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
These challenging times can be both stimulating and stifling to creative types. Some writers and artists I know have found comfort in their work; others have been unable to summon their muses and have turned to other activities for solace. I say, whatever works! These times are exceptional, and as I recently read in an article a friend sent me, “During this extraordinary time, we have to realize that everyone now has an additional part-time job that might be called Citizen of the Covid-19 Pandemic,” and we need to give ourselves credit for the time and energy that extra work takes.
One artist who's managed to do inspired and inspiring creative work while coping with the pandemic is photographer Gail Howarth. Regular readers of HeartWood may remember seeing Gail featured here a couple of years ago. At that time, she was working on a photography/writing project with Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Now, she is once again combining photography and writing to call attention to today's pressing issues, which include but are not limited to COVID-19, essential workers, race and racism, and LGBTQIA community concerns.
What led you to undertake this project?
City Center Arts in Muskegon offered me the opportunity to be the featured artist there from September 1 to October 10. The gallery has been very supportive of me, my nature and landscape photography, as well as another project I am working on called The Gratitude Project By Lakehouse Photo. Originally we were going to feature The Gratitude Project. However, the rest of the exhibit will honor essential workers. We felt that gratitude, while a worthy topic, might seem insensitive to those that have sacrificed so much. We thought about postponing the featured artist wall or displaying my landscapes. But I felt like we were missing the opportunity to do something meaningful. The year 2020 has been challenging. The pandemic, racial tension and rioting, and a divide that grows deeper daily in our nation weigh heavily on my heart. I just kept thinking, this is a time to heal, not to fight amongst one another. When I proposed A Time To Heal to the folks at City Center Arts, they quickly agreed to the project.
Christina once asked herself, Am I Black Enough? Later in life, as she experienced racism in many forms, the answer became clear. Christina expresses her concerns, her anger, and her wisdom by blogging and through dance.
How did you find people to participate? Were most readily willing, or did you have to persuade some?
I asked everyone I knew if they would participate, and then they asked everyone they knew. I posted requests for participants on my Facebook and Instagram pages and even contacted local social justice organizations.
Most of the participants were referred through the gallery or Facebook friends. Of the 17 participants, I knew less than one-third personally.
I received a lot of non-responses to emails and phone calls. However, those that expressed an interest in the project showed no hesitation about participating. Everyone felt like it was an important project and wanted to be involved.
Like so many others 2020 grads, Chauncey lost the opportunity to complete his senior year of high school in person and to experience senior prom, skip-day, an actual graduation ceremony, and more. Read more about Chauncey here.
How do you think communicating these varied stories and images can promote healing, both for individuals and for our country and world?
In a nutshell, we need to get to know one another. The project gives folks from various backgrounds the opportunity to share their journey with people that are generally not a part of their community. Once we find common ground, it will become easier to communicate about and resolve tough issues.
One example from the project would be that there has been immeasurable conflict related to wearing a mask to keep COVID-19 from spreading. There are many reasons stated, but I believe the biggest factor is that folks don’t know anyone that has had it, and therefore, it does not seem real.
Three of the participants of the project have had COVID-19. Though all three have recovered, they struggle with ongoing health issues. One person caught the virus from a man that did not survive. Another worked in one of the hardest-hit hospitals in the Detroit area. She witnessed countless deaths every day. All three encourage everyone to wear a mask.
Once you know someone that has had the virus, you will likely not question whether mask-wearing is right or wrong.
Healing begins one person at a time. Hopefully, healing begins with one person, then a second and a third, and multiplies and impacts a whole community, a state, a nation, and beyond.
Healing can be hard work and take years. But it can also be quite magical. Have you ever had a rigid belief about a thing and then learn one new fact about it, and it shreds everything you ever believed? I do hope that folks will find a few magical moments from the exhibit and blog posts.
I don’t believe my project alone can make a profound change in the world. I do think that projects with the same or similar intentions are popping up all over as a reaction to the dysfunction we are currently experiencing. I hope that collectively change can and will happen.
Lastly, I will admit that there was a moment during the early part of the project that I became disillusioned. Not all of my friends or family felt the project had merit. They thought that the result might create greater divisiveness versus the desired outcome of healing. I shared with one of the participants that my heart was a bit broken by the response. I asked her earnestly, what if the only heart opened or healed was my own. Her response was: Well, then the whole project is worth it. I am grateful, and I cherish her words.
