By Amanda McGregor
SALEM — Salem's rich and dark history draws thousands of visitors from far and wide each year.
Now, local tourism officials are hoping to lure sightseers who are intrigued by something new: a 383-page novel set in modern-day Salem, called "The Lace Reader," which hits bookstores nationwide today.
"I've really encouraged the businesses to market this," said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city's marketing organization. "It's a great book, a lot of fun, and a new angle for promoting Salem as a destination."
Authored by Salem resident Sandra Barry, whose pen name is Brunonia Barry, the novel has received a great deal of hype and favorable reviews from newspapers and magazines across the country.
So when the author approached her back in January, Fox said she pounced with alacrity on the opportunity to market Salem through "The Lace Reader," whose characters visit and pass by city landmarks like the Salem Common, Red's Sandwich Shop, the Salem ferry, Roger Conant's statue and First Church on Essex Street.
Fox has since worked with Barry's publisher and many local businesses to develop a "Lace Reader" walking map of Salem, tours, tour packages and even "Lace Reader" menu items.
"New Civilitea on Derby Street put 'Towner's difficultea' on the menu," named after the novel's protagonist, Towner Whitney, according to Fox.
"And at Historic Salem Pedi-cabs, he created a 'Lace Reader' tour," she said.
"The Lace Reader" is told through the eyes of Towner Whitney, the self-confessed unreliable narrator who hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns in Ipswich lace. Towner rejects her ability to read lace until her beloved great aunt mysteriously disappears, beckoning Towner home to Salem to investigate.
A local shop, Artemisia Botanicals on Pickering Wharf, has capitalized on the notion of lace readings and will now offer customers the clairvoyant practice that Barry dreamed up for her novel.
Fox said the "cross-promotion" with the book launch and tourism was a no-brainer — and Barry couldn't agree more.
"It's great to see Salem a part of it," Barry said. "I was really wondering how the community would take this book."
The other element that has drawn people to the story is Barry's personal tale.
"It's a great story of a writer making it big," Fox said, "and being discovered."
Barry, 58, has wanted to be a novelist since her early childhood in Marblehead. She self-published "The Lace Reader" last year, after which five publishers quickly vied to scoop it up — a dream come true for any aspiring author.
Barry chose William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins publishers, who signed her to a $2 million, two-book contract. The self-published version was immediately pulled from shelves, and the new version will be released today.
"When people say, 'Do you believe in magic?' I say, this is what I believe is magic," Barry said of her recent success. "I really can't believe it. At my age, and at my place in life, it doesn't seem real to me at all."
Barry's book is being featured in local and national television, radio, newspaper and magazine pieces, and she will embark on a national book tour in September that doesn't end until Nov. 15. Then her Italian tour starts in January.
Meanwhile, in Salem, Fox is at work with the local business community. She said Hawthorne Hotel and Salem Waterfront Hotel collaborated with the publisher to carry out pillow drops, during which "The Lace Reader" was delivered to every hotel guest along with the accompanying "Lace Reader" walking map of the city.
As part of the book's national marketing campaign, Destination Salem and William Morrow are running a sweepstakes to give away two weekend trips to Salem for two people. The trips include airfare, accommodations (one at Salem Inn and the other at Hawthorne Hotel), meals, the ferry, tours and more.
"One thing that's really great about 'The Lace Reader' is that we've had this incredible opportunity to be creative," Fox said. "I hope this is a catalyst for Salem being featured in books and movies."
For more information about the novel, visit www.lacereader.com, and for more information about "Lace Reader" tours and packages, visit Destination Salem at www.salem.org/lacereader.
Book signing today
There will be a book signing this evening at The House of the Seven Gables, followed by a sold-out reading and book release reception, organized by Cornerstone Books. Barry is donating the reading's $20 ticket proceeds to Help for Abused Women and their Children (HAWC) in Salem.
What: Book signing
When: Today, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Where: The House of the Seven Gables, 115 Derby St.
Q&A with Brunonia Barry, author of "The Lace Reader"
Sandy "Brunonia" Barry grew up in Marblehead and at age 4, she announced she would someday be a writer, more specifically a novelist, even if she wasn't sure exactly what that meant at the time.
Her father bought her a clunky, used typewriter, and half a century later, her dream has come true.
Barry's life has taken many twists and turns since that proclamation, including a career as a Hollywood script doctor, a writer for Lotus software, a stint working in finance in the World Trade Center in New York, and she also founded a popular game software company with her husband, Gary Ward, creating brainteaser puzzles. Hasbro bought the company.
"This is a really roundabout career," Barry, 58, said with a laugh during an interview in her home on Warren Street in Salem yesterday morning.
