Becoming a Ghost

Punching “ghostwriting” into brings up “forgery.” Britannica does not include a separate article distinguishing the genre from counterfeiters of art, literature, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ghostwriter as “Originally a hack writer who does work for which another person takes the credit.”

Tony Schwartz, the writer behind Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1985) said, “Being a ghostwriter was hack work.” He was a young writer then with a pregnant wife and a mortgage. He did it for money—half the $500,000 advance and half the royalties. Years later, Schwartz acknowledged a “deep sense of remorse,” admitting he “put lipstick on a pig.” Ed Kosner, former editor and publisher of New York, had stronger words for his colleague at the magazine: “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

Ghostwriting’s history includes Sinclair Lewis who, as a new Yale graduate, sold literary plots to Jack London and penned Tennis as I Play It for a U.S. national champion.  Katherine Anne Porter, a Pulitzer prize winner, wrote My Chinese Marriage for Mae Franking, a 17-year-old Irish-Scottish girl who met a 19-year-old Chinese student in high school.

John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson penned the then-senator’s Profiles in Courage for which JFK won the Pulitzer Prize. Two dozen ghosts wrote Ronald Reagan’s An American Life. “I hear it’s a terrific book!” Reagan said to a group of reporters. “One of these days I’m going to read it myself.”

Ghostwriting businesses are all over the Internet and vary in size. I found a huge company claiming hundreds of bestselling books ghostwritten for globally known public figures. And, I learned about a small shop run by a man well past middle-age—sparse hair sprayed into vertical pick-up sticks—who touted himself as “the author of your next bestseller.”

You may wonder why I’ve spent almost three hundred words and you’ve spent fifty-five seconds reading about a topic I’ve cast in a questionable light. A few months ago, my son told me, with excitement, that he was investigating an executive position with a company that produced ghostwritten books—a curriculum not included in either of my graduate degrees: an M.A. in journalism, an M.F.A. in creative writing. Who would want to study ghostwriting, anyway? I was interested in personal essays, poetry, and memoir. Ghostwriting was not my jam.

But, sometimes, a pursuit disparaged, turns into a pursuit embraced.

“Ghostwriters,” claims Scottish mystery writer Sara Sheridan, “have as much right to think of themselves as good writers as academics, poets or literary novelists.” Yes, I thought to myself, whatever I’m writing—blog or memoir, poem or paid assignment— I don’t compromise quality.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Three decades ago, I helped my older friend Ruth, describe her Maori upbringing in New Zealand. She possessed fascinating stories and basic writing skills. I added editorial polish and basic publishing skills, resulting in a small booklet for her and her family. Last year, Ruth’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, with help from her mother, found my address and wrote to ask if I had an extra copy of her grandmother’s stories. I dug out my copy and mailed it to her, imagining applause from Ruth’s perch in heaven.

Extensive online resources have increased access to genealogical records, but, like Ruth, some older people (one company tags eighty-two as the average age of their clients) are interested in doing more than filling in blanks on a family tree; they want a legacy book for their families. Remembering lovely chats with Ruth and her pleasure in the completed product, I decided to use my skills to help someone, a stranger, to tell their story.

I applied to a middle-sized company. The interview process was standard: application, resume, interview, and a test. The test included transcribing an interview and constructing a story that retained the “voice” of the interviewee—always called the “author.” I transcribed a thirty-seven-minute interview which contained the usual circumlocutions, unfamiliar place names, and curious pronunciations characteristic of everyday parlance. I pared the 3,236-word count down by one third and wrote, I hoped, a readable distillation of her story.

The process was tedious and hard! Since the individual was widely traveled, I had to sleuth out spellings and names of places in South America, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. As a librarian, I’m a pretty good detective, but I ended up with a list of ten problems I couldn’t solve. Most perplexities had to do with names: Is “ Naim” the correct spelling of the family member’s name?”  Where is the town of “Gottlering?” and what are “Crocodile nails.” I grew to enjoy the author’s cheerful, lilting voice, and her effusive laugh when telling about personal misdeeds. The rhythm of her language, the cadence of her speech stayed in my head, often as I went off to sleep.

I passed the test, signed a contract, and have an assignment. I would love to include details from the subject’s story and say, with happiness, the syllables in her name, but I can’t. I honor the unwritten ghostwriter’s code: anonymity and confidentiality.

