Journalist's first novel sure to make best of '96 list

February 4, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

I may have already read my favorite book of 1996. It is "What the Deaf-Mute Heard" (Simon & Schuster, 1996, $21). It is journalist Dan Gearino's first novel .

Gearino says he wrote the book in a mere 18 months but admits that some training was provided by the 17 years of journalism that preceded his move into fiction. He currently is the business editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

His career in journalism helped him with the discipline required to write a novel. "I pretended I was on deadline every morning and made sure I got a certain amount written," he said. "For a time, though, journalism was a handicap in the sense that I kept wanting to provide corroboration and substantiation for everything I was writing," he added. "It took a while to realize that...things could be so in the book simply because I said they were so. I'm halfway through my second book and have found that I learned that lesson well. I don't worry about attribution."

Gearino said he began "Deaf-Mute" in August 1992 and finished it in March 1994, so it took perhaps 18 months. "My agent suggested a few changes, which I took my sweet time with, so she didn't have it back to send to publishers until early October 1994. Simon & Schuster offered a deal three weeks later."

"What the Deaf-Mute Heard" is the story of Sammy Ayers, 10, who took a bus trip with his mother one night in 1940. When he woke up, the bus was at the end of the line and he was alone. His mother was gone. As people in and around the bus depot in Barrington, Ga., peppered him with questions, Sammy decided not to answer. He became, in the eyes of the townspeople, deaf and mute.

For the next 26 years, Sammy didn't say a word. He lived in a tiny supply room at the bus depot and observed the people around him. His first words were spoken at a trial in 1966. The events leading up to the trial make Gearino's story, which is both funny and sad. Gearino has a knack for characterizing the people of Barrington, Ga.

"I was born and raised in a small town near Atlanta (which has now been swallowed by Atlanta) called Doraville. My mother was from an even smaller town way up in the hills of north Georgia. I spent much of my childhood hanging around up there. Barrington is essentially the town where my grandparents lived.

"I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1975 with a film degree, which was an exercise in uselessness. Desperate, I took a job as an advertising salesman for a weekly news magazine. But I noticed that the people in the news room seemed to be having more fun, so I arranged to move into journalism.

"In the intervening years, I've worked any number of beats and eventually moved over to the dark side (translation: He became an editor). I'm now negotiating with the News & Observer about a column-writing job.

"My colleagues have been great. They've all been very interested and many of them have read the book. Book-writing is a widely shared desire in this business, I think--at least it is in my case; a book seemed like the next natural thing to do--and the response has been one of encouragement. The only odd thing is the question that everyone asks: So when do you quit?

"The answer is, I'm not. Having a job means I can write on my own schedule and as I please. But if I depended on writing to support my family, it would feel suspiciously like an obligation...not a lucrative hobby. So I can't see doing it any differently than the way I'm doing it now.

"It's also gratifying for another reason. A profound sense of accomplishment has come with this. The publishing world always seemed like something clubby and impenetrable, and the fact that I was able to get around that (and in fact discover that's not really true) was astonishing. So to do that, and then have the book get a good reception, has created something like euphoria. There aren't too many things in life that can't be taken away from you, but this is one of them."

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