Last week I got back to work on my novel-in-progress after taking several weeks off to focus on other matters. There’s been some stuff going on, ya know?
There still is, but at least I’m able to inhabit islands of concentration here and there. Of course, it always takes time to get up to speed on something you’ve set aside, and that’s especially true in this case because I’m using a completely different (for me) approach with this writing project—one that requires a great deal of thought and patience.
As I ease back into this painstaking process, I can’t help thinking it might serve as a model for how to approach life in general. I’ll elaborate on that in a moment, but first a little more about the writing part.
The method I’m following was developed by author Lisa Cron and detailed in her 2016 book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).
What aspiring author wouldn’t be seduced by that title? Shave three years off the process and end up with a riveting novel? Sign me up!
But it turns out the secret isn’t to power through, wildly racking up word counts. It’s to carefully “blueprint” every single scene, stifling the impulse to start writing the scene until you’ve answered several key questions. And I mean really answered them thoroughly, sometimes with pages of brainstorming ideas that will never make it into the manuscript.
Questions such as:
Whew! See what I mean about a lot to think about? All this could easily be overwhelming if you had to lay out the whole novel, scene by scene, before writing a single word. But it doesn’t work that way.
You draft an opening scene—realizing it’s only a draft that will be revised many times—and an ending scene, again knowing it, too, will likely change.
Then you methodically fill the space between beginning and end, working in chunks of scenes. Map out a chunk, blueprinting scene by scene. Write those scenes. Then blueprint another chunk of scenes, one at a time, and write those. From time to time, spiral back to the scenes you’ve already written, and layer in new information, new setups and storylines that emerge as you go, always keeping the end in sight.
Now, how does this apply to life in general? Obviously we can’t spiral back and rewrite parts of our lives, much as we might wish we could! Still, I do see a few parallels.
The first is that in the Story Genius method, the focus is on each scene. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the idea of writing a whole novel, you zero in on the scene in front of you, examine it from several angles, and think it through before moving on. Kind of like focusing on what’s happening right here, right now, each day instead of letting your mind get stuck in the “If only . . .” of your past or fast-forwarding into the “What if . . .?” of the future.
The idea isn’t to over-analyze each moment, but to be aware and focused on the here and now.
Second, just as writers following Story Genius ask what their characters believe and why, we all can benefit from examining our beliefs and motivations. Where do they come from, and how trustworthy are those sources? How do our beliefs affect our worldview, and how do our experiences change them?
Finally, unlike authors of novels, we can’t predict how our own stories will end. But we can keep in mind our ultimate goals and intentions and try to make sure every scene in our saga unfolds in a way that leads us in the direction we want to go.
With most in-person author events still on hold indefinitely, I'm devoting one blog post each month to an author interview.
Today's guest is Donald Levin, author of seven mysteries in the Martin Preuss series, as well as the novel The House of Grins (1992) and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs (2005) and New Year’s Tangerine (2007).
The latest book in the Martin Preuss series, In the House of Night, officially launches Tuesday, October 6.
You have published six books in the past nine years, with a seventh due out soon. What writing (and other) habits contribute to your productivity?
My experience taught me that if you’re going to be a writer, you need to approach it as a profession. You can’t sit and wait for inspiration, any more than a surgeon can wait to be inspired before performing an operation. You have to make yourself write, even if you don't feel like it. Inspiration and creativity come from writing, not the other way around.
Once I started as a serious creative writer—producing novels, short stories, and poetry—I transferred that workmanlike attitude and those work habits that I developed. So when I’m working on a novel, I make sure I’m at work at the same time every day, and put in a full day of writing with a quota of 1,000 words.
I’m very fortunate that I was able to retire from teaching five years ago so I have been able to devote a lot of time to writing. But even before I retired, I made time to write while working full-time.
It can be done.
According to your website, you have worked as a warehouseman, theatre manager, advertising copywriter, scriptwriter, video producer, and political speechwriter as well as professor and dean at Marygrove College. How does this varied work background serve you as an author?
And second, I get bored easily (the polite way of saying the same thing is, I have always been intellectually restless) so I’ve always wanted to be as versatile as possible. This not only helped me find work because I could do a lot of different things, but having all those different kinds of jobs kept me learning new things and figuring out how to explain them to other people. That’s one of the things I most love about writing: I’m constantly learning new things.
Your Martin Preuss series is set in Ferndale, Michigan. How important is setting to your stories, and what made you choose Ferndale?
I chose Ferndale mostly as a matter of convenience: I live there. When I want to scout locations, I can just walk around to soak up the sights and sounds. I like to say that people can walk around with any of my books in their hands and see where the locations are.