Working as a respiratory therapist at one of the hospitals hardest hit during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cindy contracted COVID-19. Now recovering, she asks that everyone wear a mask.
In the introduction to “A Time to Heal” on your blog, you write about parallels between the present day and the 1960s. What similarities and differences do you see between the two times?
Now and then, social unrest led to demonstrations and rioting. In the ’60s, the issues were related to civil rights, the feminist movement, the Viet Nam War, and the gay liberation movement. Today, we face the same problems and more, but the war we are fighting is with one another.
Also, in the ’60s, people still had faith in our government, that our voices would be heard, and that real change could happen. Today, we have lost faith in leadership and our government, that our voices, no matter how loudly we cry, fall on deaf ears, and there is little hope for change.
Kwame uses his sense of humor and insight to elevate awareness related to racism and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Kwame believes we are fundamentally bound together and that together we must find a way to get along.
In your interviews with this broad spectrum of people, have any common themes emerged?
The commonality would be the need or desire of the participant to tell their story or to be heard. All felt that in doing so that it might, in some small way, make a difference.
Susan Bishop, MD, is a pediatric doctor. As COVID-19 has significantly changed patient care, she misses children's hugs and unmasked smiles.
In an email, you wrote, “The creative process is funny for me. I never have a clear picture of what something will be in the beginning. It just morphs into what it becomes.” In what ways was that true for this project?
First, I had no idea if I could pull off this project. I had two months during a pandemic to find people willing to be photographed, to share their stories, and translate them into an exhibit of words and images.
Initially, I thought I would display one photograph and a few keywords of each person to convey the story. However, I could not come up with a smart way to show the words. In the end, I decided to label the images more traditionally. Each piece has a name and just a little information about the participant. Hopefully, viewers will become curious enough to read more about the participants on my blog.
Then, as I selected and edited photos, I realized that for most participants, a single image left the story incomplete. I began mounting three to five images into a template with a plain white background. The stories were coming together, but still, something was lacking. One day, I accidentally placed one of the photos behind the others. It was fabulous!! I reduced the grayscale of the background image (made it lighter), and it became part of the story. In some cases, I had to backtrack to find and photograph backdrops that would complete the story.
Lastly, I initially had a narrow concept of who should participate. The expansion happened naturally and felt right.
When Justin learned personal protection equipment was in short supply, he came up with a plan that included renting the second largest cargo plane in the world and having it flown to China, filled with supplies, and flown back to Ohio to begin distribution. He then purchased US-made mask-making equipment and started production in Ohio.
How has this project affected you personally?
Deeply and on so many levels.
There were many days that I felt hopeless. The division between people feels as if it grows larger every day, and I did not feel as though I was working fast enough or hard enough. But I came to believe that I am doing what I can to be a positive force for awareness and change. I will, in some way, continue the work that has begun with this project.
I am honored and humbled that complete strangers would take the time to share their life experiences with me. Their words forever change me.
The most life-changing aspect of the project is related to racism. I have never considered myself a racist. But, I have become more aware of the cultural bias that I carry with me. I listen with new eyes and ears, and feel with a heart more open. And, as those old untruths pop up, I look them over and toss them away.
We have so very much to learn from one another. I am a forever student, and can barely wait for my next teacher.
Siena is working toward awareness and social change as a member of the Sunrise Movement, an organization that seeks to remove oppressive and unsustainable systems to create a just future.
What is your hope for this project and its impact?
I hope that hearts and minds will be changed, that we will become a more unified people, even if we disagree, and as a result, create a better future for our children. That is a pretty big hope, isn’t it! I am not sure if it is realistic at all. But, in the words of John Lennon, “You may say I'm a dreamer, but I am not the only one.”
I hope others will be inspired to start projects that promote healing and unity.
Pastor Sarah believes it is time to put an end to our differences based upon race, learn to imitate the Kingdom of Heaven, and to live as one. Read more about Pastor Sarah here.
A Time To Heal will be on display at City Center Arts from September 1, 2020, until October 10, 2020. Hours are limited, so please check the website before traveling to the gallery.