Like the character in J. P. McEvoy’s 1928 play Show Girl, I am  “…one of them there ghostwriters doing my bit for belle lettres” and, I think, affirming the idea that there is a book in everyone.

“I’m Not Famous like Aaron”

During  author Aaron Hamburger’s June 4th  reading at Third Place Books, he asked someone to stand: Emily Dietrich, his first creative writing teacher. Hamburger, author of two novels and a short story collection, said he had never thought about writing until he landed in Emily’s creative writing club at Detroit Country Day School in the late 1980s.   

In September of 1987, Emily was a new teacher with a new graduate degree in English. Her first piece was about to be published in Historic Women of Michigan.  She had a single class in pedagogy on her resume, but when  Detroit Country Day School called the English department at the University of Michigan and recommended her, Country Day, an elite expensive school, hired Emily. 

“Aaron,” she recalls, “wrote naturally, dropping right into whatever we were doing as if it were completely familiar to him. I remember feeling happy to see him–he had a great smile and sparkling eyes–when he came into the room. He joined the creative writing club and his writing appeared in the club’s publication, Spectrum.”

In 1989 Emily got married, the software development company her husband worked for was sold, and they moved to Silicon Valley. “I did not  want to live in California.” A decade later they relocated to  Washington where they still live. She wrote for SeattleWomen and Seattle’s Child.  She ran a creative writing club at Redmond Junior High and Redmond High School when her daughter was a student there. She’s on the board of RASP, the Redmond Association of Spoken Word which promotes literary arts and poetry through open mics, author readings, and writing groups.

Years passed with no contact between Emily and Aaron until a suburban Detroit newspaper interviewed him after the publication of  The View from Stalin’s Head  in which he mentioned his first creative writing teacher. A distant relative sent Emily the article. Aaron and Emily reconnected on Facebook.

Aaron made room in his Nirvana Is Here book tour schedule  to teach a craft workshop for  Emily and her writer friends, the  Mount Holyoke Club of the Puget Sound Writing Group. “We met at a member’s home in Bellevue and had dinner. Aaron brought a collection of exercises for generating ideas and vivid descriptions. He showed us how to think about characters in a different way. Best of all, his accepting, playful prescence got us talking, sharing and going deeper into the process.”

Emily’s response when I approached her after Aaron’s reading was “I’m not famous like Aaron.” Right. Not many of us are, and Aaron would probably say, ‘I’m not famous like, well, Philip Roth or Herman Wouk.’ But, if you believe the old maxim “A writer is one who writes,” Emily’s track record is proof.

The first thing she ever wrote was a poem–and that’s the genre she connects with most. Right now she’s working on a chapbook of poems she read as part of the Duvall Poetry series last year. She’s also drawn to fiction. When Ms. magazine published her essay, she decided she had “permission to work on a novel.” She completed Holding True, published in 2013 by Booktrope.  She pitched a second novel at the 2016 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, “but then Trump got elected, and I redirected my energy toward activism and resisting.” She’s found time to contribute to co-author a puzzlebook, The Conjurer’s Almanaq  and writes Magentic, a  blog which, yes, boasts a briliant magenta theme.

Because her husband was disabled in an accident, she is spending a preponderance of time caregiving, allowing her to enjoy books like  Where the Crawdads Sing, A MAn Called Ove, There, There, Nine Below Zero, and Crazy Rich Asians.                

In fact, she scurried away from Aaron’s reading to get home and reflected later on on her early assocation with Aaron, enlightened by his ficionalized story of homosexual assault  (based on his own experience) in Nirvana is Here.

“I had no idea, not the slightest idea, of what Aaron had been through when I met him. I didn’t realize that our creative writing club was a safe place for him as a very recent trauma victim.” She continued,

“Reading Aaron’s novel and the non-fiction he has written about that time in his life has been intense and changed my understanding of those years. I feel so much gratitude and admiration for his work and for his way of being in the world.”


Getting’ It Done: A Writers Conference at Home

Writers Conferences—tempting ones—are all over the place: the SleuthFest in Florida; the Kauai Writers Conference in Hawaii; the Writers Police Academy in Wisconsin; the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Alaska. Some are subject specific; others offer a range of genres and guest faculty.

Beyond USA borders, print ads for the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in Mexico list Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver as past speakers. The elite Rohm Literary Agency in New York offers conferences abroad in Cape Town, Dublin and Paris for the respective prices of $1,550, $1,995, and $2,245, travel not included. Rohm has advertised the participation of Tom Robbins’ and Margaret Atwood’s literary agents, along with other nationally known authors.

