The evite went out quietly to some of Fort Worth’s most prominent West Siders: come to a private book signing Wednesday night by the virtually unknown Fort Worth novelist Landon Wallace, just releasing his second book, "The Election," a romance set against a Texas political backdrop. If any of the invited guests wondered who Wallace is, they certainly recognized the party hosts: the Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly Jr. and his wife Dana.
Of course, there’s more. It turns out Wallace is a pseudonym. And Kelly – a partner at Kelly Hart & Hallman, the Fort Worth law firm co-founded by his dad, Dee Kelly Sr., who died in 2015 - is the real Wallace. With “The Election,” published by a Fort Worth collective called Trinity River Press, an imprint for Landon Wallace books, Kelly is stepping out and acknowledging he’s the shadowy man beneath the wide-brimmed hat in the author’s bio on both books.
Stepping out, mostly because he had little choice.
“I couldn’t control it,” Kelly, 56, said in an interview Tuesday evening at his downtown offices. “People just started finding out.”
Kelly, a University of Texas-educated lawyer with a long love of history, in 2015 published his first Landon Wallace novel, “Come and Take It: Search for the Treasure of the Alamo,” a piece of historical fiction set in modern day and featuring a time slip to the 13-day siege at the fort in 1836.
“I told no one, no one, that I published it,” Kelly says of the first book. “It went to the various online distributors. Then I went to see my parents one night, and both of them had the book out at dinner. I’d forgotten I told my sister, and she went and told my parents. So all this secrecy I went through.” Word leaked out among some of his friends after that, but, still few people know Landon Wallace’s real identity, Kelly says.
He did virtually no publicity for the first book, doing only one interview as Landon Wallace with an out-of-state radio station after it ran across an online review for the book. The two hosts didn’t ask Wallace about his vague but intriguing bio at authorlandonwallace.com that says he’s a “native Texan and trial attorney who can tell a story both in and outside the courtroom” and who “lives in the shadows of Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife and family.”
Kelly says he made no push for the book because he was Kelly Hart’s managing partner at the time – he stepped down in 2016 after serving as managing partner since 2005. “Frankly, I just didn’t have the time,” he says. “And I didn’t want to detract” from the firm. He’s also in the enviable position for an author of not having to worry about financial gain from book sales.
Where he got the idea for “The Election,” which he started writing in 2014: “I wanted to write a political novel where I could have some commentary about politics in general, because I feel it’s a subject I know enough about to write something credible,” he says.
The novel ended up having more of a romantic feel than he anticipated. “I never thought I’d write romance,” he says. “It’s a romance that has politics in it, but the romance drives the story.”
“The Election” centers on Texas State Sen. Blake Buchanan, who “appears to have everything a man could want – a beautiful wife and family, wealth beyond his imagination, and a leading role in the Texas Legislature. When Blake throws his hat into a long-shot race for governor, he puts it all at risk. His heavily-favored opponent, a sexy conservative whose values are as phony as her plasticized figure, and a fiery love from his past will threaten to destroy all that he holds dear.”
Kelly says he’ll do more to help sales of “The Election,” available in paperback online including at Amazon for $18.95. “I’m probably doing more with this because the cat got out of the bag a little bit.” Wednesday night’s private party is likely the most significant event he’ll throw, but he might do others, possibly some in Austin, home of his alma mater, Kelly said. The collective, as it did with "Come and Take It," will send the book out for reviews and plug it in social media.
“I’m not really driven by sales numbers, I’m more driven by quality,” he says. “And if it sells, fine. But my job is here” at the law firm.
Kelly isn’t stepping fully from the cloak of Landon Wallace, offering up the book’s publicity photo of himself in hat, and declining a request for a video interview. And he doesn’t want to tie up the law firm. The invitation list for Wednesday’s party has a remarkable dearth of Kelly Hart lawyers and staffers.
So, how, when and where was Landon Wallace born?
“I was a history major in college, and I actually entertained thoughts of doing something in the writing field for a career,” he says. “I wasn’t sure. I was like any kid. But that all changed when I went to law school. And I took a job, and then life took over. I kind of wrote here and there, but I never really got into it too much.”
Kelly says he wrote a novel in his 30s, but didn’t seek to publish it. “I just wrote it because I like to write,” he says. “I still have it. I may go back and rework it later. The story’s good, but it needs a lot of work.”
The approach to his 50th birthday in 2010 spurred the renewed focus on writing, Kelly says. “As I was getting closer to my 50th birthday, I said, OK, if I’m going to do this, I need to actually make some disciplined effort to conclude it. I basically started writing between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and kind of made that a disciplined practice to get the first novel completed.”
“Come and Take It” is a mystery centered around the descendants of Joe Travis, the young black slave of William Barret Travis who survives the Alamo and escapes carrying a secret prize. But a descendant of Joe’s, digging into a mysterious death of his grandfather, uncovers clues that begin to reveal the mystery.
As Kelly finished “Come and Take It,” he eventually made his way to a strong editor. “We got the book to a polished level where I was comfortable showing it to a few real readers,” he says. “And they read it and they liked it and said OK you’ve got a book here. And then the whole publishing side of it came up.”
Rather than self-publish or try and pitch the book to a publishing house, Kelly chose a collective run by three women who have various roles such as marketing. “It’s a hybrid where I participate, and they handle a lot of the chores for me,” he says.
The collective’s risk is in the leaders’ time, Kelly says. The publishing platform Trinity Press uses doesn’t require orders or pre-buys, and “there’s no front cost,” Kelly said.
That said, there would be revenue upside for the collective if Kelly decides eventually to push sales of his books, and he acknowledges the leaders of the collective would like that. “Their skin’s in the game on the professional side, not on the publishing side or the marketing side. That was because I wasn’t going to market the book. (With the first book) I didn’t want to out myself on the writing.”
The idea for a pseudonym surfaced during a chance conversation about writing with a Kelly Hart paralegal as the two prepared for a trial, Kelly says. Both revealed to each other that they write on the side, and the paralegal suggested a pseudonym. “I hadn’t really thought of that until then,” Kelly says.
A friend helped him come up with the name Landon Wallace. “We put 10 names in a hat, each of which could have been the first name or last name,” he says. “The first two out we put them together. It was as simple as that. Of course, you had to look and see if there was anyone else by that name, but I didn’t find anyone.”
“Come and Take It” collected positive reviews, mostly online. “A brisk, warmhearted adventure that takes readers on an exciting journey through American history,” Kirkus Review said. “Never got a bad one,” Kelly says. “I got one kind of modest, which kind of disappointed me. But it wasn’t bad.”
“Come and Take It” is available online; Amazon’s Kindle edition is $3.99. Kelly says he’s not added up how many books "Come and Take It" has sold over the last four years.
“I might get 10 one month, 15 one month, two one month,” he says. “If you sell 1,000 copies of a book, that’s pretty good for a first book, as I understand it. We’re probably approaching that. At this rate, I might be able to afford my phone bill.”
Kelly is already at work on his next book called “The Next Election.” It’s a sequel to “The Election.” “You have to read that one, then you’ll know” what happens in “The Next Election,” Kelly says. “Without giving too much away, I think some of the characters haven’t finished their story.”