There’s also another reason why I chose Ferndale: one of my favorite writers is Henning Mankell, who set his mystery series in Ystad, a small city in Sweden. As it happens, Ferndale is almost exactly the same size as Ystad, so I feel like I’m making an homage to Mankell by giving my detective a beat similar to Mankell’s Wallander.
What goes into creating a fictional character for a series? Are there any differences with creating a main character for a stand-alone novel?
So when I started the first Preuss novel, I had planned (or hoped, I should say) that it would be part of a continuing series. As I’ve written the books, Preuss has sort of unfolded himself to me as a character, and I’ve gotten to know him better and better—and my readers have, too.
Another important aspect of writing the Preuss series for me and my readers is Preuss’s son, Toby. Toby is multiply handicapped and lives in a group home, but he is an integral part of Preuss’s life. Indeed, the relationship between Toby and his father is, in my humble opinion, at the heart of the series. Martin Preuss loves his son fiercely and cares for him with great tenderness, and Toby returns the love unconditionally. One reviewer called their relationship “a touching element that’s a constant in the series”; another reviewer noted, “The complexity of the main character and especially his deep love for his handicapped son draw the reader into the story in a way that few other mysteries do.”
Toby has profound physical and cognitive disabilities, but the character is sweet, loving, joyful, and everybody’s favorite character in the books. (Also one of the few rounded, sympathetic portraits of handicapped characters I’ve seen.) Toby is based on my own grandson Jamie, who sadly passed away a few years ago; writing him as a continuing character in this continuing series gives me a chance to keep that wonderful young man alive for me and everyone who knew him.
What would you like HeartWood readers to know about your mystery series and especially the soon-to-be-released In the House of Night?
Each book uses its crimes as a starting point for examining larger crimes and more significant social issues. The latest book, In the House of Night, perhaps most overtly deals with contemporary social and political concerns. The book emerged from my growing concern with the spread of white nationalism in this country. Set in 2013, the book looks at how the white nationalist movement began to edge into the mainstream of American culture.
Here's the story:
When the police investigation into the murder of a retired history professor stalls, friends of the dead man plead with PI Martin Preuss to find out what happened. The twisting trail leads him across metropolitan Detroit, from a peace fellowship center, a Buddhist temple, and a sprawling homeless encampment into a treacherous world of long-buried family secrets where the anguished relations between parents and children clash with the gathering storm of white supremacist terrorism.
You typically divide your time between Michigan and Florida. Do your writing habits and routines change with a change of location?
Have you found it harder or easier to write during the COVID-19 pandemic? How has COVID-19 affected the way you interact with readers?
As I mentioned in the last question, the pandemic quarantine made me rearrange my writing schedule a bit. And it’s played havoc in connecting with readers in books fairs and exhibits . . . they’ve all been cancelled this year. It’s made me rethink how I connect with readers.
I always hold book launch parties for each new book with music, refreshments, readings, and so on. This year, out of concern for bringing people together, I’m organizing a virtual book launch for In the House of Night. It’ll be on my Facebook page (and Youtube, if I can figure out how to do it) on Tuesday, October 6, from 7 till 8 p.m.
All writers have to deal with discouragement and doubt at times. How have you dealt with those negative emotions?
This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.
But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already had several writing jobs, as I mentioned previously. I turned away from literature entirely; I turned away from reading. Instead I became the professional writer I described in my response to your first question.
And I did well in that world. It came to pass that the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives. About the need to do it.
In the gap between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten year gap—I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.
With the confidence I had gained, and with what I had learned about writing, I came through that decade of despair by learning that the writing itself and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I’ve published eight novels (seven in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two novellas, two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.
That voice shouting in your ear, the voice a friend of mine personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.
And in the end, that’s really all that matters.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Many thanks for some great questions! I appreciate the opportunity to appear here.
Find Donald Levin and his work here:
Amazon author page: https://amzn.to/32y8bLw
With in-person author events still on hold indefinitely, I'm devoting one blog post each month to an author interview.
This month's interview is with Sharon Dukett, author of the memoir No Rules. Desperate to escape the stultifying life she saw ahead for herself in the early 1970s, and entranced by the California hippie scene, Sharon ran away from home at sixteen. No Rules details her precarious journey through the counterculture, an experience that would mold her into the strong woman she became.
Every teenager who ever lived probably fantasized about running away from home and living on their own, but most of us lacked the courage and motivation to pull it off. What do you think made the difference for you?
I was miserable with the prospect of what was ahead for me if I didn’t go. My mother seemed so unhappy, as did my older sister. Leaving wasn’t just for me. It was as though I was breaking out for them, too, demonstrating it was possible to live a different life. Plus I had my older sister with me when I left, which made me feel protected. The catalyst for that leap was being dumped by my first real boyfriend, which left me feeling empty and hopeless.
