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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

Vicar's self-published children's book becomes a smash

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU
G.P. Taylor is reveling in his new calling as a writer. G.P. Taylor is reveling in his new calling as a writer.
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Two years ago, G. P. Taylor was an Anglican priest quietly tending his flock of parishioners in the wilds of England's Yorkshire moors. Today, Mr. Taylor is a best-selling author who has just inked a movie deal worth millions on his debut book, a young adult thriller titled "Shadowmancer."

"It's unbelievable. I keep having to pinch myself,'' Mr. Taylor said in a recent interview during a two-week tour of America to promote "Shadowmancer." "To have my first book (get to) be No. 3 on The New York Times (children's chapter book) bestseller list - well, I just cannot believe it."

It's particularly amazing to Mr. Taylor because he first self-published his book, selling his prized motorcycle to pay the printing costs. Through word of mouth and some fortunate connections, "Shadowmancer" eventually was picked up by a major British publisher.

Mr. Taylor's dark-toned book about an evil English vicar who tries to use magic to take control of the world was an instant hit in England when it was released on a major scale there last year - the same day as Book 5 of the "Harry Potter" series.

With American booksellers constantly looking for "the next Harry Potter,'' the U.S. rights to "Shadowmancer" were quickly snapped up. G. P. Putnam's Sons offered Mr. Taylor a half-million-dollar advance on the book and set a first print run of 250,000, according to Publishers' Weekly.

"Shadowmancer" currently is No. 5 on The New York Times' children's hardcover fiction bestseller list. During his American tour, Mr. Taylor consistently had lines of people waiting for him to sign books in the American cities he visited.

Since then, he's signed a movie deal worth more than $2 million. The deal gives Mr. Taylor 5 percent of box office royalties and 15 percent of all merchandising. He received more than $200,000 upon signing the contract last month.

With numerous offers from movie moguls, Mr. Taylor chose a new company, Fortitude Films, because its owners agreed to film the movie in Yorkshire. In a recent interview with The Times of London, Mr. Taylor said he wants "the local people here to be able to cash in on my success.'' He also wants his parishioners, including himself and his three daughters, to have parts in the movie.

Critics, however, haven't been so kind to Mr. Taylor. For example, Elizabeth Ward, children's book reviewer for The Washington Post, stated bluntly that "Shadowmancer" is "undermined by (Mr.) Taylor's three great failings. He can't write, he can't plot, and he has a Christian ax to grind that leads him to perpetrate prose so purple it's almost humorous."

There's no doubt that Mr. Taylor could have used a much tougher editor. He obviously has a gift for storytelling, but he needs to work on creating believable characters, learning to pace his story and toning down his love of clichs.

Thrilled with the fans who swamped him to sign their copies of "Shadowmancer," Mr. Taylor says he's not much bothered by some critics' harsh assessments of his book. But he is furious at those who have described it as a "Christian Harry Potter."

"That's rubbish! Absolute tosh!'' he exclaimed. "It is not a Christian book. It contains matters of faith - yes. But so do the "Harry Potter" books, the books of Philip Pullman and of Garth Nix."

Mr. Taylor emphasizes that, along with references to Christianity, his book contains strands of Judaism and Islam. He also points out, with obvious relish, that his villain, Obadiah Demurral, is a priest, a man of God who is corrupted by his desire to take control of the Universe. Along the way, Mr. Demurral becomes a "shadowmancer," a sorcerer who speaks to the dead.

The message of "Shadowmancer,'' Mr. Taylor adds, "is about good conquering evil. There is no hidden Christian agenda. It is a thriller for kids in the style of Charles Dickens meets C.S. Lewis meets Harry Potter."

Mr. Taylor drew on his extensive knowledge of the occult and witchcraft in writing "Shadowmancer." Set in the 18th century on the desolate Yorkshire coast, the book is filled with magic, especially evil characters like thulaks, who can be summoned by Mr. Demurral to steal his opponent's will to live.

Countering these forces are two young teenagers, Kate and Thomas, whose lives have been indelibly marked by Demurral's evil power. Kate and Thomas are drawn into an epic battle against Mr. Demurral when they meet Raphah, a young man with magical powers who has come from Africa to reclaim a sacred icon for his people.

The trio of young people is helped by Jacob Crane, a smuggler and murderer who is plagued with a guilty conscience.

"He's the one everybody loves,'' agrees Mr. Taylor. "He changes his mind. Yes, he is a villain. But he has pangs of guilt, and he changes his mind. That's what makes him so interesting."

Mr. Taylor himself is a Crane-type character. Born in Scarborough, Mr. Taylor was the son of a cobbler and a canteen worker, both of whom are deaf. He says he first felt a call to the priesthood when he was in his mid-teens. Aghast at the idea of becoming a priest, Mr. Taylor instead went to London and become a punk rock promoter.

Mr. Taylor eventually returned to Yorkshire. He first worked at an adult day care center, where he met his wife. The two have been married for more than 20 years and have three daughters.

Mr. Taylor then joined the local police force, where he spent eight years, much of it in drug enforcement and on the riot squad. In 1995, he was beaten so severely by a crowd of drunks that he nearly died and was forced to retire.

Fortunately, he had been going to theological college part-time during his years on the police force. After his police retirement, Mr. Taylor was ordained by the Church of England.

Until recently, Mr. Taylor served as the vicar of Ravenscar, at a church set high on the cliffs of the Yorkshire coast. But he told The Times of London that he had decided to step down as vicar.

Mr. Taylor noted that the success of "Shadowmancer'' came at a crucial point in his life. In the past year, he was hospitalized three times in the past year with various illnesses, including a heart condition, and he "physically couldn't cope'' with doing the vicar's job much longer.

"I think it's God's timing that it should happen this way,'' Mr. Taylor told The Times. "I think God was saying, 'I'll use this to end this particular ministry and start up a new one.'''

Now 43, Mr. Taylor was inspired to write "Shadowmancer'' after talking to parishioners at a church meeting. "I was driving home over the moors in a terrible storm. There was thunder and lightning and I was on top of a hill. All of a sudden, I started thinking about smugglers, witchcraft and magic. And the story just came to me."

Mr. Taylor said his main goal was to write a book that would scare young readers. "I think it's very important for fantasy to allow children to experience fear in a safe environment. It's good for children."

Mr. Taylor promises that his next book, "Wormwood," will be even scarier. Like "Shadowmancer," it is set in the 18th century. In "Wormwood," Mr. Taylor tells the story of a girl named Agatta and her life in a boarding house filled with "human freaks." The book is expected to be published in the United States this fall.

Reveling in his new calling as a writer, Taylor insists that he won't let success change him. "I'm just not into the whole money-trip thing,'' he says. "Yes, the financial side of this is nice. It helps life to be more well-oiled. But I'm the same guy I was two years ago."



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