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When Joseph Bottum moved from a tiny apartment in New York City to a sprawling Victorian house in Hot Springs, he brought along two things essential to success as a freelance writer living in a remote South Dakota town: a personal library of more than 10,000 books and a long list of personal contacts at magazines and newspapers nationwide.

Bottum, 50, relocated to Hot Springs a little more than a year ago after a career spent at the conservative political magazine The Weekly Standard in Washington, D.C., and the Catholic periodical First Things in New York City.

"And then along came this Amazon gig," said the conservative Catholic writer who has found new success writing about faith - from childhood Christmas memories to NFL quarterback Tim Tebow - for Amazon's Kindle single market.

His "Dakota Christmas" essay made him the runaway best-selling Kindle single author this Christmas and it became the third-best-selling nonfiction book in America.

"That was gratifying, to see your name in that category. But as you might imagine, sales dropped off fairly quickly right after Christmas," he said.

His most recent Kindle single, "The Gospel According to Tim," calls Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow a modern-day mystic of sorts whose connection to God may be beyond the grasp of ordinary Americans.

"Tebow is in essence a mystic, and you don't ask mystics for theology," he said. "He's living in a weird spiritual space, like all mystics do. It's either way beyond rational discourse, or it's way short of it. He's just talking to God all the time."

It was published just as Tebow was fascinating America with his come-from-behind wins on the football field and flummoxing it with his intense religious faith.

A football fan and a fan of Tebow's, Bottum said that the 9,000-word essay became one of his favorites. "I have the tendency to hate every thing I've written, but I find I'm taken by that essay more than most," he said.

As a magazine writer who has lived through a shrinking journalism market made even less profitable by websites, Bottum likes Kindle's royalties compensation system. Amazon sells the 5,000- to 35,000-word essays for 99 cents each, but the writer gets 70 percent of each sale.

The success of "Dakota Christmas" as an e-book even led to a contract to write a print Christmas book for the 2012 holiday season that he is currently writing.

When Bottum was ousted as editor-in-chief at First Things in 2010, his wife, Lorena, suggested it was time to leave the East Coast for the summer home in South Dakota they had owned since 2007. For Bottum, that meant a return to the state where he was born into a family already filled with Joseph Bottums, which is why he goes by the nickname Jody.

His great-uncle, federal Judge Joseph Bottum, was a short-term U.S. senator who won his seat after the death of U.S. Sen. Francis Case and lost it to George McGovern in 1962.

Bottum's grandfather was a well-known lawyer in Rapid City whose clients included Korczak Ziolkowski. Bottum grew up in Pierre, but his parents moved away in his teenage years. His 99-year-old maternal grandmother, Enid Hyde, still lives in Pierre, but Bottum chose the southern Black Hills for his home this time.

"I put in my time on the prairie," he said, recalling the unpleasant weather extremes of his youth in central South Dakota.

His Brazilian-born wife and their 14-year-old daughter, Faith, now a freshman at Hot Springs High School, had trouble adjusting to the climate in South Dakota at first.

"It was so cold," Lorena said of the 2011 winter.

But the Bottums have settled into their large, comfortable home on a hillside above the Fall River, recently remodeled to welcome friends who escape from busier lives on both coasts.

"Being at the center of the universe is a lot more fun when you're young and have the energy for it," he said of life in New York City.

Its walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in nearly every room, a decor that Lorena likes to call "very expensive wallpaper."

Bottum finds the solitude he needs to write there, including finishing a book about religion in America that's about two years overdue to its publisher. Still untitled, the book-length essay explores what happens to America as a political idea as the mainline Protestant Christianity that it was founded upon declines and is replaced by Catholicism and evangelical Christianity as the third leg of the stool of the American democratic experiment.

Among his many literary circle friends was the late Christopher Hitchens, a "really funny guy and a great writer," whose last books tended to drive his friend nuts.

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"We were what passed in Washington as intellectuals, because it's Washington, after all," he joked. "Christopher was a raging atheist liberal, until he wasn't. That whole atheism schtick ... I hated in him."

He got serious about his own Catholic faith during graduate school at Boston College, where he earned a doctorate in medieval philosophy.

"As my philosophical specialties came into focus, Catholicism became much more the center of my thought," he said.

"The one thing that Catholicism always offers is a kind of intellectual thickness," he said. "How could a faith that has Thomas Aquinas in it not? There's always another layer of thought in Catholic writing, in Catholic theology, in Catholic art."

In Catholic circles, a few of Bottum's high-profile friends include papal biographer George Weigel and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. His daughter was baptized by the Rev. John Richard Neuhaus, founder of First Things, and Cardinal Avery Dulles gave Faith her First Communion.

A former colleague at First Things, Elizabeth Scalia -- who writes the Catholic blog, "The Anchoress" -- calls Bottum a brilliant writer.

"Jody is a lyrical writer whose passions sometimes get him into a bit of trouble. But then, it's a rare bird who can manage poetry and passion and diplomacy. He comes as close as anyone," Scalia said.

Despite publishing two books of poetry, including his most recent, "The Second Spring," he gave up on his youthful dreams of becoming another Pulitzer Prize-winning Catholic poet like Robert Lowell.

"I really thought when I was young, that I was going to be Robert Lowell. And then one day I thought, ‘No, no I'm not. Not going to happen,'" he said. "I was exactly good enough as a poet to recognize that I wasn't a great poet and never would be," he said.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Sen. Francis Case was the senator who's seat Judge Bottum won.]

 

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