It took a different kind of courage to decide to share your story—a story that you had kept to yourself for a long time. What gave you that courage?
As I read writers like Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed, I saw that what made their books shine was the honesty. They had great stories, and I knew I had a good story, too. But it would be empty if I didn’t share my deepest thoughts and feelings, good or bad. My success and sense of accomplishment in my career and my personal life as I grew older made me strong enough to share my story regardless of others' reactions.
In the Epilogue, you mention that you began writing as a way of healing from unresolved hurts. At what point did the book transition from personal writing to something you wanted to share with others?
It quickly transitioned as I got caught up in the memories of the times. I had always wanted to write a book, but when I was younger I never knew what to write about. Once I began writing about this, I didn’t want to stop. But until I had a personal computer, the idea of using a typewriter was overwhelming. If the personal computer had not been invented, I would have never been able to complete a book.
In No Rules, you write honestly about some difficult subjects. What parts of the book were most challenging to write?
I found one of the most challenging subjects was writing about falling in love with someone that I later came to despise and recognize as a con artist. I had to recapture the naïve innocence I felt at the time and block out what I knew would come later. It was difficult remembering being attracted to him as he later repulsed me.
Were there parts you especially enjoyed writing?
There were some parts that just flowed out of me like they were already written, and I was just the conduit putting the words on paper. I cried through writing the scene with Cindy after she finds Jesus. And the trip across Canada could have been an entire book alone. It was much longer in the original draft. Reliving those memories were like re-experiencing the trip.
What helped you access the memories that form the basis of No Rules?
Because this was such a momentous time of my life, much of this was deeply ingrained in my memory. I even believe I recall some exact dialog. I did write the entire first draft in the 1990’s when it was all fresher in my mind. I have some photographs from the time that I used for reference. For example, I have a group shot of those on the ride from Patterson, NJ to Ohio, and photos of our room at the A-House in Provincetown. I also found the more I wrote, the more the memories would overtake me. When you are writing memoir, you take up residence in that time and place and the images and experiences flood back at you. I also played music I listened to during that era, particularly if it was music I don’t often hear.
I loved what you wrote in the Epilogue about the people from that time in your life being your “first tribe.” How did they function in that role?
Despite some of the bad things that happened, we were all part of a larger community. No matter where you went, you could easily connect with others because they looked like you. I learned so much from all these people because our backgrounds were highly diverse. It didn’t matter what socio-economic, ethnic or religious background you came from—no one cared, and no one typically asked. I don’t think that has ever happened in America before or since. You can’t live through a time like that and not recognize the common humanity in all of us. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.
In the acknowledgments you say the book is an accumulation of years of work. Take us through your journey from initial idea to publication. How long did you spend writing and revising the book? What avenues did you explore in pursuing publication? How did you come to be published by She Writes Press?
You also mention that you belonged to a writer’s group. What did you find valuable about that experience? Were there any challenges?
I spent several years in the writers group. I don’t think I was always open to the input from some of the members, probably because of how it was presented. But generally speaking, even those that came across as being overly critical had truth I could learn from. In time we modified our process for critique so we had to start out with three or more positive comments first before any negative comments. This was better for all of us because writers need positive reinforcement of what works along with knowing what to improve. It was fairly time consuming as there were four or five of us turning in lengthy chapters for review every two weeks. I know my chapters tended to be 7,000 or 8,000 words each. They were all cut a lot when I revised later on. I stayed in that group until I put the work aside in 2000.
What do you hope readers will take away from No Rules?
I want readers to experience what it was like to live in those times, and the transformation that came about as a result of discovering feminism and growing my own strength.
What did you gain by writing the book?
By writing this book, I have completed a goal I had for years, and often wondered if I would ever reach. By doing so, I was able to preserve a unique time in history that no longer exists and will always be part of who I am.
What’s next for you as an author?
I am currently working on a thriller novel that takes place in the near future when climate science has been declared to be illegal propaganda in the US, and activists are detained and disappear.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One of the greatest experiences of being a writer that I never expected, particularly now because of social media, are the wonderful writers I have met and connected with online. My new tribe is made up of writers who are supportive of one another and offer support and information. We inspire each other and help one another reach our goals. I have discovered I am once again part of a larger community.
With in-personal author events still on hold indefinitely, I've decided to devote one blog post each month to an author interview.
