The Sleeper 

John Sheppard's self-published third novel, a tribute to his murdered sister, gets a second life.

It didn't take much to burn John Sheppard out on the book biz. In the late 90s he sent a novel he'd completed in the University of Florida's MFA program--a book he worked on for six years but now describes as "postmodern crap"--to an editor at Algonquin Books. She passed, and so did one agent whom Sheppard was referred to by Bridge magazine fiction editor Mike Newirth. Then one day in 2001 he picked up a flier for iUniverse, a print-on-demand service. "Eh, to hell with it," he thought. "I'll do this."

He published his first two books through iUniverse, and though both sold only a few dozen copies Sheppard wasn't all that surprised or disappointed. "It was enough to see them in print," he says. But in 2002, about six months after he self-published a third novel called Small Town Punk, he started getting regular fan mail from teenagers across the country. People were actually reading his work. It felt weird, he says. "I just kind of wrote the book for myself and threw it out there."

A convincingly detailed portrait of Reagan-era Sarasota, Florida, Punk is narrated by a brutally cynical teen antihero named Buzz Pepper. Buzz's home life has not been good, which has left him with a bullshit detector cranked to 11 and a bad attitude toward pretty much everything. What's surprising about Buzz is his close connection with his equally smart-talking, prematurely world-weary sister, who toils alongside him at the local Pizza Hut and shares his vices--cigs, grass, beer.

Sheppard, who's 43, lives in Libertyville and works as a public affairs specialist for the navy. He's also pulled stints as a junk mail writer, a college English instructor, a newspaper editor, and, for four years in the mid-80s, an army lieutenant. When he enlisted--on the suggestion of a coworker at the Florida Steak 'n Shake where he was putting himself through school--he was ten semester credits shy of his college degree. "I was nuts," he says. "I hadn't slept right in a few years. A couple months later I was reading through the contract and I thought, 'What the hell did I do?'"

Despite the Florida setting, Small Town Punk isn't autobiographical. Sheppard says that other than two grandparents modeled after his own, down to their names, the characters are composites of people he's known. And as for the events depicted, "you tell a story a thousand times and it just morphs into something else," he says. But he did work at the Hut, and so did his younger sister, Nancy. "The heart of the book is the truth of our relationship," he says. "When we were kids my father was a salesman, and he kept getting fired, so we'd move to a new town. We did this a number of times, and my sister and I just became best friends."

In 1992, when she was 25, Nancy was murdered, along with a coworker, at a Brandon, Florida, Pizza Hut after she'd just clocked out from the night shift. Her husband was tried for the crime and acquitted; he later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pizza Hut corporate and received a settlement.

Sheppard wrote Small Town Punk as a tribute to Nancy. He started working on it in January 2002 and finished in April, a month ahead of the May deadline he'd given himself--the tenth anniversary of her death. "It was after September 11 too, and that kind of fucked with people in a big way, me included," he says. "After something like that happens, you start evaluating your life.

I felt I owed her something."

In 2003 Robert Lasner, founder of Brooklyn-based Ig Publishing--an indie press best known for nonfiction titles that champion liberal politics--read a couple of glowing Amazon reviews Sheppard had written for Ig titles, including Lasner's own For Fucks Sake. He looked Sheppard up, discovered Small Town Punk, and was intrigued. He and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth Clementson, finally read the book in 2004 and loved it, so they contacted Sheppard, who was happy to let them re-publish it. Lasner's edits shortened the book by about 60 pages; the new version is due out from Ig next January. The iUniverse edition, in the meantime, has sold around 2,000 copies and is still available from a few Amazon Marketplace sellers--who're asking up to $46 for it.

"If I'd written this book 20 years ago, I'd be jumping up and down excited that it was being published," Sheppard says. "At this point? It's nice. It's been a long road. Being a writer isn't the central fact of my life anymore. Just living is the central fact of my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ A. Jackson.

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