OLD NATHAN is a book I wrote for myself. There’ve been books that didn’t do as well as I’d hoped (The Sea Hag is a striking example), but I think Old Nathan is the only one I wrote in the certain knowledge that it wasn’t going to make a lot of money for anybody.
Jim Baen did me a favor by publishing Old Nathan because he knew it was important to me. This is an example of why I work for friends. Sure, it’s business; but if that was all it was, I could’ve stayed a lawyer. (Though Jim assures me that he didn’t lose money, just the profit that he’d have expected on a new David Drake title.)
The arc of five stories take place in 1830 in what’s now Lewis County, Tennessee. The lead character, Old Nathan, is a cunning man–a hedge wizard. I consciously modeled him on John the Balladeer, to my mind the most evocative of the many characters created by my friend Manly Wade Wellman.
I wrote the first two stories in the series in May, 1986, the month after Manly died… and that’s why the book was important to me.
The stories are Appalachian versions of classic English folktales. In this I was guided by The Jack Tales by Richard Chase (whom the Wellmans knew and intensely disliked, by the by), though in form mine are as realistic as I could make tales of haunts, witches, and the mouth of Hell.
I wrote the pieces in dialect, following texts by a number of contemporary writers (in particular Mrs Trollope) and in the full knowledge that this wasn’t going to be a good thing for general comprehension and wide readership. I was doing the stories for myself and for Manly; I decided to do them right. (This is one of the few times I’ve consciously written something in a less commercial fashion than I could. There are many things that I don’t try because it’d turn my stomach to do so, but under normal circumstances I pride myself on clean, clear prose.)
The Central Tennessee setting came about because my parents retired to a tract in the hills above Hohenwald, Tennessee, and I visited them there. Though the town itself is fairly flat, the region to the north and east (in the direction of the new Saturn plant at Spring Hill) is as I’ve described it in these stories.
Old Nathan was from its inception an episodic novel, not a collection of stories like (for example) Hammer’s Slammers. I wrote only The Bull and The Fool in 1986, but I plotted all five stories at the same time. There was no market for them. My friend Stu Schiff published the first two in his little magazine Whispers and in one of his Doubleday anthologies of the same title; but I had debts to pay and only a limited amount of time to spend grieving for a friend. I went on to other projects.
Then in 1990 my friend Jim Baen, for reasons that boil down to the fact that we are friends, offered to publish the book at an advance that wouldn’t hurt either of us. I gleefully wrote the other three stories.
The cover, by the way, was a painting that Kentuckian Larry Elmore did for his own reasons. It had appeared as the cover of a gaming magazine and as a limited-edition print before it went on Old Nathan. I have had very few covers–maybe only one, that of Lacey and His Friends–which more perfectly capture the feel and setting of the work within.
There are lots of ways to judge the success of a book. By the measure of my own personal satisfaction, Old Nathan and Redliners are the books of mine that rank highest.
Old Nathan. 1991, Riverdale, NY: Baen. 228 p. 0671720848 (pb). $4.50.
————– Reprinted in Mountain Magic. 2004, Riverdale, NY: Baen.