In 2011, R.J. Fox, who teaches video production and English at Huron, began sharing chapters from his humorous memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in the Ukraine, on Facebook. The unpublished book described Fox’s impulsive trip to Ukraine, at age twenty-three, to propose to a girl he’d met only once.
At around that same time, Ann Arbor residents Jon and Laurie Wilson–whose son, Kyle, had been Fox’s student–outlined a book project of their own. Titled Northern Souls, it would focus on their experiences growing up in the world of ’70s and ’80s pop culture on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Jon is from Manchester, England, where Laurie–who grew up in Canton–emigrated in the late ’80s. They married in 1989 and moved to Ann Arbor in 1993. Both have experienced cultural dissonance and are drawn to fish-out-of-water stories–to such a degree that, by 2012, they were kicking around the idea of launching a publishing company that specialized in them.
The couple read Fox’s Love and Vodka chapter “A Day at the Circus,” and were hooked. “Fox’s writing was so visual that it immediately brought this Soviet-style circus to life,” says Jon. “And the part where he describes the ‘Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk’–where dogs were literally shot out of a cannon and floated down on parachutes–really stuck with us.”
Laurie’s professional background includes marketing, while Jon has spent more than twenty years in academic publishing for the Association for Asian Studies. “When we came upon R.J.’s book, we first thought, ‘I hope it gets published, I can’t wait to see it in print,'” says Jon. “Then after a while we thought, ‘There’s a similarity between our story and Bob’s. Maybe we should be the ones to publish it.'” Fish Out of Water Books was born.
Love and Vodka started life as a slightly fictionalized screenplay called “Jimmy and Katya.” In 2000, while in California for a screenwriting program, Fox met a young Ukrainian woman at Universal Studios. The two spent a short time together, talking and riding an amusement park ride, before she returned home. But they kept in touch and fell in love.
Much to his family’s shock, the following year Fox planned a three-week trip to Ukraine to woo and propose to the young woman. His arrival there marked the first time the young couple spent time in the same space since that fateful day at a theme park. But marry they did, eventually returning to the States together.
Fox’s screenplay was optioned, but the project languished. “So I took the original script and expanded on it,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could write prose. I hadn’t really done it before, but it really opened me up more as a writer”–though he’d still love to see it made into a film.
The marriage ended, years later, in divorce, and both Fox and the woman have since remarried and started families. But he still wanted to tell his story of youthful impetuousness–and the Wilsons wanted to help. “The biggest message from the book is to be a bit more adventurous,” says Jon. “Get out and see another part of the world.”
After three years of preparation, Love & Vodka came out last November. After teaching at Huron for more than a decade, Fox has connections with students, families, and educators that helped him draw big crowds to readings at both Literati and Nicola’s. This month, he’ll be at Bookbound, and he has readings scheduled in Grand Rapids and Traverse City.
“The idea is to lay the foundation here in Ann Arbor, and then go further afield, where people might start to take more notice,” says Jon.
“Ann Arbor is a place with the smallest degrees of separation,” says Laurie. “You always know somebody who knows somebody.”
Because their company is a labor of love in their off-hours, the Wilsons aim to publish no more than one or two books a year. “Any more than that would be crazy,” says Jon. Their second title, Gary B. France’s Away From Home: Soccer, Manchester United, and Breakfast in America, is already in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, the Wilsons are sharing monthly short stories on their website, fowbooks.com. The first was a road-trip tale by local street performer “Violin Monster” Zachary Storey. The second is a story of Jon’s that will appear in Northern Souls–which the couple hopes to finish “in the not-too-distant future.”