Less than three years after getting out of prison, author DeWitt Gilmore is making good
By HEATHER SALERNO
THE JOURNAL NEWS
The empty van parked near Mount Vernon City Hall is more than a little conspicuous. It’s big and white and plastered with the face of Relentless Aaron — the pen name of local writer DeWitt Gilmore — along with the bold logo, “Father of Urban Fiction.”
Obviously, Gilmore is somewhere nearby. But he’s not in the neighborhood barbershop or the beauty salon around the corner — the types of places that were daily stops for the ex-con when he was hawking his gritty self-published novels for $10 each.
Now, having landed a stunning 14-book contract with St. Martin’s Press, Gilmore doesn’t have to hustle quite as hard. So he’s taking a break from working the streets in his cramped office three floors above West Prospect Avenue. Kicking back on a black leather couch, he’s talking about his first book with St. Martin’s, “Extramarital Affairs” (out Tuesday), and how his life has shifted since being released from jail three years ago.
In November 2003, Gilmore was paroled from federal prison, where he’d written 30 novels while serving a seven-year sentence for bank fraud — his second time inside. The morning after his release, he had 50 copies printed of “Push,” about a Harlem drug dealer just out of jail and trying to go legit. Gilmore sold all 50, then 300 more, and then 20,000.
A sharp, tireless self-promoter — hence the van — he’s peddled his novels on sidewalks, on the Internet, at book fairs and in bookstores. Today, Gilmore, who’s 41, estimates he’s sold at least 200,000 copies of the 12 books he published on his own. He recently scored two movie deals, too, one for “The Last Kingpin,” which Gilmore says will be the “next ’Scarface.’ ” “I’m looking easily at being a millionaire in the next year,” he says, resting one hand on top of his red “Relentless” cap. “It’s surreal. I don’t really feel it yet. I’m still in the streets.”
“Extramarital Affairs” is about a sex-addicted married couple, whose raunchy threesome ends in the death of their partner one night. Like most of Gilmore’s novels, the book is packed with violence and graphic descriptions of sex acts. Publishers Weekly called it “a smoldering batch of raw erotica and criminality” that “won’t make many Mother’s Day gift lists.”
Gilmore shrugs off criticism that’s been leveled at him and others in the exploding genre of “street lit,” which traces to novelists Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines in the 1960s and ’70s. The genre has boomed recently with books by Sister Souljah, Teri Woods and Shannon Holmes.
This style of fiction — with titles like “To Live and Die in Harlem,” “Whoreson” and “A Hustler’s Wife — are usually hard-knock tales about gangsters, thugs, strippers, prostitutes and inner-city life. Writer Nick Chiles wrote a New York Times op-ed piece lamenting the popularity of such books, horrified that they are on the same bookstore shelves as works by Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. Argues Gilmore: “To be coined literature versus urban fiction, that’s for all the naysayers. I’ll let them haggle over what’s what.”
St. Martin’s senior editor Monique Patterson pegged Gilmore as a hot commodity after seeing his books hyped by street vendors in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Then editor-in-chief George Witte met him at the Book Expo America convention last summer. Soon Gilmore had secured a deal that included a six-figure advance.
Patterson says that Gilmore’s marketing savvy and strong personality made him attractive to the publishing house. His productivity is a plus, too, she adds. All this combined with his writing talent “makes the difference between something that’s a fad and something that’s here to stay,” says Patterson.
Gilmore was raised in Mount Vernon and he now lives in New Rochelle with his wife, Paulette, and their son, DeWitt, 13, and daughter, Fortune, 10. Growing up, he spent time hanging out and working at his father’s businesses, from a local liquor store to a string of strip clubs. “He had bulletproof glass in the liquor store, so at 10 years old I could go and sell a pint of Wild Irish Rose to a local,” he recalls.
Bootlegging concert videos and credit-card fraud also became a part of what Gilmore calls his “wayward upbringing.” In 1986, he began serving two years in federal prison after writing a letter to authorities that tried to extort $2 million by threatening to poison Tylenol capsules. To this day, Gilmore doesn’t know why he wrote the note. “I think I was alone, I was a loner, feeling kind of misdirected.”
Ten years later, he was locked up again after pleading guilty to a bank scam that involved passing counterfeit checks. His first stint in jail was “summer camp,” he says. “It didn’t mean much.” But his second, longer term had greater consequences. This time, he had Paulette, a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter when he went away. So Gilmore got disciplined, and he used his time inside to “mastermind the greatest plan to succeed.” He spent a year writing “Topless,” his most autobiographical book to date, which drew from nights spent at his dad’s topless bars. For that novel (and those to follow), he chose a pseudonym, taken from his relentless determination and his baseball hero Hank Aaron.
Gilmore was soon able to knock off a book in two weeks, and he left jail with a stack of finished manuscripts. “Every day I wrote,” he says. “I definitely spent quality time within the misery that was there.” Paulette Gilmore says that it was difficult raising their children alone for seven years, and she wasn’t pleased to hear about her husband’s writing ambitions once he came home. “She was like, ’Get a job!’ ” he laughs. “We had our moments,” she says. “But once I saw … how it was his passion, it was OK for me. I had no choice but to support him.”
Patterson says Gilmore’s turbulent background lends believability to his work. “Not every author in this genre has to have gone to prison, but they have to have a working knowledge of the life that they’re writing about,” she says. “It’s hard to fake, and readers can usually sniff it out in two pages.”
Gilmore certainly won over residents of Leake & Watts, the Yonkers treatment center for troubled children, when he spoke to a group of 75 earlier this year. After arranging Gilmore’s talk, work-study program coordinator Willard Pride found out that many of the kids were already reading his books. “I have a rough crowd to please, and they were very excited” about Gilmore’s visit, says Pride. “He had a similar background to a lot of our kids who are at risk. I thought he’d be a good motivator, showing how you can have problems in life and still make something of yourself.”
Actor Bill Duke, who plans to direct a movie trilogy based on Gilmore’s novel “Push,” was also impressed by the author’s turnaround. “I think everything anyone wants to know about this young man is in his name,” says Duke. “He’s relentless in terms of tenacity to achieve, and he’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met.” And Gilmore’s working hard on some pretty lofty goals. One of which is to “out-write every other writer in the market,” he says. “(James) Patterson, (Sidney) Sheldon, Elmore Leonard, they’re all gonna see me,” he says. “Whether they’re looking up from the dirt, or looking at me at a literary event, I’m coming for them.”