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Clayton's Calling

[whitespace] book cover Sunnyvale novelist Paul Clayton keeps his books afloat with the help of the Internet

By Richard von Busack

UNDER A WEEPING WILLOW heavy with Spanish moss stands Calling Crow, the Muskogee Indian warrior, holding up a spear. One brawny arm rests on his thigh. In the background, a party of conquistadors, one-third the size of our hero, approaches a topless Indian princess. Her arms are akimbo, and she conceals her breasts with the ends of her waist-long hair.

Paul Clayton is apologetic when he shows you the cover of his first published novel, Calling Crow (Berkley, 1995). "Fabio in feathers," Clayton mutters. "And the Indian maiden behind him with that come-hither look--which I know has really cost me in sales, because I'm sure that's a turn-off for a lot of women."

We meet at the El Faro restaurant on Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale. Clayton, a slight, mustachioed man, has been working for almost half of his life as a technical writer in Silicon Valley. So little sex and violence--relatively speaking--goes on in Calling Crow that he even got a hate letter from an East Coast fan sickened by the lack of blood.

"It's funny, because they asked me for cover ideas," Clayton recalls. "So I sent them some really great watercolors that were done by these artists brought along on colonial expeditions--none of which they used. They gave me Rambo instead. My opinion is that Berkley designed a book cover to attract a reader that would not like the book, as opposed to a reader who would like the book but would be turned off by the cover."

Calling Crow is a chief on the coast of the Carolinas in the middle of the 1500s; he's enslaved by the Spanish and stolen away to work the mines in Hispaniola. Resisting the temptation to drink his way out of his misery, or to kill himself, he rallies into an odyssey to find his way home and fight off the European invaders. His adventures continue in the novels Flight of the Crow and the third book in the trilogy, Calling Crow Nation (Berkley, 1997).

As a novelist, Clayton does careful historical research that goes considerably farther than the sex-and-violence mass-market fiction demands. "What's really tough about writing historical fiction," Clayton suggests, "is that you have to spend so much time doing research that you end up champing at the bit to write. I want to get it right, and sometimes I go back and have to fill in a lot of the details. I wanted to write something that had the positive elements of action, but I also really wanted to tell the story of the Conquest. I didn't just want to strictly entertain."

Clayton grew up in Philadelphia and moved to California some 20 years ago. During a break on a business trip to the southern coast a few years ago, Clayton visited the Castillo de San Marcos, in St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest European colony in America. "I had kind of a revelation there," Clayton remembers. "Knowing nothing about the Spanish colonial history, I thought I could start up fresh on that subject."

Clayton said he'd seen descriptions of the first contact between natives and Spaniards that read like science fiction. "There's a theory," he tells me, "that the Indians were so astounded by the first sight of the ships that they were immobilized. When I was in Florida, I'd take my walks along the beach when I was out there, just imagining that arrival of the Conquistadors as an alien abduction. It's part of a history very few people know."

Where the Shadows Run From Themselves, Clayton's still-unpublished first book, also deals with the less widely known side of history. The 1987 novel is based on his own term in Vietnam. As opposed to the hyperreal/surreal accounts of the war by such authors as Michael Herr, Phil Caputo and Tim O'Brien, Clayton's book captures the day-to-day grunt work: burning sewage, landing a stretch guarding a bridge in an idyllic town away from the troubles, eventually being stuck in a firebase deep in the jungle.

Where the Shadows Run From Themselves is the least self-aggrandizing memoir about the Vietnam War I've read, and one of the most comic. Clayton's hero, Carl, is crestfallen to get a Purple Heart because he was bitten by an ornery pickpocket. And the novel describes one patrol from the point of view of an inexperienced fellow soldier of Carl's: "We saw a monkey of some kind and did a lot of walking. Actually, it was kind of boring."

"A big part of why I became a writer," Clayton says, "is that I wanted to convey the experience of being there, being on the battlefield, being shot at." (Clayton's tour in Vietnam ended when he caught a piece of shrapnel in his leg.) Unfortunately, Clayton's story was considered too low-key to sell.

"People have told me it's good," he says, "but there isn't enough action, that I've got to pump it up. I don't want to pump it up; I don't want to change it. This is water under the bridge, but one of the most sad things that ever happened to me is when I finished the book, and I just could not place it anywhere."

There's still hope, however; Clayton made a verbal agreement with a Japanese publisher, though he hasn't heard anything in months. And an Internet book reviewer who loved the way Clayton wrote about interracial strife among the U.S. soldiers in Vietnam has forwarded When the Shadows Run From Themselves to Oprah Winfrey's people. Clayton is also working through a list of university presses.

IF YOU'RE a writer with no sales to the movies, the advances are not big and royalties are all but nonexistent. Without the imprimatur of Winfrey, the movies or a major book club, an average novelist can pray for an advance of about $4,000 after God knows how much work. This is why most writers keep their day jobs.

Clayton's sales are good, anyway--"hard to gauge," he says, "but every now and then, I'll see someone in the bookstore who has a copy of it. When I was in Waikiki on vacation, I saw a copy of one of my novels on sale. Meanwhile, I'm plugging away at the latest book. What you have to do is try to wait them out and polish your book. Don't be in a big hurry to get something to people who are just going to smother it in the cradle. Sell no wine before its time.

"There is this fear among writers that you have to keep banging 'em out--you're in this race to keep your name in print, and you can't get back in the door again once you're outside. I'd rather have three or four books out there that are in print."

Clayton has recently self-reprinted Flight of the Crow, and it is available in local bookstores. The book can also be purchased through the Internet at BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com. The Internet helps Clayton avoid the limitations of selling his writing through bookstores. "Paperbacks have a shelf life slightly longer than bananas," he says.

Clayton takes a fond look at his novel, lying on the table next to the tape recorder and the salsa.

"It's been wonderful," Clayton admits, "but it's also been disappointing. Obviously I'm not a household word, but that's OK. It's just impossible being known in the crowd unless you get reviewed or your publisher wants to spend the money. A double whammy, in my opinion. I think that Flight of the Crow is a good book. Of course, every writer thinks their book is good.

"It's still selling, and according to my editor, he thinks it could become some kind of sleeper. I think people who bothered to read my work have liked it. You do this stuff almost as a necessity, an addiction or a compulsion; otherwise there'd be no reason. It's not really lucrative. I don't want fame, but I do want readers."

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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