MARQUEE - Steve Johnson serves up a book about childhood

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Steve Johnson

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It's hard to tell whether Steve Johnson's story is becoming more interesting than Sam McLeod's or vice-versa, though truth be told they're more and more the same.

Johnson, a Walla Walla author, is on the verge of releasing his fourth book, "Big Appetite: My Southern-Fried Search for the Meaning of Life." After self-publishing his first three, he caught the attention of publishing house Simon & Schuster, which officially releases the new book under its Touchstone Hardcover division on Tuesday.

Johnson kicks off a somewhat exotic tour Sunday starting with a signing at Book & Game Co. On Monday he leaves for a monthlong, 15-city tour during which he plans to make several appearances at Waffle House locations across the South. More on that later.

In the meantime, McLeod, the pen name under which Johnson writes and the main character of the book, is at a sort of mental crossroads in "Big Appetite."

He's 50-something. Gray-haired. A little heavier than he wants to be in the mid-section. Not entirely sure of the guy he sees in the mirror anymore. So when he receives an invitation for a get-together in the Tennessee neighborhood of his childhood, his wife, Annie, encourages him to head south for a dose of home-cooking, porch sitting and introspection.

His journey takes him through the memories of his 1950s childhood -- family homes punctuated by the personalities of four or five children and eccentric mothers, hills all around, caves in the hills and snakes in the creek.

"Big Appetite" is McLeod's trip through Johnson's memories. Or is it Johnson's trip through McLeod's?

The line is becoming fuzzier for the pseudonym-dubbed author who answers to both names.

"This is a book I've been writing in my head my whole life," Johnson explained during a recent sidewalk interview under the hanging flower baskets at Olive Marketplace & Caf?©.

Though deeply inspired by the eccentric mothers of his childhood -- one constantly armed with a can of Lysol, one who vacuumed in her two-piece with rubber daisies on the straps, all cookers of unusual cuisine -- the book is not necessarily all real.

In an author's note at the start of the book, he explains it like this: "This is the childhood I had, the childhood I remember and the childhood I wish I had."

The book is described as "Garrison Keillor meets Paula Deen" where the meaning of life boils down to the love that goes into a home-cooked meal.

Those who knew Johnson before he retired as a venture capitalist in Seattle and moved with his wife Neal to 160 acres of riparian habitat and open grassland on the Walla Walla River would likely not recognize this other side of him, he said.

But that Southern childhood chasing fireflies and having watermelon fights helped shape Johnson, who after college in Virginia worked as an attorney before getting into business.

"It wasn't until I got out in the real world that I realized most people don't eat maccaroni and cheese with oysters," he said. By the way, recipes for such decadent dishes are included in his new book.

While his formative years may have helped shape him as a storyteller, his business experience has helped him as an author.

"Everything I ever learned in venture capital is: You've got to do something different," he explained.

So to debut his initial run of 10,000 copies of "Big Appetite," he enlisted the help of friend Joe Rogers Jr., chairman and CEO of Waffle House Inc. The chain of 1,600 restaurants will promote the book as well as host signings as part of Johnson's tour.

The Waffle House promotion angle was one aspect that caught the attention of Simon & Schuster, Johnson said. The tour will include "The Big Appetite Song Contest" for amateur songwriters. Three favorites will be whittled down, and fans will get to vote for the best song inspired by the book. The winner will be featured on the jukebox rotation at Waffle House.

Johnson isn't necessarily looking to become a best-seller from the tour and experience. He plans to donate a small portion of profit from the book to flood relief in Nashville and Jackson, Tenn., as well as Mobile, Ala. The rest, he said, will go to the Blue Mountain Community Foundation.

But Johnson does consider it a success that Simon & Schuster is already champing at the bit for his next edition, he said. To keep writing is the ultimate happy ending for him. And for Sam McLeod.



BOOK SIGNING

A book-signing event Sunday at Book Game Co. will kick off the book tour for Steve Johnson's "Big Appetite: My Southern-Fried Search for the Meaning of Life." The event takes place 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the downtown Walla Walla store, First Avenue and Main Street.

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