In bar world, people know Claude Alick as the Caribbean-born bartender at Missoula's Golden Rose, where he's worked for more than 15 years. But when he's not serving cocktails and Pabst Blue Ribbons, Alick—aka C.C. Alick—writes and self-publishes fiction based on his family and childhood in Grenada. In fact, his work has gained some prestigious support within the world of Missoula's literary circles, with writers like Neil McMahon, Bryan Di Salvatore and Bill Kittredge offering enthusiastic back cover blurbs for his two books.
Alick's latest novel, Dancing with the Yumawalli, follows his 2005 collection of short stories, Wet Storage and Other Stories. Both books spin off from events Alick experienced growing up in the small island village of Jean Anglais, south of St. Georges, with 11 brothers and sisters.
"I have a large family. If you mine their experiences there's lots of stuff—all kinds of stuff—to write about," he says, laughing. "I do take some liberties."
Dancing with the Yumawalli tells the story of a young boy in Grenada who goes from living a "happy-go-lucky" life to dealing with a darker reality. The tale begins with a community party celebrating the launching of a vessel called Miss Irene. Alick starts the book with: "This thing created a carbuncle that inhabited a place deep below the surface of my skin. It manifested as a constant shifting irritation. Not anything powerful enough to threaten my mortality or sanity, just an incessant kneading. It's always there these days–in my waking hours, in my dreams, it afflicts me completely. This uneasiness crept into me on the same day they launched the vessel, and Karrol went missing."
Karrol almost immediately shows up dead in the ocean and the rest of the novel takes the reader through a series of episodes in which the main character learns about voodoo, sex, prejudice and the lives of shipbuilders. At one point, the boy meets a "Thalidomide man," a reference to the substance that was once fed to pregnant women for morning sickness.
"It turned out to cause deformity," says Alick, 60. "Years later, they used the same drug and the drug arrested leprosy. Isn't that something? There's a leper in the story, too. That's the second person he encounters on this journey."
Alick says the beginning of the book comes from a true experience in which a friend of his drowned under the launching of a vessel. And the fascination with ship launchings and life on the ocean comes directly from Alick's firsthand experience.
As a teenager, Alick says he worked as the only crewmember of the Mccoboy III, a yacht owned by David and Jean "Happy" Strater of York Village, Maine. For two summers he served as the dishwasher, bartender and deckhand on the boat as the couple chartered it between the islands and back to New England.
"They kind of adopted me," says Alick. "I came back to the states with them and they asked me if I'd like to go to school. I did."
Alick got a student visa in 1969 and spent two years taking automotive classes. He then got a job as a mechanic and started a family while working toward degrees in both English and Economics at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn. He dabbled in writing here and there, but after graduation he decided to take it more seriously and looked into writing programs. He moved to Missoula in 1977 to join the University of Montana's creative writing program—and promptly ran out of money.
At first it seemed like a stroke of bad luck. But Alick says it was Kittredge who told him that if he wants to write he should write, degree or not. So he quit school and took his creative writing process into his own hands. And for him, that included publishing.
Alick understands the stigma attached to the term "self-publish" and says he's had to defend against the notion that if you don't publish with a company, it reflects the quality of your writing. Of course, he doesn't buy it.
"'Self-publish' is kind of a funny word," he says. "I like the term 'independent book.' It's like independent record or independent film—it's just an indie book. I still have editors. But with independent books, there are no gatekeepers between the author and his readers. It's more of a raw product."
The stigma doesn't seem to affect his marketing in Missoula. Aside from getting his books on the shelves in local bookstores, Alick says he's already sold 200 copies of Yumawalli just from behind the Golden Rose's bar.
He's not nearly done. Alick's started on his next endeavor, a non-fiction book on the culture of hair. And he says he's considered revisiting his Yumawalli characters again in another novel. As far as remaining independent, he doesn't seem concerned about whether or not he ever gets an offer from a traditional publisher.
"I do my own thing," he says. "I do it at my own pace. I don't toil under deadlines. I go out and play golf when I want to. Money would be nice, of course, but when I write, it's not so much for monetary gain as it is for personal satisfaction and growth."
Claude Alick reads from Dancing with the Yumawalli at Fact & Fiction Friday, Oct. 16, at 7 PM. Free.