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Why So Serial?

Virginia novelist Tom De Haven takes his literary blog into uncharted territory.


  • Scott Elmquist

In 1997, novelist and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Tom De Haven received the phone call of a lifetime. It was from DC Comics, and the publishers wanted to know: Could he write a novel about Superman set in the Great Depression?

He turned them down.

It wasn't that he didn't want to write about the boy in blue — he was flattered by the offer. But De Haven was under contract to finish the final novel of his Derby Dugan trilogy, which follows newspaper comic strips from the 1890s through the early 1970s. He thought that DC would move on to another author, but it kept asking, and eventually he agreed.

"It's Superman!" was published in 2005, and De Haven was christened a Superman expert, handling hundreds of interviews from reporters when "Superman Returns" hit the big screen the following year. Though the novel was universally praised by reviewers, for some reason DC wasn't happy with De Haven. Lawyers called his house, telling him he wasn't allowed to discuss Superman publicly three months before and after the film came out.

Between that and the other difficulties of working with DC, De Haven realized he'd finally had it. After decades of publishing books — 18 to date — De Haven was sick of the constant headaches and aggravation. With publishing companies offering him little in the way of editing or promotion, he decided to enlist a graduate student and create Café Pinfold, a blog where he could provide new work to readers for free.

"There came a point where I became totally disenchanted with the publishing industry," De Haven says. "I love writing, and I realized that editing doesn't really exist anymore."

Freed from the publishing status quo, De Haven was able to embark on a venture that he'd always wanted to try. As a kid he'd loved watching old movie serials on television, and how he had to wait for the next installment to see what happened. From then on, he wanted to try his hand at serialized fiction.

Those thoughts were encouraged by Stephen King. In 1996, De Haven was reviewing King's serialized novel "The Green Mile" for Entertainment Weekly. De Haven loved it, and King was so pleased that he sent De Haven a three-page handwritten letter to thank him.

"Like me, he'd always been interested in serialized fiction, and thought he'd try it himself," De Haven says. "He told me — and I can't believe this — that he had no idea where he was going with the novel. He was doing this as a kind of tightrope to see if he could do it, start publishing the stuff before it was finished."

De Haven's feat may be even more impressive. De Haven simultaneously is serializing three novellas and a historical novel through Café Pinfold. The novellas are linked together and take place in Richmond, which is a departure for De Haven. Except for a short story and his teen novel "Orphans," the New Jersey native has never set a story here — even though he's lived in Midlothian for two decades. He chalks his reservations of writing about Richmond up to culture shock.

"I didn't understand this place for the first few years," De Haven says. "It was very different, how people treat you when you go to the cold-cut counter at the old Ukrop's, so friendly and talking to you. For the first few years down here I didn't feel I understood it well enough."

He's working to change this with his novellas, of which he's already posted the first installments online. De Haven hopes to add new installments roughly every three weeks. He's also posted the first two chapters of "King Touey," a historical novel set in his hometown of Bayonne, N.J., in 1915. And he's working on a longer novel about King Touey's brother called "Patsy Touey," but he's unsure of how he's going to release it because of its size.

Café Pinfold also will serve as a home for the numerous odd projects he's worked on through the years. He's posting his scripts for movies and cartoons, demos of songs he wrote for a band financed by lyricist Gerry Goffin, and numbers from a musical based on his novel "Funny Papers."

"It was the exact same [historical] era as 'Newsies,' and we were 10 years ahead of it," he says. "In a way, you're just looking back and shaping that stuff, which is interesting for me."

He may revise and publish the works he's serializing online at some point, but says this will happen only if the stories are allowed to stay on the blog for no charge. Though he's taking a break from the traditional publishing industry, De Haven says he'd like to put out another book or two. "I've kind of got it in my head that I need to publish at least 20 books," De Haven says. "I've done 18. You've got to round it out." S

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