She and Ward returned from California in the mid-1990s and lived in Marblehead before moving to Salem eight years ago. That was when Barry set to work on "The Lace Reader," which took about seven years.
She and her husband live with their golden retriever, Byzantium, in a 93-year-old Colonial home they have decorated with fine wallpaper, rich colors, antique furniture and a marble coffee table in the sitting room.
Barry, who graduated from Marblehead High School, has bright blue eyes and fiery red hair.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Near St. Andrew's Church (on Lafayette Street), so we swam in Salem Harbor, and when we had our boat it was in Salem. I was always a little fascinated by the city.
Q: Where did the idea for "The Lace Reader" originate?
A: I had a dream when Gary and I were in our house on Atlantic Avenue in Marblehead, the night before we were going to be knocking out a wall. In my dream, I held a little piece of lace that my grandma gave me up to the wall and saw a field of horses.
Q: Why is that significant?
A: I'm terribly allergic to horses. I woke up, and my heart was pounding. (It turns out) the wall was old horsehair plaster, and I had just read my future and it protected me from something. I'm so allergic to horses that I would have ended up in the ER. So the upshot is we didn't knock out the kitchen wall, and we moved here.
Q: Why lace reading?
A: I do believe in intuition. ... As in reading tea leaves or a crystal ball, I had the idea for reading lace.
Q: Has the book changed since you first wrote it?
A: I rewrote it for two years. Originally, I wrote the whole book from the main character's perspective, but there was too much revealed too slowly. If you change one thing, everything else crumbles like a house of cards, so I didn't really know if the book would ever come back together — it was awful. But it did.
Q: Is "The Lace Reader" autobiographical at all?
A: It sort of is. ... My grandmother's etiquette... (and) the shoe industry references are my family. A lot of the background is, but the story is not. And the abuse is not my family.
Q: When do you write?
A: Before coffee. Creativity is best when you're sleepy. My creativity usually wakes me up at 3 a.m., which is why I keep a Mac Air in bed between us.
Q: If you're sleepy, do you make sense?
A: I edit in the afternoon. After coffee.
Q: Why did you choose the name Brunonia?
A: Brunonia is my middle name. I thought it was a good pen name. I thought it was catchy.
Q: Since your newfound notoriety, have you ever been recognized on the street?
A: I was recognized for the first time, over in Vinnin Square on Saturday morning, after the "Chronicle" piece aired on Friday (on the New England-based news magazine show aired on WCVB-TV Channel 5).
Q: What will your second book be about?
A: It will be set in Salem, but on another side: the shipping trade. It will be a contemporary book.
Q: Have you started it?
A: I have 200 pages done already. It has different characters altogether, and it's a very different story. You'll see.
Q: How does it all feel?
A: To be able to do my second novel, and not worry about the mortgage, it's just wonderful. I'm doing something I've wanted to do since I was 4. ... It still feels like a dream, an incredibly great dream.
Q: You mention your golden retriever, Byzantium, on the jacket of your book. Why?
A: Byzie is very important. He stays in my office when I write. He's really something.
Q: What's it like to have all the attention, and the film crews shooting book trailers and promotional footage?
A: I'm getting better at it. It gets easier.
Q: Any strange feelings?
A: To be featured by Borders along with some writers I kind of idolize.
Q: Books you like to read?
A: My favorite of the year so far is "Last Night at the Lobster" (by Stewart O'Nan). I loved it.
Q: Your favorite thing about writing?
A: I feel like I can't do anything else. ... If I don't write for a while, I feel like part of me isn't there. Part of me exists in that fictional space; it's like another group of people I know.
Q: Why fiction?
A: It feels like a world you can control, but of course, you can't. The minute you create a character, they take on lives of their own. ... But you can create a world you want to be in. You can move islands and make cliffs.
From "The Lace Reader"
r The ferry from Boston lets me off on Derby Street, a few blocks from the House of the Seven Gables, where Nathaniel Hawthorne's cousin grew up. I am named after Hawthorne's wife, Sophia Peabody, although the spelling is different.
r Around every corner of Salem lurks a history lesson. Dead ahead as I walk is the Custom House with its gold roof. This is where Hawthorne worked his day job, an appointed position as clerk.
r I walk over to Red's Sandwich Shop. It's packed. There's a line halfway down the block. I get in, but then a seat at the counter opens up and no one wants it, so I grab it. I order everything I can without going over ten dollars, which is what I have in my pocket.
They're grilling English muffins and piles of potatoes and eggs in groups of a dozen at a time. I am wondering where all these people are coming from, and the waitress answers me as if I'd asked the question out loud.
"Fleet's in." she says.
The cook groans.
"Twelve o'clock tour bus," the waitress explains, pointing to the Trolley Stop.