Up From Down Under

ROBERT HUGHES spent more than a decade working on The Fatal Shore, so it was just a happy coincidence that the book was published when, as he puts it, "Australians seemed to be the flavor of the month." At the beginning of the year, when the Yanks had regained the America's Cup and Crocodile Dundee was teaching moviegoers that Real Men come up from down under, Hughes' epic tale of his country's founding was issued in a modestly impressive edition of 20,000 copies. Helped along by the thirst for matters Australian, the book quickly rose on the bestseller lists, selling more than six times the initial printing.

The historian and Time magazine art critic says he was astonished to find he had produced such a popular tome, but he doesn't think either the boat competition or the movie should be given too much credit. "I don't think people said, 'Golly, what a good time we had watching Crocodile Dundee or the Cup, let's go out and buy a book about convicts,' " he says in his rapid-fire delivery. "There just is this general appetite among American readers for a readable narrative history that carries you along and gives you, if possible, a vivid picture."

As another example of such a work, Hughes cites the previous success of Barbara Tuchman's portrait of medieval France, A Distant Mirror. A different factor that links Hughes and Tuchman might be that both writers were published by Knopf, which can use its highly esteemed marketing and publicity forces to get attention for a title that might be neglected were it from a different house.

The Fatal Shore, in fact, was originally scheduled to be published last fall, but the book was pushed back to January after Knopf encouraged the Book-of-the-Month Club to upgrade it from alternate to full selection. An impressive array of quotes was gathered for the dust jacket, and the bandwagon began rolling. Reviews were excellent, but there have been no awards; Hughes is still an Australian citizen, which excludes him from consideration for many.

Hughes had been worried that the reaction to the book in his native country would be harsh. "I've got an awful lot riding on this book in Australia," he told an interviewer earlier this year. "The footnotes are not there for the Americans, mate."

Instead, his luck held. The Fatal Shore sold well, and the academics generally liked it too. "I don't think there's anything in the book that would have given offense to a mature-thinking Australian," he says now. "Finding out what a bad parent England was may have fallen on more receptive ears today than it might have in my father's generation."

Next up for the author is a smaller effort, "a little sorbet between the courses." This time he's taking on Barcelona. "What I want to do is write not exactly a guidebook, but a cultural essay on Barcelona as the third of the great European cradles of modernism, after Paris and Vienna. I suppose the prototype I'm thinking of is Mary McCarthy's book on Florence -- not a formal history but perhaps belle-lettristic, and even more gossipy." A portion appeared in the September issue of Traveler magazine.

Hughes will be in Washington tomorrow to lecture at the Smithsonian -- not about his homeland but on Lucian Freud, "the best realist painter in the world today." The Fatal Shore has not, it seems, turned him into a professional Aussie.

"The only thing I really know a lot about is the convict history," he says. In any case, interpreting his native country "would be a minor skill. It's rather like being a pundit on the subject of bee-keeping. People don't come up and say, 'Oh great pundit, speak.' "

Books to Go

ONE OF THE few things more pleasant than going to a bookstore is having the store come to you. This is especially true when it interrupts the routine of an average school day. That's what happens with a book fair, and that's what happened recently at Jamestown Elementary School in north Arlington.

"The children loved the fair," reports Jamestown librarian Dorothy Bickley. "They always want more than they're allowed to buy. We've had children who've gone on to junior high who come back for our fair. It's even become a community kind of activity."

While the fair was a success in financial terms -- the school made more than $600, which will go to the library -- more important for Bickley is the influence it has on families. "I had three fathers who thanked me this morning for having the book fair," she says. "Reading has become an important part of their family life."

Jamestown's fair, now in its fifth year, is handled by akj Book Fare (the first three letters are the initials of the firm's three founders). The 10-year-old Rockville firm does about 250 fairs a year, all in the Washington metropolitan area. Says Bickley: "They were librarians and teachers before they went into this business, and I can rely on the integrity of their selections."

