When Mark Sullivan and Johnny Temple started the Akashic label in 1998, the intent was to release music by the founders’ respective bands, Sevens and Girls Against Boys. The Brooklyn-based company was also going to publish the occasional book, beginning with Jonah Sees Ghosts, a novel Sullivan had begun in the mid-’80s.
That plan quickly unraveled. Sevens split, Girls Against Boys signed to Geffen, and Akashic became Akashic Books. “The music stopped working, and the books were clearly happening,” says Sullivan. “Fifteen minutes after we hung our shingle out, we were getting manuscripts. Agents were contacting us. And we were getting really good work. It was kind of shocking.”
Jonah Sees Ghosts wasn’t one of the books that happened, however. Sullivan thought it needed another rewrite, and he didn’t have time: “Six months after I moved to New York, I got married, and we got pregnant right away,” he explains. That meant finding a job.
For the author, now 42, it was quite a transition. He and Temple were D.C. punk veterans with little 9-to-5 experience. (Sullivan’s previous bands included the Slinkees, a Wilson High School quartet that also featured Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, later of Minor Threat and Dischord Records.) “I’d never had a, quote, real job before,” says Sullivan, who left Akashic to work as a Web-site copy editor.
He began to think that the novel, about a D.C. adolescent who lives with his mother and is regularly visited by his father’s ghost, was never going to be finished, let alone published. But then Temple called, saying he still wanted the book and had found an editor for it. Inspired by the newly edited version, Sullivan began cutting further, working as he rode the subway to and from work. “I must have pulled 40 pages out of the thinga clause here, a paragraph there. It fell together.”
By the time Jonah Sees Ghosts was published this spring, its author was back home, working at a Dupont Circle religious trade publication and living in Silver Spring with his family. The “real job” was a large part of why he returned: “When I was doing what I wanted pretty much all the time, New York was a lot of fun,” he says. “But when I was commuting from Brooklyn to midtown, New York sucked.”
The book has been well-reviewed, Sullivan says, and it’s already sold out its first printing of 2,000 copies. Perhaps that’s because readers identify with the un-supernatural side of the story. “There’s a lot of me in Jonah,” his creator notes. “But the mom is not my mom, and the ghost of the dad is not my dad.”
Of course, ghost stories are always popular. Just a few years ago, moviegoers flocked to the tale of a boy who whispered, “I see dead people.” At the time, Sullivan remembers, “People knew that this big hit movie was about ghosts, and that my book was about ghosts, and they’d say, ‘Mark, man, you’re fucked.’”
Sullivan is less worried about comparisons to The Sixth Sense than about facing crowds at bookstore appearances, which he finds “a pretty gruesome experience. I’ve been playing in bands for a long time, and I was really used to walking on stage with 120 decibels behind me.”
Perhaps that’s why Sullivan, who’s been taking mandolin lessons, might start another band before turning to Angel, Fallen From Heaven, another novel he’s planning. “I’d like to finish up this other book,” he says, “but I’d like to play music, too. Music might be more important and more fun in the short term.” Mark Jenkins
Sullivan reads from Jonah Sees Ghosts at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 17, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.