So why wouldn’t I, despite the perk of a conference in her own backyard, hop over the back fence to an exotic setting or a genre-specific conference? Here’s why: The Chuckanut Writers Conference is characterized by 1) low cost: under $250; 2) stellar assortment of authors and agents, twenty of them, including standouts like Garth Stein, bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and Claudia Castro Luna, Washington State Poet Laureate, 2018-2020; and 3) intriguing panels like “Seven Steps to a Strong Political Essay, “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads: Using Imagery in Writing,” and “Novel Development: From Appalling to Polished.”

A disclosure about “Novel Development:” I was the moderator though I suggested neither the title nor the emphasis—plotting, planning, researching and developing novels. I put myself forward as a moderator because my work as a librarian brought me in touch with a writer I admire, Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” and because I wanted to see how the tactics of fantasy, dystopian, and literary fiction writers would inform my process as a creative non-fiction writer. Sure, I could attend the panel, but reading and over-researching authors, especially the work of unfamiliar authors is as good as taking a university class.

The assigned panelists included Terry Brooks, an amiable individual who has written 23 New York Times bestsellers. I launched a discussion on outlining vs. not planning with two of the strategies he suggested in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life (2004): 1) daydream; 2) Write an outline. The rest of the panel were pantsers—authors who create content, flying by the seat of their pants, though Laurie Frankel (The Atlas of Love, Goodbye for Now, This is How it Always Is) does both.

In contrast, the characters of George and Lizzie (whose names are the title of Nancy Pearl’s debut novel) took up residence in her head. “I had a basic idea of George and Lizzie and I knew the direction of the story.” Her manner of working goes like this: she gets up early in the morning, takes off on a seven-to-ten-mile walk, listening to books or podcasts. “I find that while I’m walking and not consciously thinking about much of anything, all sorts of ideas come to me; it’s basically how I figured out what would happen in George and Lizzie.” Nancy delights in the adventure of publishing her first novel at age 72, but she considers herself a reader first and a writer second.

Of reading, Laurie Frankel says, “If you write two hours in the morning, then you have to read two hours in the evening. Read books in your genre that make you want to say, ‘Omigosh, I wish I’d written that book.’ Read books that have solved the problem that you want to solve in your work. Read like a writer. Ask what worked and how; what didn’t work and why not. “

Omar el Akaad handed out a list of books relevant to the new genre of Cli-Fi—Climate change Fiction. Omar, an investigative reporter born in Cairo whose family moved to Toronto when he was sixteen, wrote three novels before his novel, American War was published in 2017. “Those first books were terrible,” he said. “I didn’t even try to publish them.” His work with Toronto’s national paper The Globe and Mail took him to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and Missouri. He was struck by the “symmetry of injustice”—tear gas and armed soldiers both in Afghanistan and Fergusson. He saw civilians living in combat zones and in refugee camps. American War, the second American Civil War, takes place in the closing decades of the 21st century and shows the consequences of climate change. He observes, “I like to say that a lot of what happened in the book happened; it just happened to people far away.” When I told him I was halfway through the book, he said, “Don’t worry, it gets much more depressing.”

Tara Conklin’s novel, The Last Romantics, is also dystopian. Chapter one, titled “Year 2079,” opens with Fiona, a 102-year-old poet talking to an audience of a thousand people. The chapter ends Fiona saying “…this is a story about the failures of love…” The love and its failures revolve around Fiona and her three siblings after the sudden death of their father, the family’s financial ruin, and the mother’s debilitating depression. Tara believes that “stories navigate us through difficult times and help us understand the past and point the way to the future.”

Her comment and four other fine fiction authors gave me new ways of working with plotting (I don’t), planning (I’m a pantser), researching (enhancing my librarian background) and developing my work (chapter by chapter). Craft elements of fiction can transfer to creative nonfiction; yet there was so much more to be learned from the conference…

I do not reference the astonishing address by Sonora Jha after which the audience rose as one body to cheer her passion, humility, and insight; I do not explain how Laurie Frankel’s workshop, “Work+Magic: Strategies for Gettin’ It Done” recharged and reframed my work habits; I’ve not mentioned the poem that lifted out of me, catalyzed by poet Jane Wong‘s session on Elegies; I’ve not acknowledged conference chair Kaitlynn Teer‘s smooth piloting of a conference with many shifting parts. I’ve been to other excellent writers conferences, but Bellingham, the city of “subdued excitement” is lucky to have a writers conference sponsored and presented by Whatcom Community College and Village Books.