I'm kicking off this new feature today with a Q&A that tells the remarkable story of a young writer's devotion to his grandmother and her literary legacy. For reasons you'll understand as you read on, it wasn't possible to interview Barbara Mahase Rodman, author of the recently published novel Olas Grandes. Instead, this interview is with her grandson David Kuhnlein, who edited and published the book after the long lost manuscript was unearthed.
The manuscript for Olas Grandes was stashed in a trunk for about forty years before you found it. Tell us more about how you learned of its existence and managed to locate it.
For the most part that’s true: the manuscript sat in her trunk since 1979, full of potential, charging up like a battery. Barbara Mahase Rodman (my grandmother, known by her grandsons as Babbie) got many rejection letters in the 70s and 80s, due to a couple factors, one of which was her animosity towards the editing process. Another was her interest in larger publishing companies.
I hadn’t heard of Olas Grandes, or at least I’d forgotten about it, until I read my great grandmother’s autobiography My Mother’s Daughter – a testament to growing up as a strong Indian woman in Trinidad. My mom told me that I was mentioned in the back of the book where Anna Mahase Snr. wrote about the family. So, of course, that’s the first place I looked! Sure enough I found mention of me, but more rewarding was a typo – it said that Babbie had published two books: Love Stories for All Centuries, which I had read, and Olas Grandes. My mom, uncle, and I quickly searched Bab’s house for the manuscript, and hidden in a massive wooden trunk, brimming with so much of her writing, we found it.
Did you know right away you wanted to edit and publish the novel? What led to that decision?
Well, first I wanted to read it. There’s something incredible about reading a book written by an elder like Babbie who, at the time I found the book, suffered greatly from dementia. The manuscript's weight in my bag became a talisman, and as I walked around with it I felt like I was hanging out with her, aeons ago, in Trinidad.
After reading the first few chapters I took a train across the country. I didn’t want to take the only copy of the book on the trip, so I let those early chapters linger in me. I talked to my friends Adam and Katie a lot about the project. Even speaking of the project excited me, and it was in the tangle of conversations -- and questions I asked every reader and writer I encountered -- that I decided something had to be done with this book.
At the time, I was writing a series of lyric essays on illness and a recent surgery I’d had. But while writing them felt important, it also made me physically sick. Focusing my energy on transcribing Olas Grandes was a way to keep writing, while also taking a needed break from my own project. Gail Kuhnlein, my mom and Barbara's daughter, is also a writer, and lucky for me she agreed to help edit the book. I couldn't have done it without her.
What was Barbara’s reaction when you told her of your intentions? How old was she at that point? Was she able to be involved in the process as you worked on it?
Honestly, her reactions depended on the day. In the two years before Barbara passed away, my visits to her house increased, and I began to help informally caretake. Because of her memory, we had certain conversations regarding Olas Grandes over and over again, to the point where I observed patterns and ways to create shortcuts around them.
For instance, sometimes she’d tell me that Olas Grandes was not a novel, but a story, and it was already published. So I’d have to preface a conversation about her book by showing her the physical manuscript and explaining that it’s different than her other book. But other times, like magic, she knew exactly what was happening and was thrilled.
“Never could I have imagined,” she once told me, “that this darling, darling little boy would be helping me publish my book.” She was 90 when I re-discovered Olas Grandes, and the project took roughly two years to manifest. She was involved peripherally. I would read passages to her that I didn’t understand, either because of her diction or place names, and asked her to explain. Cultural words, fauna, flora, and Trinidadian myths stayed with her, and she usually had no problem giving me details or stories associated with these passages.
In the acknowledgments, you say you tried to keep Barbara’s voice intact during the editing process. Being a writer yourself, was that difficult? Did you ever find yourself wanting to impose your own style?
It was easier than I thought it’d be. I have a knack for imitating other writers, and have a lot of fun impersonating. I think of it like a painter trying to paint . . . oh anyone, to use a Trinidadian example, M.P. Alladin, by sight. (A more accessible example perhaps is how musicians “cover” other songs, which is not a rip off, but a compliment, a head nod, perhaps even an advertisement.)
It’s a fantastic exercise to let go of the ego that writers so often cling to around their work, and this release opens up a unique freedom to explore the architecture of language from a new vantage point. Also, I hadn’t written much fiction yet (that’s changed significantly since then), so perhaps I had a leg up there.
The setting in Trinidad plays such a big part in Olas Grandes. What did that place mean to Barbara? Do you know how she came to write Olas Grandes?
At heart she’s an island girl fortified with the blood of a princess. She was born and raised in Trinidad, where her grandmother Rookubai (a princess escaping an arranged marriage) arrived around 1887, a stowaway on a ship from India. I mention India because many Indians held onto Hindu traditions – celebrating Diwali and the belief in reincarnation – even though Canadian missionaries attempted to convert all the Indians on the island to Christianity.