Blog posts related to the participants are located at https://lakehousecc.com/living-at-the-lakehouse/
Not all blog posts related to the project are complete. Consider subscribing to be notified of new posts.
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.
In recent months, we’ve all had to adapt in ways we never expected: new ways of shopping, socializing, working, entertaining ourselves (jigsaw puzzles, anyone?). With Ray and me both retired, the changes weren’t as drastic for us as for many people. While there have been challenges, our adjustment has been relatively smooth, for which I’m grateful.
But this home-centered span of time has also shown me how un-adaptable I am in other parts of my life and how I’ve been holding onto expectations that don’t square with reality.
Take my activity patterns, for example. For most of my life, I was an early riser. During my working years, both as an employee and as a freelancer, I usually got up at 5 a.m. and started work at 7:30 or 8:00. For a while after I retired I continued waking up and getting out of bed by 5:00 or 6:00, whether I wanted to or not. I seemed to be hard-wired to get up and get going early.
In the past year or so, though, I’ve started sleeping till 7:00, 7:30, and sometimes even later. I feel like I need the sleep, like my body demands it, especially if I’ve done something intensely physical the day before, like a long hike or hours of outdoor work.
Yet every time I get up later than 6:00, I scold myself for being such a slug, and I still try to keep to a routine that’s based on getting up earlier: meditating and doing yoga before breakfast, then making and eating breakfast, doing some reading over breakfast, cleaning up my dishes and myself, getting dressed, making the bed, doing whatever else needs doing, like taking out the mail, and still being ready to start the day’s main activities (writing and book promotion in the morning; chores, errands, and recreation in the afternoon) by 8:30 or so.
So every day starts with this ridiculous and totally unnecessary tension about keeping to a ridiculous and totally unrealistic schedule.
I’ve experimented with various alternatives—putting off yoga until later in the day, meditating before bed instead of first thing in the morning, streamlining this or that.
But I’m starting to see the problem isn’t with the routines themselves, it’s with my attitude toward them. So what if some mornings I get a late start and only have time to write for half an hour instead of an hour or two? Maybe I’ll make up for it another day. And if not, so what? Yes, I feel better on days when I write and I feel off-kilter when I don’t—writing is my happy pill, after all. And yes, I get great satisfaction from seeing the word count and page count increase by the day. But if the world comes to an end, I doubt it will be because I wrote 100 words today instead of 1,000.
My reality has shifted, and it’s high time to adapt to the new one instead of clinging to the old one. The truth is, I’ll probably never again routinely get up at 5:00. So why not try to see my sleeping-later habit for what it is—a response to a physical need, not a sign of sloth--and just enjoy the luxury of being able to structure my days around it.
Which brings me to another realization about reality. Structure is something else I sometimes feel conflicted about. As I wrote in a 2016 blog post, we all have our own tolerance levels for chaos and structure, and finding the right balance between them is crucial for creativity.
As I’ve been examining how to adjust my usual routines to my unpredictable sleep patterns, I’ve questioned whether I still need a routine at all. After all, I’m retired. Most of the things on my to-do list are want-to-dos, not have-to-dos. Why not just do what I feel like when I feel like it?
I’ve thought a lot about that lately, and I’ve come to this conclusion: There may be a time to ditch my routines, but this isn’t it. Experts say having consistent daily and weekly routines gives us a sense of certainty in these uncertain times. The trick is to make your days consistent, with enough variety to keep boredom at bay.
Sounds like exactly what I’m aiming for as I try to adapt to new realities. I’ll let you know how that works out.
Have you adapted in any surprising ways over the past months? Have you discovered aspects of your life you can let go of and others you still need to hold onto?
I realize the past couple of months have been anything but a holiday for many people: those who’ve faced illness themselves or cared for ailing family members, those who’ve lost loved ones, others who have lost their jobs or whose professions put them in harm’s way. My heart goes out to all those people and everyone else who has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.
I feel fortunate that so far, at least, this time of isolation has been a kind of respite for me. When it all began, back in mid-March, I thought to myself: Well, I always wanted to go on a creativity retreat in some peaceful place. Here’s my chance!