P.S. To hear from another writer who chose to attend this conference, read my friend Laura Rink’s takeaways here.

Nirvana is Here and so is Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger

The novel Nirvana is Here showed up in mid-May, adding to Aaron Hamburger’s list of books: The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners. While Hamburger will not exactly be “here” in Bellingham where I live, he will be at Third Place Books on June 4th in the Seattle area.

I’m going to hear him. When I attended the Stonecoast MFA program, Aaron was a sought-after faculty member––a sharp evaluator of both fiction and nonfiction and a critic who salted his feedback with wry observations. His attitude and approach were always about making our work the best it could be. I suspect students at Columbia University, George Washington University, and Brooklyn College where he has also taught, feel the same way.

Nirvana is Here is about sexual identity and has roots in Hamburger’s own experience. To check out the plot and determine whether you want to read a cleverly written, spiked-with-humor piece of fiction about a gay Jewish teenager who endured a trauma of the most difficult kind––rape by an older high school boy––scroll down through Amazon’s cluttered pages to Hardy Griffin’s review.

The musical group Nirvana’s been called the “flagship band of Generation X” and the band had a distinct effect on Aaron Hamburger. In 1991, he was “a nervous freshman” at the University of Michigan when a guy ran down the dorm hall yelling “You’ve got to hear this!” For Aaron, listening to “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana was

“an explosion of insolent Pacific Northwest cool into my deeply uncool and fundamental conservative world…Hearing his music was like receiving a dispatch from another spiritual plane, one that offered irrefutable evidence that there were other ways of living–and maybe other ways of loving, too.”

References to Nirvana’s music threads through Nirvana is Here. Kurt Cobain’s advocacy of gay rights impacted Aaron. “During his relatively short life and career…[Cobain] spoke with a clarity that inspired me to do the same, creating a kind of role model for me to follow.” (You can read more here.)

As for me, I paid little attention to Nirvana in the 90s. I was probably too busy saying “Turn it down!” to my children to attend to the rhythms and lyrics of Nirvana. When I asked my 35-year-old son if he knew the band Nirvana, he said, “Mom, that’s like asking an English major [me] if she’s heard of Shakespeare.”

Now, having revisited “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are,” on YouTube, I get it––the hard driving, powerful drumming of Dave Grohl and the raspy-voiced magic of Kurt Cobain. I see how Cobain contributed to the liberation of Aaron Hamburger and his fictional character Ari. Aaron integrated his own trauma into his novel and has advised other writers to

“Travel to dark, secret places in your work and expand your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax so you have all the tools at your disposal to express your vision .”

But he’s not all serious. Once at a Stonecoast talent show, Hamburger participated wearing a chef’s apron and hat, and wielding a hamburger-flipping spatula. I wonder what surprises he’ll have for us in Seattle.

Limericks, Pangrams & the Dazzling Ascent of

Anu Garg. Do you know that name? People in 171 countries do because they receive what the New York Times called “the most welcome, most enduring piece of daily mail in cyberspace.” I’m one of them.

Eleven years ago on January 8th, 2008 I heard Garg (Indian-born and raised) at Village Books. Enchanted with his deep knowledge of words and their history, I subscribed to Word.A.Day (A.W.A.D), and I bought The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: the hidden lives and strange origins of common and not so common words. The title was a mouthful, but then as now, I’m fascinated by the words he chooses, defines, and writes about.  

Garg founded, the vehicle for A.Word.A.Day exactly 25 years ago today: March 14th, 1994. He sent out his first word, zephyr––he liked the exotic sound of it and the meaning, “a breeze from the west”––when he was a graduate student in computer science at Case Western University in Cleveland. By 2002, his success allowed him to quit his corporate job at AT&T. Since Wordsmith’s inception, Garg has sent out 3.6 billion emails and featured 5,626 words. Here’s a recent favorite of mine: throttlebottom

Meaning: noun: A purposeless incompetent in public office.
Etymology: After Alexander Throttlebottom, a vice-presidential character in Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 musical comedy. Earliest documented use: 1932
Usage: [Lyndon B. Johnson] wanted to be Vice President, both to position himself as JFK’s successor someday and because he believed that he could convert any job––even Throttlebottom’s–– into a power base.” (James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom, Knopf, 1989)

Will I use throttlebottom in conversation? Probably not. Still, I like knowing that it’s available to apply to a recalcitrant legislator. Likewise, scapegut, cernuous, mordibezza, and clutchfist. Not all curious, obscure words are meant for more than an appreciative smile. Some go straight to my brain’s wastepaper basket. As a writer I might find a fun application for palilogy (the repetition of words especially for emphasis) at my critique group and once, I used alazon (a person characterized by arrogance, braggadocio, lack of self-awareness, etc.) in Words with Friends, wedging the Z onto a triple square.

