already canceled, I made a short video about the book—just introducing it readers and asking them to buy local if they could. Many of my favorite bookstores were kind enough to share it. That meant a lot to me. I did my first Zoom event a few days ago, which brought together six bookstores and more than 50 readers—it was really cool to see the faces of so many friends and readers from all across country, coming together at once.

I’ve got a Facebook Live event coming up soon, and I’ve been plotting an Instagram Live creative talk with my partner, Addie Jo Bannerman, who’s a painter. To me, that’s been one of the pinpricks of light in this dark time: the creative ways in which sheltering writers, readers, and booksellers are finding ways to come together. It’s affirming—a testament to how much books mean to us that we’re willing to surmount these new hurdles to connect with one another.

e: How do virtual events compare to face-to-face readings and book club meetings?

TB: Honestly, it’s been a much smoother transition than I anticipated. You can’t “feel the room” the same way you can in a bookstore, which can be disorienting at first, but it’s neat that readers across vast geographical distances can be in the same virtual space, experiencing the same event. A few days ago, I had an event where my mom is south Georgia, my aunt in New Orleans, and writing friends and readers from California to New York were all there. That’s pretty cool.

e: Have you run into any similar speedbumps while promoting your other books?

TB: Oh, where to start! My first novel, “Fallen Land,” came out shortly before the 2016 “Snowpocalypse” hit the South. I was trapped for a couple of days in Hampton Inn in Chapel Hill, where the employees were staying at the hotel, unable to get home. It was a bit like “The Shining.”

Driving to Winston-Salem for my next event, I was surprised the interstate had not been plowed. No lie, I passed overturned semi-trucks, abandoned cars and one very disconcerting Army Humvee on its roof. Meanwhile, the heat kept cutting out in my 1987 BMW, and the combination of stick shift, rear-wheel drive and a Georgia-born driver was not ideal for traction. I arrived safe in Winston-Salem, if slightly shaken, only to learn my event had been canceled!

e: What inspired you to write a novel about a wildlife sanctuary?

TB: Animals have always been close to my heart, and they play significant roles in all my books. The horse in “Fallen Land,” the river monster in “The River of Kings,” the Carolina parakeet in “Gods of Howl Mountain.” That hasn’t been intentional—or even something I realized until later. But with this book, I decided to put the animal kingdom at the fore. After all, we’re living in a moment in history when the fate of so many of the world’s most magnificent and iconic creatures is dubious—the elephant, the rhino, the tiger—not to mention tens of thousands of lesser-known species threatened with habitat loss, poaching, exploitation, extinction. Here, if ever, was a story roaring to be told. And it’s taking place not just in distant lands, but at home. For instance, there are more captive tigers in the U.S. than in the wild in the rest of the world—these great predators are lurking, quite literally, in our own backyards. That really spoke to me, as did the words of my friend and fellow writer, Matthew Neill Null: “The lives of animals are mysterious. Mystery is the lifeblood of fiction.” I tried to take that idea deep into the heart of this book.

e: At what point in the writing of your novel did you become aware of Netflix’s “Tiger King” series?

TB: I’d come across Joe Exotic and some of the other characters from “Tiger King” during my research. It wasn’t until the book was deep in the copyediting stage that I listened to Wondery’s “Joe Exotic: Tiger King” podcast and came to understand the full craziness of the story.

In a strange bit of synchronicity, Netflix’s series “Tiger King” premiered just three days after “Pride of Eden” was published. I had no idea the series was in the works, and of course, no one knew “Tiger King” would become the pop culture phenomenon it has. The book and series both shed light on the (under)world of big cats in America, and there are some definite parallels in content, if not style.

I do wonder if people are going to start suspecting me of having inside knowledge of some kind. In 2018 the paperback of my novel “The River of Kings” released the very same week a mysterious creature washed up on the beach at the mouth of the Altamaha River—a creature that looked very much like the storied “Altamaha-ha” river monster at the heart of my book. I can’t blame people for suspecting I was behind the hoax.

Months later, we learned it was the work of NYC-based artist and viral hoaxer Zardulu the Mythmaker, whom I’ve never met. Still, there are strange intersections, and I can’t fully explain them.

e: The sanctuary owner in “Pride of Eden,” Anse Caulfield, is similarly larger-than-life. Who or what inspired this character?

TB: A friend of mine is a firefighter, and his father was the fire chief of a small town in Georgia where a man named Red Palmer once lived. Palmer developed the Cap-Chur tranquilizer gun in the 1950s, and he kept a menagerie of exotic animals on his property. My friend’s father, the fire chief, was at the firehouse one day when a pickup truck roared into the driveway, and Red Palmer jumped out with a giant elephant gun and said, “You ain’t seen a lion, have you?”

“Oh, hell, not again,” said my friend’s father.

To this day, there are reported sightings in that town of mysterious animals, rumored to be fugitives from Palmer’s property, still living on the margins of civilization. That started my imagination working, and the story began to grow legs (and teeth and claws) from there.

Anse is not based on the real Red Palmer, but on my own vision of an eccentric exotic animal owner, as loosely inspired by that story. His looks and laconic nature are inspired by my friend’s father—a former jockey—and his vigilantism might recall that of the Hayduke character in Edward Abbey’s work.

e: Did you have any close encounters with big cats (or other exotic animals) while doing research for the novel?

TB: In 2018, I flew to South Africa, rented a tiny VW hatchback, and road-tripped across the country with a friend who used to live there and is conversational in Xhosa, one of the country’s official languages. We visited Kruger National Park and a game reserve called Thula Thula, founded by one of my heroes, the late Lawrence Anthony, author of “The Elephant Whisperer and Babylon’s Ark.” (His wife, Francoise, now runs the reserve, and has an incredible memoir of her own, “An Elephant in My Kitchen.”)

In any case, we most definitely had some close encounters over there. In Kruger, several times we had to stop for long periods while elephants or giraffes crossed the road—you don’t realize their size until they’re passing a few feet from your tiny hatchback. Another time, we spotted a lion pride sunning themselves in a little patch of grassland, only to turn our heads and see a lioness slinking through the brush on the other side of our car, not ten feet away!

Back here in the states, I visited several big cat sanctuaries. I highly recommend anyone reading this interview to take a trip to Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, NC. It’s a great day trip from Wilmington, and it was my first (relatively) close-up experience with big cats outside a zoo environment. Carolina Tiger Rescue is doing very good and important work, taking in animals from bankrupt zoos, police seizures, owner surrenders, and more—cats that would have nowhere else to go. Consciously, I did not visit the T.I.G.E.R.S. facility in Myrtle Beach, not wanting to support the cub-petting industry.

e: What’s the best way for readers to purchase your book and support their favorite authors at this time?

TB: Please, consider buying from your local independent bookstores. They are struggling now, and it’s so much better to put your money back into your local community. Two Sisters Bookery, Pomegranate Books and Old Books on Front all carry copies of my books. I know I’m not alone when I say that bookstores have long been a place of comfort and sanctuary for me—now we have the ability to show our appreciation for these spaces, supporting them during this critical time.

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