Although Hindu themes are peripheral in Olas Grandes, I think that Barbara’s interest not only in Hindu customs, but also her interest and study in the occult, was nurtured by island life. She called the Caribbean “the perfect background for dreaming.”
One of my persistent, and unanswered questions I posed to Barbara, was: who is the character Ma Becky based on? Many of her characters are fictionalizations of family members, usually adorned with pieces of herself. Ma Becky is the only character I could never see clearly with this template. Bab knew some Trinidadian witches when she was growing up, who lived on the beach, but part of me thinks that there’s quite a bit of herself in Ma Becky.
Babbie always loved fairy tales, fables, and myths, partly because of their appeal to both children and adults. She stayed rooted to the Caribbean landscape because it’s where she spent her youth. She had also recently and tragically lost her son, David Rodman, in 1977, just a couple years before writing Olas Grandes. I think that writing the book was a way for her to enter an alternate reality, in which Davey was a young boy again, and she was living in an idyllic gothic romance in her home country, but that’s just a guess.
Did working on Barbara’s novel give you any new insights into her life?
Barbara was able to see the book in print before the end of her life, wasn’t she? What was that like – for her and for you?
The review copy for her book arrived twelve days before she died. The same night we got the first full box of Olas Grandes copies was the night she passed away. Seeing her hold the book and flip through it was an incredible moment of this journey. With people still reading and buying and reviewing her book, that journey continues.
Between my mom and me, we read Babbie about seven chapters before she died. She didn’t remember writing the book, but at the end of each chapter she'd say, “I like this story, keep reading.” Usually when I'd read her the Detroit News she’d get burnt out listening about half-way through an article. Not so with Olas Grandes. I can only imagine what went on in her mind, listening to her grandson and daughter read words to her that she wrote some forty years ago. There was some magic there for all of us.
Your uncle Ken created the stunning cover art. Was the cover design a collaborative process, or did you give him carte blanche?
My uncle Ken and I sat at the kitchen table for hours, discussing the project. When we decided that we were going to independently publish the book for temporal reasons, as well as “sweet romance” not being as salable as some of the more hardcore stuff in the romance marketplace, we decided that he’d paint the cover. I gave him some ideas, and we read some passages from the book aloud to give us a sense of voice and place. But Ken was born in Sangre Grande, so he knew what the coastline looks like better than I do!
One funny thing about the painting was that he started painting these tiny waves, but since olas grandes translates to “big waves”, my mom suggested making the breakers a little bigger. It was a Homer Simpson moment, I think he even smacked his forehead, “D’oh!”.
Barbara’s bio says she also wrote Love Stories for All Centuries. Can you say more about that? She also contributed to the Detroit News Sunday magazine. What kinds of thing did she write for the magazine?
Love Stories is a magical little book weaving together love stories across three continents, the common thread plucked from a dreamlike vapor, the mist of eternity on which every story’s loomed. It’s her first book, published in 1985 by the International University Press and printed in an underground style. I’m biased but I think it’s an exceptional project. She mingles famous love stories with her own; lovers meet in and out of dream worlds, recognizing one another by their eyes, and it’s all built on the history of Trinidad, India, and Spain – her spiritual home.
Babbie would say to me, “I don’t believe in reincarnation. It’s not something I have to believe in because I know that I’ve lived another life in Spain.” Reading her books and articles in the Detroit Sunday News Magazine, which used to come folded inside the Sunday edition of the Detroit News, it’s clear that for Barbara, death was not a barrier but a reprieve. She concludes one of her many articles by writing, “I am a dreamer living in my own world of dreams. I hate reality, but Life is reality, therefore I compromise and leave my dreams alone for a while, as long as Life lasts. After Life, I can have my dreams and all the things I love all to myself.”
She wrote emotional pieces, like this one, but she also contributed silly articles. In one of my favorites, she talks about each item from “Twelve Days of Christmas” – partridge, pear tree, drummers, rings, etc. – and adds up their price, telling the beloved what to do with her gifts. Which ones to keep, which to donate to a local bird sanctuary (there are a lot of birds) and what she should now think of her “true love” after he heaps these excessive gifts into her lap. “I don’t know about you,” she writes, “but I’d be happy with a single gold ring.”
I see from the Olas Grandes Facebook page that you’ve been matching proceeds from sales and donating to worthy causes. What went into your decision to do that, and how’s it going?
This entire project revolves around a sense of duty. Not only to my grandmother, or our family, although that’s a large part of it, but there was also something more elusive, and larger.