To celebrate its anniversary, has announced limerick, anagram, pangram and coin-a-word contests. You know what limericks are. Anagrams are words that use the same letters, like debit car/bad credit or dormitory/dirty room. A pangram uses all the letters in the alphabet as in “Intoxicated Queen Elizabeth vows Mickey Jagger is perfection.”  Garg’s coined  word, linguaphile (a lover of words) made it into the American Heritage Dictionary.

Wordsmith has assembled an impressive list of judges to judge the contests Garg is offering: big names in the word biz like Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor, Kory Stamper, author of Word by Word, and Richard Lederer, author of the humorous classic, Anguished English. Prizes include books, dictionaries, and a tour of the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the UK. I had to still my heart over that last prize. I like to read anagrams, limericks, and pangrams; I don’t like to write them. Maybe I could coin a word: how ‘bout Gargfan?

Wait. Maybe I should check the OED to see if it is already a word. Results: ‘‘No dictionary entries found for Gargfan. Did you mean arghan, gangman, marfan, or sarafan.’’ Nope. Garg, no gangster he, bears no resemblance to the fiber of a South American plant, a heritable disorder of connective tissues, or a long mantel that is part of the national dress of Russian peasant women.

Gargfan: what do you think? I’m a fan. Anyone else?

P.S. For more about how Anu Garg uses his created vocation as balm for his mom, see…/solver-crosswords-child-becomes-parent.html





Postcard Digi-Stalker, Pt. 1

In 2007 Paul Nelson and Lana Ayers launched The August Poetry Postcard Festival (APPF). Participants pay a small fee, with the intention of writing a postcard poem a day to each member in their assigned group of 31 poets.  htpps://

As one who sent postcards to friends and family, plucking touristy designs from loaded racks in places as diverse as Pismo and Prague––before Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter decimated that bounty––I wondered: how could I write to thirty-one people I didn’t know? Questions (a happy constant of my former profession as a librarian} about those in my assigned group, beset me.

What could I find out about the person on my list with an address in Nagoya so I could write a relevant poem? Where was Nagoya anyway? What unusual places could I learn about?  Were there academics in the group? What interesting jobs or hobbies did they have? Were their political views similar to mine? Did we have friends in common? And, what unexpected discoveries would come my way and stimulate the birth of my thirty-one poems?

I used all the popular tools at my disposal––Facebook, LinkedIN, Goodreads, Google, Google Images, web pages, blogs, Amazon, and, as a last resort and with great discernment, Rate My Professor and Wikipedia. I plundered databases that required subscriptions or access from a library: Britannica, WorldCat, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ancestry.

I spent an average of 2 to 2½ hours researching––one-sided and uninvited as the process was––before I flash-typed a poem and pasted it onto purchased postcards.

When no information could be found, I let surnames drive the poems, Lark, for example, and the German translation for King. On one desperate occasion, I extracted material from the library building plan of the poet’s city. Surely I could make a poem out of enchanting references to “flamingo pink shelves” and the name of the library’s first land donor, Thatcher Magoun.

Facebook’s yield was highest, but digging through other data sites produced satisfying tags for poem-making. Imagine my pleasure when I found

  • an expat who spent time in Nagoya, was a member of the Japan-based “1000 Poets for Change,” and took first place in the 2015 Vancouver (WA) Haiku Invitational
  • a poet’s place of residence was not only Joseph, Oregon but also called Hah-um-sah-pah, Oregon
  • a Ph.D. from Kent State whose Google image depicted a purple-clad professor against a backdrop of brambly branches and a brick building
  • a poet whose job in marketing was to “develop win themes and client pain points” (what does that mean?)
  • a poet’s letter forwarded to political leaders questioning 45’s mental stability
  •  friends in common:  Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” and, surprise! my daughter-in-law’s sister, Shanna Noel, a Bible illustrator with her own line of Hallmark cards
  • a naturalist, who rambled through New England wetlands and forests and, a  teacher for a nonprofit who gave classes on banding birds
  • one poet’s list of 548 books on GoodReads including the piquantly named Proust & the Squid
  • a participant who ordered her postcards from Estonia
  • the discovery of the existence of a Poetry Pole (address: the Path of the Mailman) in parched Yakima
  • a maker of story quilts, born within 22 months of me who attended two of the colleges I did and was connected to the same church denomination as I

