Barrie Jarman is the hope of racing’s future because he is a link to its past.
The teen-aged native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is talented, articulate, intelligent, brash, and mischievous. To the image-conscious braintrust that runs the sport, Barrie is a wild Mustang – and, yes, he drives one – who must be broken.
Ain’t no way.
The yarn is told mostly through the narration of Uncle Charlie, a racing veteran who took in Barrie at age 16 and helped him get a shot at the big time. Only Charlie, it seems, can nudge Barrie in the right direction, and only Charlie knows when it’s time to get out of his way.
This novel, Dutton says, began as a shot in the dark. “I have another novel that is almost complete. One night in January, I was down in the dumps for a variety of reasons and had a sleepless night. Most of it was just brainstorming. Some of it I probably dreamed. I finally got up, gave up on sleeping, put some coffee on, and sat down to write the Prologue because I didn’t want to lose it.”
Writing the entire novel took less than three months. He finished it in two drafts. In the past, it took three. An editor agreed that it was ready.
Meanwhile, Dutton kept it a secret.
“That’s probably part of the reason I got it done so quickly,” he said. “I want this to be a complete surprise. Only three people know anything about it. One is the editor. Another is a close friend. The third is my mother.”
Until … now.
Dutton crisscrossed America for 20 years, writing about automobile racing. After authoring several sports books, the Clinton, South Carolina, resident and Furman University graduate turned to fiction.
“I’ve had a really good March in sales,” he said. “At the beginning of the month, my worldwide author rank on Amazon was about 220,000, it was 14,000 the last time I looked. In literary fiction, I went from 7,294 to 573.
“That doesn’t mean I’m doing great, but it means that all the books are creating people who want to read the others. My social-media following is heavy on race fans. That’s why so many have expressed to me their desire to have me write a racing novel. I didn’t ever have a great aversion to it. I just needed a story that excited me. I just needed a sleepless night.”
Q&A with Monte Dutton
What was the inspiration for Lightning in a Bottle?
“I guess I was doing the kind of off-season meditation that any fan goes through when the tracks are silent. I thought about how racing had changed during the twenty years I wrote about it. I thought about how much more colorful the big names – Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip – were back then. I thought, what would happen if a kid came along with the spirit and background of those guys? A kid with that old-time folksiness but the attitude of the present generation? My first thought was, ‘Why, they’d eat him alive,’ and away I went.”
Why no racing novels until now?
“I still write about it on a website and my own blog. Until recently, I wrote a weekly column at Bleacher Report. The commentary sort of filled my urge to write about racing. Besides, I wrote a number of non-fiction books about racing while on the beat. I was never averse to it. The first novel, The Audacity of Dope, was descended from a manuscript with a racing theme that I discarded.
“The simple truth is I didn’t have a story about racing that I loved until this one showed up one sleepless night.”
Why do you think Lightning in a Bottle will sell?
“Where I’m concerned, sales is a relative term. Last year’s Forgive Us Our Trespasses is by far my biggest seller, and all of my novels are moving along. I think I’m gaining a reliable, loyal, if still relatively small, following.
“Now, racing fans are not widely known as voracious readers. The question is whether or not they will be interested in racing fiction. I think many of them will be, and they turn my promotional reach from bad to good. Of the roughly 10,000 people who follow me in various forms of social media – this figure accounts for the overlap, by the way -- probably about 70 percent are interested in auto racing. They identify with me for my opinions about the sport more than my fiction and other interests. They know my views about the sport. They are sympathetic to my established views.
“I think – and my editor backs me up on this – the story will also be interesting to readers of both my other novels and other novels in general. Lightning in a Bottle has the same spirit, the same irreverence, the same frankness, as the first five. I don’t think you have to be a racing fan to enjoy it, and I hope I can get you to give it a try. Maybe expanding my novel to a wider audience will expose racing to a wider audience, but I wouldn’t pretend to have any such influence. I’m just a struggling author trying to make a buck.”
Why the secrecy?
“That’s why I self-published it. I didn’t even try to find a publisher. I didn’t want anyone to know about it. It’s quite a relief, getting this great secret, this great surprise, off my chest.
“I haven’t ever indicated that I would consider writing a novel about auto racing. It was an abrupt decision. I didn’t know I was doing it till I did it. I decided it ought to be a shocker. It was a shocker to me. Why not?
“Now it want it to take the racing world by surprise. I want it to have shock value. I want people to say, ‘Wow, look at this!’ and, maybe, ‘Holy #@*!’
How do you expect the book to be received?
“Some are going to love it. Some are going to be offended. What I hope everyone recognizes in Lightning in a Bottle is honesty. I have followed auto racing since I was seven years old. In all the time I’ve written about it, I’ve criticized it because I loved the sport, not because I hated it. I think my readers always got that, and I think they’ll get it now.
“I think Barrie Jarman is what stock car racing needs. That’s why I invented him.”