Decatur book fest boss writes first novel: weird parts are true

Daren Wang, founding executive director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival, has seen hundreds of writers come and go, and has helped many of them kickstart careers, with exposure at his mammoth meet-and-greet, the largest independent book festival in the country.

Now it’s his turn.

Wang, 50, has sold his first novel, "The Hidden Light of Northern Fires," to St. Martin's Press, and it will come out in time for the 2017 fest.

The story of the book is almost as fascinating as the story in the book. It's a tale Wang has been carrying around for years. He's been suggesting it to one writer or another as they passed through town. None took him up on the offer.

“Never tell an idea to a writer,” said Wang, ruefully. “I realized someone had to write the story, and I decided I had teach myself how to write to get it done.”

The story is about Town Line, N.Y., a little hamlet outside Buffalo that is the only town north of the Mason Dixon line to secede from the Union. It’s also about a college-educated, firebrand feminist named Mary Willis who smuggled fugitive slaves through her house in Town Line and up to the Canadian border, 15 miles away.

Wang grew up in that house in the 1970s, the son of a Chinese immigrant father and an American mother. Town Line didn’t rejoin the union until 1946, an event that was covered by the New York Times. When Wang moved to Decatur and listened to his writer friends talking about how great-great-grand-pappy buried the silver in the back yard to keep it from the Yankees, he would often produce that Times story from his wallet, and trump everyone else’s Civil War tales.

He finally started researching the story about eight years ago, and discovered that he had lived in Mary Willis’ house. Fate was telling him to write this story.

Wang decided to turn it into a novel. He gave Mary Willis a love affair. That part was invented. The most improbable parts, however, are true, including the surprise that a northern campaign existed, that Confederate secret agents staged raids out of Canada, and that the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy might have received help from western New York.

Wang says the book is his first attempt at writing anything longer than a short story. He learned by revising. “I rewrote the darn thing nine or ten times.”