And for the most part, that’s how I’ve approached it. Here in our quiet patch of woods, with no outside commitments, I’ve been free to focus on projects I find it hard to concentrate on when I’m always on the go. And a funny thing has happened: The further we get into Stay Home – Stay Safe, the more protective I’ve become of my free time and solitude.
Like most people during this time, I’ve been deluged with a mind-boggling number of invitations to Facebook Live events, Zoom gatherings, free webinars, and other virtual happenings. My internet service’s dwindling data allowance won’t permit me to join in most of those, and while I truly regret having to turn down some invitations—especially From the Heart Yoga’s Zoom classes and chats with my yogini sisters—I haven’t minded passing up the rest. They’ve felt like distractions, in the same way that outside commitments often do.
So how have I been spending my precious retreat time? Let me count the ways . . .
I’ve been working steadily on my novel-in-progress. Rather than spinning out pages, I decided to take a more disciplined approach, guided by the process Lisa Cron champions in her 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). The title itself was enough to sell me on the book, and as I work my way through it I’m becoming even more of a fan.
It’s hard work, requiring a lot of thought and a lot of writing, followed by digging deeper, thinking more, and writing more. Being able to spend hours in concentrated work, not just stolen minutes here and there, has led to much-needed breakthroughs. Finally, I’m getting some clarity on how to achieve what I’m trying to achieve in the story I’m working on.
Early in our Newaygo life—around a decade ago—I scoured flea markets, antiques shops, and ebay for interesting picture frames, visualizing a gallery of old family pictures in our upstairs hallway. Those frames have sat in a trunk in the guest bedroom all these years, waiting for me to fill them. Every month of every year I’ve thought I’d get to it, and every month of every year has somehow gotten filled up in other ways.
Finally, I gathered frames and photos, did the necessary prep work, and with Ray’s help, hung them in the hall. Here are the pictures that now have homes:
While I was at it, I framed a few more of my nature photos to hang in my studio and the guest room. I’m happy seeing the empty spaces filled and even happier having done something that had been on my to-do list far too long.
3. Lending a (Virtual) Hand
A volunteer opportunity cropped up: entering data for a ballot initiative for which I’d helped gather signatures. I thought, Why not? I certainly have the time! It’s a simple task—just taking names, phone numbers, and email addresses from cell-phone photos of petitions and entering the info onto a spreadsheet. A little hard on the eyes, but easy on the brain, which suits me fine right now.
Every spring, one of our tasks is cleaning up downed trees and branches in the patch of woods around our house. Ray cuts up the wood and runs the small and medium-sized pieces through the chipper. I gather up the chips and spread them on the paths we’ve made around our property. This year has yielded enough chips for me to create a new path or two. In the process of making many chip-laden wheelbarrow trips, I rack up an astonishing number of steps, according to my Fitbit. Between that work and my wanderings in the woods (see item #4), I’ve been covering some serious miles.
Enter the North Country Trail Association’s Hike 100 Challenge. The idea is to hike 100 miles in a year. Normally, those miles have to be on the North Country Trail (though it doesn’t matter whether you hike the same mile 100 times or cover 100 unique miles of trail). But this year, in response to shelter-in-place directives, the association bent the rules to allow all miles walked in April and May—in your backyard, around the house or neighborhood, on the treadmill—to count toward the total.
I’ve been keeping track, and I’ve already passed the 60-mile mark. I could very well hit 100 by the end of this month.
5. Woods wandering
True, I do this all the time, not just when we’re on lockdown. But spending time in nature has been particularly restorative during this time of unprecedented events and uncertainty. I hauled out my cameras, which I’d been neglecting while busy with book promotion, and discovered anew the joy of wandering around, photographing flowers, flowing water, and woodland creatures.
Here are a few shots from my wanderings. You’ll find more at the end of this post.
6. Trying something new
I read an article by nature photographer Melissa Groo about an unusual technique for photographing fast-moving birds in flight. Intrigued, I tried it out that very afternoon, trying to catch chickadees and nuthatches coming and going at the bird feeder.
While my results aren’t quite where I’d like yet, in terms of sharpness, I was happy to at least capture a complete bird—not just tail feathers at the edge of the frame—on a fair number of attempts. I’m showing you these not because they’re anything to brag about, but because they represent the kind of patient, try-try-again attitude that’s easier to adopt when you’re not trying to fit so many things into your day.
