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From Happyland to the more Familiar

Author J. Robert Lennon first landed on my radar after his debacle with the “American Girl” mogul.

Pleasant Rowland, creator of the iconic American Girl doll, had been buying up property in New York’s Finger Lakes region in the early 2000s.  Meanwhile, W.W. Norton was readying to publish Happyland, J. Robert Lennon’s “plot-driven satire about a manipulative doll-company millionairess who buys and renovates much of a small college town in upstate New York” (New York Times book review, Aug. 27 2006).

At the time, Lennon was a promising up-and-coming literary superstar.  Barnes and Noble had numbered him among their prestigious “Discover Great New Writers” alums for his 1997 debut Light of Falling Stars, and his 2003 book, Mailman, was also met with widespread critical success.

Then, in the eleventh hour of his publication deal for Happyland in 2005, Norton got cold feet — presumably in terror of the awesome power wielded by real-life millionairess Pleasant Rowland.  They put Lennon in touch with lawyers who advised him to remove any reference to dolls or a doll company.  Lennon refused.  The book deal was scrapped.

Although devastating, it wasn’t a complete loss.  Much of the publishing world took note of the critical darling’s dismissal from Norton, and Harper’s Magazine rushed in to publish Happyland as a 4-part serial novel in late 2006 — their first serialized novel in over 50 years.  Since then, renowned independent publisher Graywolf Press has taken J. Robert Lennon under their wing, publishing his two most recent novels: Castle, the story of a crotchety man who sets out to explore a forbidden and impenetrable forest, and the brand-new Familiar, in which a woman experiences a psychotic break — or entry into a parallel universe — while driving back from her son’s grave.

Lennon’s book tour for Familiar will stop in Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Iowa City, Missoula and Lawrence, where he’ll speak at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium on Tuesday October 16 at 7 pm.  He currently teaches creative writing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and can be found producing multi-media artworks including music, photography and film when he’s not writing eerie, soft-spoken satires that explore the surreal undercurrents of contemporary American life. – Rachel Smalter Hall, Programs

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