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Alexandria Writer Lives ‘George’s World’

Anyone who has ever written an essay, poem, or even a short story, dreams of writing a novel and having it published – including every journalist.

George Vercessi is not just dreaming. He’s done it — four times. His latest mystery, “Alma’s World,” revolves around the fine art of antiquing in New Market, Md., and Romney, W.Va.

It’s a world that Vercessi himself knows well, and his own experiences form the basis of the action. “My wife and I were actually antiquing up in New Market one day when I accidentally scratched my arm while inspecting an old dresser drawer,” he said. “Within a short time I had a rash spreading up the arm and it was swelling. We put some ointment on it and it disappeared. But, it gave me a great idea for a mystery novel.”

That sounds remarkably similar to the action in “Alma’s World,” as described on the back cover. “Molley Moore is at the center of the action, which erupts when her husband, Jack, scratches his arm while inspecting an old dresser in New Market. With Jack’s health failing, Molley turns for help to her former lover, Navy commander Duke Sampson.” The two trace the dresser’s history back to Romney and its former owner, the late Alma Wilkins.

FROM THAT SCENARIO a host of characters become entwined in the mystery of Jack’s now-lethal scratch, as Molley delves ever deeper into Alma’s “seemingly innocuous world” re-opening old wounds that cast every character’s motives into doubt.

Born in the Bronx in New York City, Vercessi started his writing career about 10 years ago, after a 27-year career in the U.S. Navy. “After graduating from LaSalle College in Philadelphia, I decided I’d join the Navy for a 3-year stint,” he said. “That was just before Vietnam and it turned into a career.”

In 1964, as a Navy lieutenant, he was assigned to a rescue mission that made a run up a Vietnamese river to rescue some Americans. He was also aboard an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf.

Just prior to retiring as a captain, Vercessi’s served as chief of information for NATO’s Southern European Command. He also taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis from 1976 to 1979. Many of these experiences served him well for his first two novels “We the People” and “Seal-Test.”

The first is a fast paced drama in which his hero, a Navy commander, finds himself confronting Washington’s power elite. The second is a story of revenge and manipulation of a “weak and flawed president.” Vercessi served as a public information officer to the Navy Seals at one point in his career, he said.

“I really enjoyed his first two books. I bought enough copies of this one for the whole family,” said Harry Hatry, a long time friend, admirer, and former neighbor of Vercessi’s.

VERCESSI’S BOOKS are “real page turners,” agreed Bernard Katz, an old Navy buddy who’s known Vercessi for 20 years. “He shifts gears amazingly. His approach is very cinematic. You feel like you can actually see the characters and the settings.”

Vercessi’s written four books in all, and he’s already at work on the fifth. In addition to his three novels, he’s also written “An Author’s Guide to Publishing on The Internet,” a how-to book that guides aspiring authors through the maze of the publishing dilemma. It also serves as his text in presenting seminars to those that would wade into the shark pool of publishers, agents, and hordes of competition.

“The whole publishing industry has, and is, changing radically,” Vercessi said. “Publishing companies who we used to be very familiar with are being consumed and it’s coming down to just a few giants. Readership is also dropping due to television and the cost of doing business is rising. Publishers are using agents as gatekeepers.”

An average American author is lucky to make $12-15,000 a year in sales, he said, and that’s before the publisher takes out costs for advertising and book tours.

“In the end its usually break even,” Vercessi said. Some writers find the exception to the rule, when their books are picked up by television or movie producers. “That’s when you can make a lot of money,” Vercessi said. “But, that can also be very tentative.”

He speaks from experience. Vercessi developed and co-produced “The Silver Strand,” a television movie from MGM Studios and Showtime about Navy Seal training, starring Nicolette Sheridan and Gil Bellows.

“It was originally sold to Paramount. Then, they went broke and it sat on the shelf. Finally, it was picked up by MGM,” Vercessi said. “But it took a lot of haggling for us to get paid and recognized.”

HIS BRUSH with Hollywood, and his frustration with the economy of publishing, has turned Vercessi into a zealot for Internet publishing.

“There are basically three formats for getting your work published outside the traditional publishing world. There is the electronic format, where readers can download your work from the Internet through your own Web page. There is having books produced by print on demand,” he explained. “And finally there is working with the dotcom publishers, such as Borders and Amazon.”

Downloading and printing can be coupled by only revealing part of the book on the Internet, and encouraging readers to buy it for the whole story. Vercessi primarily uses print-on-demand.

“Under this arrangement you pay to have the books printed and then recoup your costs as they are sold,” he said. “You also have to do your own promotion and be willing to give up significant blocks of time to attend book signing and other events.”

Vercessi’s second career as a writer and his leadership in on-demand publishing have led others to pursue their dreams of the printed word. “His career in writing has inspired me to recently my open my own public relations firm,” said David Cullen, a friend in Vienna who serves with Vercessi on the Board of the Navy Public Affairs Association.

He is active in writers’ groups, where he willingly shares his expertise to other published and budding writers. Sky Beaven, another local author from Franconia, attests to Vercessi’s leadership skills. “He is very good about doing his own promotion. And, he is a very well informed person about both writing and promotion which he shares in our writing group.”

THAT EXPERTISE IN promotion was evident on a recent Saturday and Sunday at a local store in Alexandria when Nancy Carson of Alexandria purchased a copy of his latest work. “I like to support writers. Especially those who are supporting their own books,” she revealed.

“You have to engage potential buyers. You can’t just sit there and wait for them to come to you,” Vercessi said.

That can lead to problems, though. “One of my first experiences was at Borders in Pentagon City. I was there with my book, greeting people as they came in,” Vercessi said. “Some of the women didn’t take too kindly to it. They thought I was some kind of pervert. The next day I had a big sign made which read, ‘Meet The Author’ and had it posted over my spot.”

He has learned not to make assumptions about potential customers. “In trying to be friendly one day I asked this lady when she was due. She looked at me very indignantly and said, “I’m not pregnant. She didn’t buy a book either,” he admitted.

Usually, people are very enthusiastic. At a signing in Romney, recently there were more customers than he had books. “I took 100 copies of Alma’s World and still ran out,” Vercessi said.

Maybe it was because they knew he is trying to get it picked up for a movie, either big screen or television. “I’ve sent it to Ashley Judd’s agent to review. I’d like her to play the lead. She would be perfect,” he said.