It’s a wonder Grovetown writer and Columbia County firefighter Brian Panowich doesn’t have whiplash.
One day he’s in New York City tipping back drinks with the president of Putnam, schmoozing with the country’s top booksellers and signing towering stacks of his debut novel Bull Mountain, a story about moonshiners and drug runners in the North Georgia. The next day he’s awash in smoke and flames, fighting the fire at Marshall Square retirement community, one of the worst in Columbia County’s history. He was on the scene when 82-year-old Rhetta Cadle was rescued, having endured the fire for seven hours in her bathroom.
“It’s a crazy juxtaposition,” Panowich said.
It’s likely Panowich’s life will continue to veer in unexpected directions. In an age where publishers do little to promote debut authors, he’s commanding red-carpet treatment usually reserved for well-established writers.
Putnam is sending him on an extensive book tour in support of Bull Mountain. Early readers and reviewers are comparing him to Steinbeck and Faulkner. Fellow authors are rhapsodic in their praise. James Ellroy said, Bull Mountain is a stone gas and a stone winner!”
Not bad for a kid who used to pen comic books and re-write the plots of pulpy paperbacks. But when adolescence dawned, Panowich discovered his persona as a Batman-comic obsessed writer wasn’t the best way to woo young women. Thus he ditched the pen for a guitar.
He worked as a traveling musician for 15 years and eventually married. Four children followed, and life on the road didn’t suit anymore. He landed a job with the fire services and, in between blazes, began writing again.
Panowich started writing very short stories called flash fiction, which are similar in structure to songs. His early work featured flesh-devouring zombies, noir super heroes and other dark and fantastical characters. But when his fiction got more realistic, people took notice.
He published two stories on the Internet and Spinetingler magazine nominated one of them for best of the Internet. Panowich didn’t win the contest, but he did attract the attention of renowned literary agent Nat Sobel, who encouraged him to expand his stories into a novel.
One year later, Panowich delivered Bull Mountain to the literary agent. Sobel said, “I was very impressed with how polished the work was, how almost effortlessly he wove the past with the present, an accomplishment few first novelists ever achieve.”
Sobel sent the novel out to 24 editors and in return, got 24 rejections. He decided to change his strategy and sent it out to only female editors. Once again, women influenced the trajectory of Panowich’s career path. Three women editors loved his manuscript and competed for it at auction.
Although Bull Mountain is often violent and dark – Ivan Held, the president of Putnam, compared it to a Southern The Godfather – it’s also a multigenerational family saga. Panowich thinks the familial aspect of the novel resonated with the female editors.
Ever since the book sale, Panowich has been bombarded with accolades. “I don’t take compliments well,” he said. “It’s a Southern thing.”
The self-effacing author better get used to the hoopla. Putnam is planning a sequel and their press materials say, “Bull Mountain is only the beginning.”
Brian Panowich will kick off Bull Mountain’s nationwide tour at the Book Tavern on July 7 at 7 p.m. He also will sign books at Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. on July 17.