|Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal|
February 14, 2006
By COREY KILGANNON
On a recent Saturday night, Dewitt Gilmore, 41, stepped onto an idling bus waiting to make the trip from Columbus Circle in Manhattan to the Groveland Correctional Facility in Sonyea, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Dressed in a flashy warm-up suit, he squeezed down the aisle past women and young children clutching pillows for the overnight trip.
Mr. Gilmore, a writer who goes by the pen name Relentless Aaron, was there to sell books.
"For those of you who don't know me — where you're going, I was there for seven years," he told the crowd. "A lot of you have been buying my books for your husbands and for yourselves. I started here selling my books out of my knapsack, and now I have a six-figure deal with St. Martin's Press."
After several passengers handed him money for books, Mr. Gilmore pulled a credit card swipe machine out of his jacket and added with a grin, "And the brother also accepts all major credit cards."
Mr. Gilmore first began showing up on the prison buses two years ago, arriving by subway, alone and unknown. Now he arrives announced by the bold graphics on his sport utility vehicle — "Relentless Aaron, Father of Urban Fiction" — flanked by two female assistants carrying piles of product: his self-published paperbacks, selling for $10 apiece.
Mr. Gilmore's books fall into a growing genre known as street lit. With titles like "Push," "Topless" and "Platinum Dolls," they are saturated with sex, violence, gangsters and drug dealers and take place in prison and on the mean streets of New York City. He began writing them while serving a sentence for check-cashing fraud in federal prison in New Jersey. When he was released in 2003, he walked out with 30 completed manuscripts. So far, he has had about a dozen printed. He aggressively markets and distributes them on the buses to prison, sidewalks, the Internet and in small bookstores.
And as he told the bus passengers, he signed a four-book contract with St. Martin's for a sum in "the low six figures," said Monique Patterson, a senior editor there. Ms. Patterson said the decision to sign Mr. Gilmore was not only a recognition of his proven ability as a storyteller and potential as a stylist, but also an indication of large publishing houses' surging interest in street lit.
"We're just scratching the surface now," she said. "The publishing world is still starting to see the potential beyond the street, which is going to keep getting stronger."
Ms. Patterson said she had first seen Mr. Gilmore's books for sale on sidewalk tables in Brooklyn, where she lives. Then last June, George Witte, editor in chief at St. Martin's met Mr. Gilmore at the Book Expo America conference in Manhattan, where Mr. Gilmore had taken a booth.
Mr. Gilmore's prison pedigree gives him a street credibility that is almost as vital as his written word, Ms. Patterson said. Readers of the genre want to feel that the author is drawing upon his own hard-knock experience as grist for his books.
"He's really writing about what he's been through," she said. "It's similar to the way hip-hop appealed to a mainstream audience."
Mr. Gilmore's first book for St. Martin's, "Extramarital Affairs," is scheduled to come out this year, Ms. Patterson said. Mr. Gilmore called it "a story about a married couple addicted to sex" who get caught up in a murder. It was written after his release from prison.
Mr. Gilmore's books are filled with graphic descriptions, crude language and ghetto slang. The plots are gripping and often unfold in a real-life cityscape, often in New York's rougher neighborhoods. A character in Harlem, for example, may frequent real-life spots like Perk's or Sylvia's or the Lenox Lounge, a bar described in Mr. Gilmore's first printed novel, "Push," as a place where "you could get your drink on, your swerve on, and always your mack on."
Mr. Gilmore, who grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and now lives in New Rochelle, took his pen name from his relentless drive and from his baseball hero, Hank Aaron. (And it's good for primacy in alphabetical lists, he added.) When he was growing up, his father ran a local strip club and from adolescence onward, Mr. Gilmore said, he hung around the club and got to know customers ranging from street toughs to celebrities and star athletes. Eventually, he began enjoying the nightlife in Harlem and other neighborhoods in the city.
In 1986, after a woman in Westchester died from cyanide-laced Tylenol, Mr. Gilmore admitted to writing a letter to authorities in an attempt to extort $2 million by threatening to put poison in Tylenol capsules. In exchange for a two-year jail sentence, he pleaded guilty to charges of threatening to tamper with consumer products. He now says the letter was part of a silly fantasy ("My first attempt at writing fiction"). In 1996, facing charges for an elaborate check-cashing scheme, he pleaded guilty. He was sent to prison again, serving most of his time at Fort Dix.
He had no experience writing fiction, he said, but plagued by boredom and frustrated by having squandered his creativity on illegal activity, he began buying notebooks from the prison commissary and scribbling stories based upon his adventures, his prose shaped by the rough lifestyle and language of the cellblock.
Whether in the television room, in the yard or lying on his bunk, he said, "I just used every spare moment writing." After a year of false starts, he finished his first book, "Topless," set in a strip club and peopled with the characters he remembered from his father's club in Mount Vernon.
In "Rappers 'R in Danger," the main character, Ringo, an up-and-coming rapper, becomes entangled with a childhood friend who is now a ruthless hoodlum.
In "Platinum Dolls," Stew Gregory is an entrepreneur with an interactive pornography Web site. He faces a dilemma when his porn-star employees are murdered, one by one: as the women die, business keeps improving.
"For me, jail was like spending seven years in a writer's studio," Mr. Gilmore said. "Most guys in prison complain that time drags by. But there weren't enough hours in the day for me."
He kept to himself and was ostracized and taunted for being a bookworm, he said. Early on, he got into fights, which, he said, led to several stints in solitary confinement. "Platinum Dolls" and "Push" were written there, in an 8-by-4-foot cell, he said.
"Nothing could match solitary for writing," he said. "You couldn't use pens in there, so some of the guards who respected my discipline and my writing would pass me pencils." Eventually he could knock off a book in two weeks, he said.
In time, Mr. Gilmore said, he began sharing his written stories with inmates, and with guards who would borrow them and show friends on the outside.
Fellow inmates constantly urged him to have his books printed, and once he got out, Mr. Gilmore contracted with a small New Jersey company to print 50 copies of "Push." He said he sold them all in a day on 125th Street in Harlem and ordered 300 more, which he then sold in less than a week. Then he ordered a printing of 20,000. Since then, he has had 10 other manuscripts printed.
Mr. Gilmore says he has sold 200,000 books so far and stresses that they are typically shared among several readers, especially copies read by prisoners. His literary agent, Ian Kleinert, called Mr. Gilmore "a guerrilla marketer of his books." "He's a machine," Mr. Kleinert said. "He brings amazing street credibility to his work and in an urban market, that kind of credibility is crucial."
"He keeps his stories real and doesn't hold nothing back when he tells them," said LaToya Smith, 25, who was sitting in the Rikers Island visitors' center recently reading "Platinum Dolls," which she bought at a sidewalk stand in Jamaica, Queens. "It's hard to stop reading."
Mr. Gilmore says he has written only two books since his release. As writers' problems go, he has a distinctive one: Not being in prison.
"It's true, there are too many distractions on the outside," he said. "Sometimes I have to lock myself in a hotel room with no phone or TV. Sometimes I just get in my truck and drive to a deserted place for a while. But I'll never have it as good as prison again. For writing, anyway."