I have a few practices I perform religiously. One is writing. Another is listening. Longstanding systemic health and social inequities disproportionately affect Black people in the US – and the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting that fact. It’s important to know where our money’s going. The decision to donate to Detroit Will Breathe is just one way to support the amazing anti-racist work being done right now, as people continue to march, and people continue to buy.
Do you have any other writing or editing projects in the works?
I just finished my first novella – it’s a work of literary fiction about the notorious Austro-Hungarian vampire Béla Kiss. I’m still waiting to hear back from a few of my favorite small presses. I’m also continuing to write flash fiction, film reviews, and poems.
Much of my own recent writing is forthcoming or published in online lit journals, and easily found if interested. (davidkuhnlein.wordpress.com) Also, sitting in my “to-do” pile are three more of Babbie’s full length manuscripts, two of which I’ve read, and are fantastic. I’m not promising anything, but if they get transcribed and edited, I’ll update the Olas Grandes fans on our Instagram, which I’m most active on @olasgrandesnovel.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I absolutely love your blog, Nan, and I’m so honored. Babbie would have been ecstatic. Thank you, from all of us, for the interview.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, social distancing has forced many authors to cancel or postpone readings and book signings they’d scheduled for spring. A dozen of my fellow authors and I got our first taste of this when the West Michigan Women’s Expo, at which we were all selling books (or trying to), was shut down only three hours into what was supposed to be a three-day event.
That’s when I came up with the idea to host a couple of virtual Author Expos on HeartWood. I posted the first one two weeks ago. The second installment opens today.
Here, you can visit the virtual tables of seven authors and check out their varied offerings. If you find a book you love—and how can you not, with this many authors and books?—please consider using some of your unexpected free time to write and post a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or both. The author will thank you and so will readers who learn about the book from your review.
HeartWood Author Expo 2 is now open!
Forget San Francisco, Norma left pieces of her heart in Alaska. No cruises or packaged tours for her, she prefers experiencing the state independently via ferry, mail plane, rental car, train, motor-home, bush plane, and an occasional bus. In 2014 she was Jason Mackey’s IditaRider. Many of her Alaska adventures have ended up as magazine articles, though now she is focusing on books.
To be fair, she loves Michigan too, as her books on Michigan history attest. In Norma’s view, history isn’t dates and wars and documents, it’s people and how they reacted to the events that unfolded around them. In researching her books, she’s drawn not to dry facts, but to the quirky.
Norma’s nonfiction titles include Wild Women of Michigan: A History of Spunk and Tenacity; Lost Restaurants of Grand Rapids; Legendary Locals of Grand Rapids; Grand Rapids: Furniture City; 100 Things to Do in Grand Rapids Before You Die; Muskegon; Grand River; Dutch Heritage in Kent and Ottawa Counties; Wyoming; and Connecting the Coasts: The Race to Build the Transcontinental Railroad, and Show Me The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics: Casey Ferguson.
In addition, she is the author of Kasey’s River Song: Spinning Dreams in Gold Rush Alaska; and Dear Santa, I Know It Looks Bad but It Wasn’t My Fault.
Author, adventure traveler, volleyballer, biker, hiker, and yogi—Laura is not one to sit still. She’s always on the go, looking for the next big idea. Co-owner of a marketing communications company, FineLine Creative, she advocates life-work-play balance and encourages others to immerse themselves in different places and cultures, as she has through her travel adventures.
In her spare time, Laura writes a monthly travel blog. Her recently-released book Travel Light is a memoir that explores the lighter side of travel with doses of humor, adventure, and personal transformation. Through her stories, she takes readers along on journeys to Italy, Ireland, Spain, France, Alaska, Arizona and her home state of Michigan.
Sherry A. Burton
Born and raised in Kentucky, Sherry and her Navy husband lived in nine states before settling in Michigan. She got her start in writing by pledging to write a happy ending for a friend who was going through tough times. The story surprised Sherry by taking over and practically writing itself, and launched her into a new life as an author.
Her historical fiction series, The Orphan Train Saga, follows the stories of children who were transported from Eastern cities to foster homes in the Midwest between 1855 and 1929. While the children in the stories are fictitious, each child’s story is told with the use of history from the era to add flavor and excitement to the tale.
Her other novels include Tears of Betrayal, Love in the Bluegrass, The King of My Heart, Surviving the Storm, Somewhere in My Dreams, Seems Like Yesterday, and Always Faithful.
Sherry also writes children’s books under the name Sherry A. Jones.