7. Resting and reflecting
Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs.
-- Wayne Muller
The above quote is from an article titled “Fear of Rest” in the May issue of The Sun magazine, excerpted from Muller’s book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest. As so often happens, I came across the article at precisely the time I needed to read it. Musing on the necessity of rest—and our resistance to it—made me more appreciative of having time to intersperse rest with periods of activity. The older I get, the more I respect rest, but I still need reminding sometimes that it’s a legitimate use of time, not only to restore the body, but also to feed creativity.
How have the past couple of months been for you? How are you feeling about re-entry?
Enjoy a nature break . . .
Even in this strange and uncertain time, we can find reasons to celebrate. Two big reasons come to mind this month.
April is National Poetry Month, and if ever there was a time to read poetry, it’s now, when many of us have extra reading time and are looking to fill our minds with something other than dire news reports.
This month also brings the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day next Wednesday, April 22. Though the mass celebrations that had been planned will no longer be possible, we can still commemorate the day.
Combining these two celebrations, National Poetry Month and Earth Day, I asked local (and not-so-local) poets to contribute Earth Day poems to today’s blog. I’m happy to share those with you now, along with the collage I created for the occasion.
As I worked on the collage, I went back and forth in my mind about whether to portray the vision of a healthy Earth that many of us had on the first Earth Day in 1970 or the reality of Earth in 2020. In the end, I opted for the more hopeful vision, because I want to believe there's still hope.
Once the piece was done, however, I noticed it's darker than most of my other collages (many of which are now posted on the COLLAGES page on my website). Perhaps in the end, my Earth Day collage reflects both hope and concern, themes you'll find in the poems below.
And now, poetry.
Sunset Off Brockway
green life and death place.
Life bursts forth,
buzzing around me.
covering the forest floor.
Smelling of earthy must
and sweet pine.
Fallen trees, once promising,
now slowly decaying back into
Life and Death-
existing in this shared space.
Life and Death, working
hand in hand.
Life giving into Death
giving into Life.
I Think They Will Not Mind
by Marsha Reeves
I think they will not mind that
I arrive late.
Gijiigijigaaneshiiyag gii-giimoodaanagidoowag noopiming
The chickadees were mumbling in the bushes
by the box where I get mail.
They needed an Honor Song
so I sang to them
because we understand them again
ezhi-manaadenimangwaa ingiw wiidokawiyangidwaa
the way we respect those who keep us company
Gaawiin da-giizhokoniyesiiwag misawa
They do not need to dress warm and yet
they warm our hearts.
* First published on ojibwe.net
Written on the Wind
by Tom Cordle
I stumble in this foreign tongue and try to make the talk
I speak of when this land was young, and of my brother hawk
My spirit voice is hard to hear, I have so long been gone
But I will whisper in your ear, and having spoke, move on
This finger pushed into the sea of sand and swamp and pine
Has been a welcome home to me – I sing this land of mine . .. .
Of night song sung in joyous trill by every kind of fowl . . .
Of chickadee and whippoorwill . . . of warning from the owl . . .
Of plenty fish and wild oats . . . of berries blue and red
That danced their way down happy throats to bellies always fed . . .
Of rivers coursing through green world of gleaming golden lake . . .
Of alligator, hog and squirrel . . . of moccasin the snake . . .
The screaming panther ruled the pine, the eagle ruled the sky –
Oh, will you hear these words of mine? Will you even try?
I have no words on talking leaves for you to read, my friend
For all this simple man believed was written on the wind.
by Tim Hawkins
and our hearts seek meaning among the stars,
wild creatures assert their presence
in the here and now
and the just here and gone.
Unknowable in the way one speaks
of the alien and other-worldly,
the title to their kingdom is forged
in their absolute
manifestation of the flesh.
If this seems ironic and abstract,
then so be it.
For irony and abstraction
are our great gifts--
not to the world, but to ourselves--
invented for our survival.
And we, of course, are the real aliens;
Each a world unto one’s own,
orbiting a sun of its own devising.