The kind of books presented is the key issue in children's book fairs. If a company sends out an assortment that is selected for the lowest common denominator -- a predominance of game books, joke collections and cartoon ephemera -- sales may be plentiful, but the children won't be challenged.

"We send a cross section of books that have been carefully selected to represent a balance of reading levels and interests in our home community," says akj cofounder Karen Braun. "We're trying to generate a real interest in reading. We're selling books -- something that isn't necessarily tied into a cartoon character."

Competition in the book fair business has increased this season. Waldenbooks, the multi-store national chain, is joining the market. So far, a Walden spokesman says, it's received orders from 1,000 schools. The company's discount is higher, but akj offers a wider variety of titles and greater flexibility in the number of copies per title ordered.

"What we're trying to do is bring more quality books into the classroom," says Fran Kompar, manager of Walden Educational Services. "The more children have a chance to be exposed to books and be familiar with them, the more of a chance they will go into a bookstore" -- especially, of course, a Waldenbooks.

Best of the Brews

IN THE early '70s Jack Erickson was a speechwriter for several Democratic senators, and if you ask him to name his favorite beer, he'll respond like a true politician: "Depending on what I'm doing, I'll choose any of about half a dozen." But he sure wouldn't choose ginger ale. Beer is in Erickson's blood; his parents used to tell him stories about Prohibition brewing on his grandfather's North Dakota farm, and whenever he took a trip in college he made a special effort to try the regional efforts.

All of which might help explain why Erickson, 43, has written and published Star Spangled Beer: A Guide to America's New Microbreweries and Brewpubs. Ten years ago, this country had neither: now there's a couple dozen of each. Microbreweries (which bottle their output) and brewpubs (which just sell it by the glass) still account for less than half of 1 percent of all the beer consumed in this country, but that has been enough to force the big companies to reexamine their formulas and consider custom brands.

After having a nonfiction work (based on his compelling account in Washingtonian of a murder among the very rich in the Virginia hunt country) and a novel turned down by New York publishers, Erickson soured on the big guns. "I found out publishing is like politics -- a lot of followers, but no leaders," he says. "In four or five years, there'll be a lot of books on microbreweries, but they have to have someone lead the way."

Erickson set up Red Brick Press in his Reston house, and he's already having a heady amount of success. The first printing of 5,000 copies has sold out; he hopes to have half the same-sized second printing gone by the end of the year. Publishers Group West has agreed to distribute him, he's got a few specialty accounts like Banana Republic, and is angling for such premium outlets as Safeway.

"Small-scale craft brewing is a very American tradition," he says with satisfaction. "This phenomenon is going on all over the country." In Washington, the Olde Heurich Brewing Co. set up shop in D.C. last year, and that in turn has encouraged the availability here of other microbrews. "Of the 30 that are bottled," Erickson estimates, "25 could be bought here."

Gone Fishin' Instead

FOR APPARENTLY the first time ever, an author has turned down money from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He's not even rich, either.

"I appreciate the intended honor but will not be able to attend the awards ceremony," Western writer Edward Abbey said in a letter earlier this year to awards chairman Irving Howe. " . . . I'm figuring on going down a river in Idaho that week. Besides, to tell the truth, I think that prizes are for little boys. You can give my $5,000 to somebody else."

Margaret Mills, the academy's executive director, says, "I've been here for 19 1/2 years, and I'm dredging my memory for a similar incident. People do like to receive awards. We usually get ecstatic letters. I'd like to get $5,000 myself."

Says Howe: "Was I offended? No. It's a free country."

In the Margin

A NEW LOCAL children's book award -- open to District, Maryland and Virginia writers -- has just been announced. The prize this year is $750, which will go to a fiction or nonfiction book geared to kids aged between 1 and 8. Called the Joan G. Sugarman Children's Book Award, it was started by the author and librarian to honor her late husband. ("I want it as a tribute to him, but he would be the first one to insist it be named after me," Sugarman says.) For more information: Book Award, Washington Independent Writers, 220 Woodward Building, 733 15th St. N.W. Washington, D.C. 20005. ::