For decades, John Rolfe Gardiner has been one of Loudoun’s literary lights. At 80, the award-winning novelist and short story writer turns a new leaf—jumping enthusiastically into the world of self-publishing.
Gardiner’s new novel “Newport Rising,” set in pre-revolutionary Newport, RI, offers a look at the city’s often overlooked role as a cradle of American civil society and religious freedom, along with its darker history as a center of the slave trade.
Gardiner, who for 30 years worked with noted publishing houses and earned spots in top magazines and journals, has found the industry increasingly tough to navigate in the past decade and, like both new and established writers, decided to go straight to readers with his latest project.
“The book industry is becoming more and more concentrated, and it’s harder and harder for a good new writer even to get an agent much less find a publisher. For me, it’s a way to get away from that traditional race,” Gardiner said. “I’m happy to be trying something new and pleased with the idea that I’m not depending on bookstores to keep it on shelves. I’m depending on myself to get out there and let people know what it is and what the significance of the subject is.”
Gardiner’s latest book has its roots in the author’s ongoing fascination with 18th century Newport, which he sees as far more interesting and important than the 19th century mansions for which the city is best known.
“[Newport] had the first still-extant synagogue in the country and it had the whole cadre of influential and very successful Jewish traders, as well as traders from the slightly more populous Anglican church,” Gardiner said. “The mix made sure that everybody stayed honest in terms of opportunity. This was what made them rich.”
“Newport Rising” tells the story of Cotton Palmer, a printer and political columnist for a Newport newspaper, “tattle-mouth of the Newport Mercury,” and “pest to royalist and patriot alike” and his romantic interest, the feisty abolitionist Sally Warren.
Gardiner’s fascination with Newport began with an interest in Newport’s thriving furniture industry in the 1700s. The author was also inspired by Edmund Morgan’s 1962 biography of Ezra Stiles, minister of Newport’s Second Congregational Church and founder of Brown University. The real-life Stiles appears in the novel in fictional form as Palmer’s antagonist.
The novel also focuses on Newport’s role as the center of the slave trade in New England, and the often-overlooked slavery-based economy in Rhode Island. The city’s complex mix of religious freedom and slavery also gives it a much bigger role in American history than many readers realize, Gardiner says:
“That produced what we have today—all the troubles we have and all the glories we have.”
Gardiner, who grew up in McLean in the 1940s, attended Amherst College and served in the U.S. Army in England. He worked as a journalist in 1960s New York, then landed in Loudoun as part of a wave of artists and writers attracted to the historic charm of the village of Waterford. Gardiner spent time at the Skyfields artists commune near Bluemont in the early ’70s. He met his wife, the ceramicist Joan Gardiner, through mutual friends and moved to the western Loudoun village of Unison where the couple still lives.
Gardiner’s first novel, “Great Dream from Heaven,” the story of a 19th century labor organizer in the mines of Tennessee, was published in 1974 and established his niche in the historical fiction genre. Gardiner’s best-known novels, “In the Heart of the Whole World,” set in 1980s Northern Virginia, and “Somewhere in France,” set in a World War I hospital, were published by the prestigious—and notoriously picky—Knopf publishing house.
But a dozen years after his last traditionally published short story collection appeared, Gardiner found it tough to get a publisher interested in “Newport Rising.” So, like many younger writers, he turned to Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing platform. It was new, but energizing, territory.
“It was certainly a steep learning curve,” he said. “I’m glad that I’m independent of that series of steps that puts you beholden to somebody else.”
And as Gardiner, who turns 81 later this year, takes on the next decade, he’s still full of creative energy and observations. He recently added songwriter to his résumé, collaborating with local traditional music superstars Furnace Mountain on lyrics for their latest album. For Gardiner, it stems from a conscious decision to keep the words flowing in a new stage of life.
“I want to keep looking for new ideas and researching new areas,” he said. “I don’t know what the next thing is going to be.”
“Newport Rising” is available at amazon.com. For more information on John Rolfe Gardiner, go to johnrolfegardiner.com or facebook.com/newportrising.