* First published in Sixfold, July 1, 2013, Summer 2013
Collected in Jeremiad Johnson (In Case of Emergency Press, 2019)
Our Mother (In the Pandemic of 2020)
by Sally C. Kane
Do you hear her – Our Great Mother?
In this moment, in time - a reprieve -
when all human activity
has slowed to bare bones minimum,
She inhales an expanse of cleaner air.
Exhales a wasteland of toxins.
Do you hear her – Our Great Mother?
She weeps for us, her children – All
Residents, two-legged and four,
winged, finned and serpentine. We
share the same earth, sea and air.
We, the two-legged ones, hold
the choices in concert with Our Mother.
Even as forces seem out of control, and
the playing field remains unequal.
Do you feel her – Our Great Mother?
She shudders as the sludge venoms
from Frack wells, the vast desolation
from wildfires, and endless wars’ ravages
do a rival dance with the C-virus.
I wonder about this massive
Blue Marble in our universe. The
one we call home. Our Mother.
There’s nowhere else to go. We cannot
just walk off or fly away.
I wonder, if I were an astronaut, or
could hitch a satellite ride, how - in this
Pandemic blink of time –would
Our Mother, our home - look?
Would her greens be greener, her blues
be bluer, her storms less turbulent,
her mass free from veils of smog?
Like a cataclysm, would I see
a rotating orb, vibrating
glimmers of brighter, kinder energy?
Perhaps violet or white? Would
I know – would we all know- we’ve
begun to exercise our choices for love?
by Jessica Mondello
Addiction lies between the lines
And love was lost to pride and glory
This ego virus made us blind
Your mother's dying by your hands
But you won't listen
Her blood is all over your hands
Will you listen
The soul was lost beyond the shadows
The fog will choke us into dust
Collective conscience chose the gallows
The time of man will turn the dust
Your mother's dying by your hands
You won't listen
Her blood is all over your hands
Will you listen
The Soul of Spring
by Kathy Misak
I see it in the buds of the maple.
I hear it in the sounds of the red wing black bird.
Inquisitive cat so happy to be playing outside
Warm breeze on the back of my neck
I see it in the new bright yellow feathers of the gold finch.
I hear it in a distant barking dog.
Ever grateful to be walking this Earth mother experiencing my spring soul
And The Earth Stayed Young
by Tom Cordle
And the buffalo could roam
The rivers clear and clean
Washed by our simple homes
And all turned in the wheel
And the sacred song was sung
To teach us what was real
And the earth stayed young
Once a man would take
No more than he could use
Set bones back in the lake
When a meal of fish was through
And all turned in the wheel
And the sacred song was sung
To teach us what was real
And the earth stayed young
Once the earth was young
And men saw with their hearts
That everything was one
And man was but a part
And all turned in the wheel
And the sacred song was sung
To teach us what was real
And the earth stayed young
Now the earth is old
The buffalo are gone
The rivers have been sold
And man stands all alone
Let all turn in the wheel
And sing the sacred song
To teach us what is real
So the earth stays young
What Have You Learned
by Jessica Mondello
That you've all been praying on
That God has only destroyed you
And you can't drink the oil
You've been pulling out of the ground
Your momma's shaken and torn . . . fool
Do you know what you are
And what you're here for
When it all comes crashing down
What have we learned
Distractions have kept you
From what's really going on
Keeping you away from your mother
Her life source you could tap into
Can heal that broken bond
Yes, you can get there inside you
Do you know what you are
And what you're here for
When it comes crashing all down
What have we learned
Pale Blue Seasons
by Tim Hawkins
in the flight of a heron, and to the surrounding
darkness where countless feed.
But so much that is unattainable, so much
that lies beyond the sovereign dark, rises up
out of the pale blue season of twilight
like fireflies summoning among the trees
as the moon loses her translucent and ghostly pallor
in the evening’s first clear and troubling dreams.
Toward daylight, the deer rise up
from among the flattened grasses
and low-lying hummocks,
emerging in the cool of morning
from indiscernible swales
and cedar swamps,
wary and shy, but alive with owning
at least a part of this
pale blue season of wildflowers.
* First published in Blueline: June 2011, Volume 32
Collected in Wanderings at Deadline (Aldrich Press, 2012)
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.
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 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.
from the heart of the woods
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.
Last Wednesday Wisdom