There’s a dystopian Great Gatsby quality to Thomas Calder’s forthcoming debut novel, The Wind Under the Door. Not in the roaring ’20s or giddy excess sense so much as an underlying thread of desperation: The helpless attraction to tragedy. Set in Asheville, N.C.; Houston, Texas; and the Florida coast, the novel makes the smart move of many debut works: telling what its author knows. But, beyond geography, Calder’s work isn’t autobiographical. Main character Ford is an unreliable narrator and not altogether likable. In fact, none of the novel’s personalities are inviting. But they are intriguing. And that’s why this book works.
The novel “started as a short story,” Calder reveals. That was in 2014. He’d been working on another project in grad school that attracted the interest of a couple of literary agents. When they ultimately passed on the manuscript, Calder picked up this story again in 2017. It grew from its initial, first-person, short-form version into a full-length work for which Calder was offered a deal by Unsolicited Press. The Wind Under the Door is currently available for pre-order and will be on bookstore shelves March 23.
The Asheville setting of the story was a part of it from the beginning. One of Calder’s professors in his MFA program at the University of Houston led a writing workshop where “each week he’d give you a little thing to think about,” Calder remembers. “One was to find an ancient story that you like, or mythology — I took Cain and Able — and apply it to an experience you’ve had and expand on it.” Ford was born of that experiment and, at first, was a used car salesman, because Calder had worked on a car lot in Asheville.
“But he was an incompetent salesman,” Calder notes. “He had to have some level of competence, otherwise he was just a sad sack.” So the writer redrew the character as a collage artist who pulls inspiration from popular songs and earns a decent living from his River Arts District studio.
Ford’s love interest in the elusive Grace, a younger woman who commissions a painting while visiting Asheville. Her trip is less vacation and more to escape her troubled marriage. Ford and Grace haunt the Grove Park Inn’s Great hall bar — again, the parallel to Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who holed up at the Asheville landmark for months — but they also frequent (separately) a seedy strip club where the darker elements of their relationships and personal demons play out.
Despite the novel’s air of unrest, Calder’s prose moves quickly and the story retains its magnetism. Best, perhaps, is the writer’s treatment of dialog. The book’s opening pages, set at a party (where Ford hopes to reconnect with Grace and is, instead, drawn into some awkward asides) is nearly all conversation. The story is revealed slowly, but the pleasure of eavesdropping on gossipy chatter makes it instantly gripping.
Releasing a novel during COVID-19 is, of course, less than ideal. Author events such as book signings and tours are currently tabled. But the writing process, for Calder, was not diminished by quarantine. Due to the inherent isolation of penning a novel, “I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this,” he says of the past year’s social distancing protocols. “This is kind of how I operate.”
He continues, “I don’t want to suggest that writing is a super difficult and grueling thing, but you’re alone a lot and at some point you realize, ‘Holy cow, no one might ever read this. I might just be writing for myself.’ And you have to accept that, if that’s the case, you enjoy doing it, so just keep doing it.”
Calder’s book will have readers. Its Asheville ties, sense of disconnection familiar to a world living through a pandemic, hints of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and compellingly drawn characters are all good reasons to reserve a copy.
Leading up to the publish date, Calder is looking for safe ways to connect with an audience. “I’m going to do a book trailer,” he notes. “I’m trying to find creative outlets to keep myself amped up for the coming months.”