A former Michigan State Police officer, Robert was launched into police work as as the first full-time patrolman with the Bridgeport Township, Michigan police department, initially without the benefit of formal police academy training. After surviving those eighteen months of on-the-job training, he began his career with the Michigan State Police, where he was first assigned as a trooper near Detroit, conducting countless criminal investigations. From there he went on to a variety of assignments over his 25-year career, furthering his education with an associate’s degree in criminal justice, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Madonna University, a Juris Doctorate degree from the Detroit College of Law (now MSU School of Law) and a Ph.D. in Public Affairs and Administration from Western Michigan University. He currently practices civil law and is working on a new book about his experiences as an attorney.
His first book, Tuebor – I Will Defend: An anatomy of a Michigan State Police Trooper, is the story of an honest, hard-working yet naïve young man who chose to leave the safety of civilian life for a career of a dedicated police officer. The book depicts the daily lives of officers and captures the human side of police work.
Wendy Sura Thomson
Wendy’s memoir, Summon the Tiger, is a story of surviving and thriving in the face of extraordinary obstacles. Born with congenital skeletal abnormalities, she had a leg amputated as a toddler. Her father suffered from World War II induced PTSD, and her mother was emotionally unstable. Wendy coped by escaping to a world of books and music. But when her father sold everything to buy a freighter and travel around the world, Wendy signed on as navigator. She jumped ship in Miami and headed out on her own, as what was left of her family disintegrated. As she pursued her studies and met a coterie of colorful characters, she was forced to evaluate what was most important to her.
Wendy’s other books include The Third Order and a children’s book, Ted and Ned. In addition, she contributed to Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End.
Besides writing, Wendy’s pleasures include sipping coffee outdoors first thing in the morning, rain or shine; listening to the waterfall and the birds; and watching—often with amusement—her two beloved Irish Setters explore.
Kimberly Bell Mocini
Kimberly grew up in Rockford, Michigan and went on to earn a degree in business administration from Aquinas College and to study art at Kendall School of Design. Early in her career, when the microwave oven was first introduced, Kimberly traveled throughout Michigan teaching hundreds the “how to” of microwave cooking. That led to her first foray into publishing, a cookbook called For Better Meals The Microwave Way.
Her more recent book, My Child Wasn’t Born Perfect, is a personal and inspiring story of the challenges she and her family faced while raising a child who had a learning disability that was classified under the autism umbrella.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski
Nan (that’s me!) is a former science writer for the Detroit Free Press and the University of Michigan, whose award-winning work (under the byline Nancy Ross-Flanigan) has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and online publications. Her blog, Heartwood (http://www.nanpokerwinski.com/blog), focuses on creativity, connection, and contentment.
Her memoir Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, which won first place in the memoir/nonfiction category of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary awards, chronicles her search for adventure—and identity—in two alien realms: the tricky terrain of adolescence and the remote U.S. territory of American Samoa. Against a backdrop of lava-rimmed beaches, frangipani-laced air, and sensual music, she immerses herself in 1960s island culture with a colorful cast of Samoan and American expat kids. The lessons she learns in the process prove invaluable when she’s faced with crises as trivial as a mean girl’s put-down and as staggering as a fire, a hurricane, a drowning, and her own health crisis.
When she’s not writing, Nan takes photographs, makes collages, and wanders the woods around the West Michigan home she shares with her husband Ray Pokerwinski.
Tell us about the books and authors you've discovered during this period of isolation.
First of all, it was Friday the 13th. Second of all, there were warnings all around to practice social distancing in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Stay home. Avoid crowds. Cancel big events.
So it was something of a surprise to get word that the West Michigan Women’s Expo, where I was scheduled to sell and sign books last Friday, was still a go. Granted, a few authors who’d reserved space at the event decided against coming, but a dozen or so of us intrepid—or foolhardy—souls showed up at DeVos Place with our books.
The Expo opened at 10:00, and while the crowds weren’t overwhelming, a steady stream of expo-goers ambled through. Book sales were not exactly brisk for the first few hours, but we were all hopeful things would pick up after lunch.
Then, around 1:00, the rumors began circulating. The Expo was being shut down, and we’d soon be sent packing. This rumor came in various forms, the most colorful version being that “twenty men in suits” had converged on the conference center and ordered the event closed. A later, more credible report had it that Governor Whitmer herself had issued the directive. (There’s a trenchant comment in there somewhere about one woman doing the work of twenty men (in suits!), but I’ll bypass that for now.)
Given the shutdown and the fact that many authors (including me) may now face cancellation or postponement of other events we’ve worked so hard to arrange, I’ve decided to turn the next two installments of HeartWood into virtual Author Expos.
Instead of strolling through, you can scroll through and visit the virtual tables of the authors you might have met in person at the cancelled event. With this many authors and books, I’ll bet you can find plenty of reading material to keep you occupied during this period of voluntary isolation.
