The same pair of hands that once gripped the railing of a boat speeding down the Gambia River in Africa, nimbly danced across guitar strings while performing in the Aix-en-Provence in France, and poured drinks in Gainesville since 1982 has accomplished a new feat – writing a novel.
Tom Blake, a 65-year-old bartender who has worked at Lillian’s Music Store for about 30 years and has become a Gainesville icon, published his first novel, “Exile on the Road,” on Aug. 22.
He began the writing process in 1995. Blake calls it “experiential fiction,” and much of the novel’s content was drawn from his own life adventures.
“I lived those days, but then you put your imagination and your memory together, and it creates a whole new reality,” he said. “You have the juice of the experiences and flavor of your imagination mixing together, and that’s what you put on the page.”
“Exile on the Road,” the first book in his quartet series, outlines his early 20s as he traveled through France looking for his big break with his band, “The Dead Dog.”
After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1970, Blake and his band trekked through France for three years. There, Blake met his wife, Genevieve, and together they ventured through France, back to Virginia and then to Jamaica. Finally, upon realizing Genevieve was pregnant with their first child, Gabriel, they settled down in Gainesville.
“When we got here, we were pregnant and almost homeless,” he said. “We had our Gibson guitar, an amplifier, and some rags.”
Blake got a job at Lillian’s making sandwiches and quickly moved up to doorman, then bartender. About 30 years later, he’s become a staple at Lillian’s, handling his duties Monday through Saturday from 3 to 8 p.m.
Blake said his experiences traveling through France were largely the inspiration for the first book, especially surviving tough experiences while chasing his rock ‘n’ roll dream.
Those experiences included having to sleep in a car in 32-degree weather.
“In the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, the pool is always empty,” Blake said. “But when you look down and see the reality of it, it’s harder to chase your dreams. So as long as you keep your head up and you see the clouds, you keep dreaming. It’s all a part of the joy of that moment, and it’s all a part of living that moment.”
The other books in the series, “Exile at Home,” “Exile in Paradise” and “Exile No More,” will summarize Blake’s life after he became a bartender and a family man with three children: Gabriel, Scarlett and Jasmine.
While Blake has already finished writing them, their publication dates have not been set.
Gabriel Blake said Lillian’s and Tom are synonymous, so writing the next three books detailing his life as a bartender was only natural.
“I definitely consider him a landmark of Gainesville,” he said. “People can get drinks at any bar, but they go to Lillian’s to talk to my dad.”
Donovan Courtney, a long-time patron of Lillian’s, said without Blake, there would probably be no Lillian’s. Blake’s experiences and relationships with regulars such as Courtney are a major building block of the next three books.
“You’ll see as the regulars enter, he’ll already have their drink made before they sit down,” Courtney said. “People will specifically come here for the sake of Tom being here — his awareness and how he approaches everyone goes beyond being a normal bartender.”
Gabriel Blake, who helped get the book published, credits his father for writing the book and Amazon for creating a smooth publishing process.
“The book was written before I even knew it existed – my father is the creative genius and gets full credit for the writing,” he said.
While “Exile on the Road” is only available as an e-book, Gabriel Blake said a paperback version will be available sometime this fall.
“It’s an interesting, quirky tale with many fascinating characters,” Gabriel Blake said. “Readers will have more questions for my father after reading the book.”