And if you find a book you love, please consider using some of your unexpected free time to write and post a review on Goodreads, Amazon, or both. The author will thank you and so will readers who learn about the book from your review.
The HeartWood Author Expo is now open!
Jean writes speculative fiction. Her novels include Trust, Destiny Pills & Space Wizards, The Last God, A Broken Race and Sahmara. Her short stories have appeared in The 3288 Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Theian Journal, Acidic Fiction's Corrosive Chronicles anthology, The First Line, Tales of the Talisman, Brewed Awakenings II anthology, and more.
When not ruining fictional lives from the comfort of her writing chair, she can be found devouring books and sushi, enjoying the offerings of local breweries, weeding her flower garden, or picking up hundreds of sticks while attempting to avoid the abundant snake population who also shares her yard.
Joan H. Young
A lifelong outdoorsperson, Joan rode a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986 and in 2010 became the first woman to complete the North Country National Scenic Trail on foot. Her mileage totaled 4,395 miles.
In addition to North Country Cache and North Country Quest, both about her experiences on the North Country Trail, Joan has written six cozy mysteries in the Anastasia Raven series and four Dubois Files children’s mysteries. Two essay collections, Get Off the Couch with Joan and Fall Off the Couch Laughing contain work originally published as newspaper columns.
Author, publisher, and animal advocate, Janet is the founder and publisher of Cats and Dogs, a Magazine Devoted to Companion Animals, a free publication distributed in West Michigan that promotes pet adoption and spay/neuter.
Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Grand Valley State University and was a correspondent for The Grand Rapids Press for ten years. Her articles have also been published in Cat Fancy, The Muskegon Chronicle, and the North Ottawa Weekly. Her true story of taming a feral cat, “Wild Cat I Think You Love Me,” was published in The Ultimate Cat Lover (HCI, 2008).
Janet’s books include You Might be a Crazy Cat Lady if . . . , Dog 281 (Save Five Series Book 1), More Than a Number (Save Five Series Book 2), and the just-published The Save Five Club (Save Five Series Book 3).
Born in former Czechoslovakia, Emma is a journalist, author, short story writer, and screenwriter based in Lowell, Michigan.
“Small towns in Midwest America continue to inspire my work,” she says. “I find strength in my characters modeled after resilient people in the face of adversity. I love the Lake Michigan shoreline, its beaches and forests.”
Emma’s books include Shifting Sands: Short Stories, Secrets (Shifting Sands Book 2), and Greenwich Meridian Memoir, an epic tale of immigration and love spanning three continents and two generations.
Ellen M. Murray
Ellen is the creator of Think Spell Write, a reading program for students who struggle to read and write fluently despite having had reading instruction. These might be special education students, students whose education has been disrupted by trauma or interrupted due to frequent moves, or students who have not yet learned phonetic rules well enough to effectively apply them to read.
A 32-year veteran teacher, Ellen taught various subjects at different grade levels, always with dedication to struggling students and a passion for teaching reading.
“I love teaching reading!” she says. “I especially love teaching reading to students who feel they will never learn to read. I love that ‘aha’ moment when reading clicks for a student. I love when students are speechless or red-faced, or their face lights up as they realize ‘I can read this!’ ”
Brenda is a multi-award-winning author of pre-teen, young adult, and adult novels. She has published several picture books for children as well.
Among her titles: The Freelancer, On The Third Day: An afterlife journey, From Beyond the Grave: An afterlife journey – Part 2, A Lady’s Destiny, The Moment Of Trust, and Wilkinshire
Brenda volunteers her time writing plays for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She also freelances for magazines from the Fenton, Michigan, home she shares with her husband and cats.
Be sure to come back in two weeks to meet more authors at HeartWood Author Expo II.
In keeping with my December tradition, I've compiled a year-end list of memorable books I've read over the past twelve months. I don't rank my selections, concurring on that point with author Neil Gaiman, who believes picking five favorite books is like "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I list books I've found memorable for any of a number of reasons: the writing is exceptional, the story is engrossing, the tale is told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I can't explain. The books that make the list aren't the only good books I've read over the course of the year; several others always stand out in memory. My decision of which to include here is arbitrary, but I try to pick ones I think HeartWood readers may also enjoy.
The books listed here weren't all published in the past year. One has a publication date of 2009; the others were all published in the past six years.
I never set out to read books that conform to particular themes, but when I look back at what I've read, I do notice common threads. A number of these books are testaments to perseverance and the ability to overcome adversity, from physical injury to neglect to dysfunction and abuse. Sounds like heavy stuff, I know, but I found all of these books inspiring in one way or another.
Just as I wrote this time last year and the year before, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2019? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
Ten Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2019
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.