When I told my wife I’d found a participant’s birthday on Ancestry, her accusative tone was undisguised: “You’re stalking people.” So I wrote a poem for Poet #3 who had “wren” in her email address and whose poetry personified a “walkyr,” (Obs. “watchful, vigilant”).

Indeed, I am. I own it/A digi-stalker/a Googling people gawker/a LinkedIn and Facebook talker/discovering in the public locker/a punk rocker, a sweet talker/ a paster caulker, a d. trump mocker/or a Steller Jay squawker/ limericking sleepwaker/ and today, a wrensong walker.

Read Digi-stalker, Part II to find out what happened when I sent that poem off to #3 on my list. Meanwhile, believe me when I say, I no longer embrace the lines that sprung from my pen right after I signed up for APPF:

Of poems epistolary

to a stranger

I am wary.


When Sunil Yapa Came to Town

When I first learned that Your Heart Is A Muscle the Size of a Fist was the selected book for Whatcom READS 2018  (five author events, March 8-10), I’d never heard of Sunil Yapa. Learning about talented, engaging authors is one of the beauties of a county-wide book club. 

By now, Sunil,  is back in the “little farmhouse” in Pennsylvania that he shares with his dad, “where I will let my beard grow long and try to write another book.”

Yapa, raised in Pennsylvania by a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, had not planned to be a writer. He’d majored in economic geography, taking classes at Penn State from his father, Lakshman Yappa.

“I assumed I’d follow in my father’s footsteps, kinda like taking over the family hardware store, but a month out of college I knew I wanted to write.”

After graduation in 2002, he and a friend took a week to come up with ideas for self-employment. No “regular jobs” for them. His friend wanted to buy luxury cars in Texas and sell them in New York. Sunil thought it would be fun to hawk posters out of the back of a truck. He prevailed.

So off they went, traveling for two-three months each year for ten years, all across the country,  working twelve to sixteen hours a day, “selling posters of Britney Spears to 18-year-old girls.” Sunil earned around $10,000 per year––”enough money to live abroad, but not enough to live in the U.S.”

He went to Chile and began writing Fist, a novel about the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999 which occurred when he was in college. “I wasn’t brave enough to go then,” but he was impacted by a picture of a woman bleeding from a baton beating. He wondered what prompted her to be in Seattle, fighting for policies affecting people she didn’t know.

He wrote the book in seventeen countries over six years. The first draft was 600+ pages. And his computer, containing the completed manuscript, was stolen from his hotel room in  Chicago.

His response: for three months he propped himself up on his father’s couch, perfecting the art of Netflix-binging and watching almost every basketball game that aired. But the book pursued him, so he re-wrote it. He reduced the total number of characters from sixty-five (!) to seven and did not allow himself to  use prior notes.”That would have been like taking dictation from an earlier, dumber self.”  At the conclusion of his rewrite, Sunil  concluded:

“Losing it––that writing by a clever young grad student–was a  gift.”

 One might wonder why a clever young grad student didn’t back up his manuscript.

In Chile, where he started and finished the Fist, there was no internet, so he stowed his laptop in the oven (yes, the oven!), and never had a problem with theft. When he returned to the United States, he didn’t want to overburden his father’s printer by generating  600 pages and then, as he traveled to Chicago, he thought a hotel room was a safe place to leave his computer.  

The rewrite, which took six years, paid off. Sunil’s agent sent the book out on a Friday to twenty-five editors. On Saturday morning, his agent called. “Can you be in New York on Monday?” Lee Boudreaux, who had stayed up all night reading Fist, wanted Sunil’s book to launch her imprint for Little, Brown, and Company. She liked the dynamic plot, and the language—”urgent, dynamic, inventive, surprising, unforgettable.”

I also was enchanted by the book’s language (although I would have preferred less profanity). Consider this bleak but lyric passage in which 19-year old Victor is beaten.

He felt the batons battering him like hail, a shot to the kidneys that exploded like a star…He was glad to have done what he had done. To have wandered the world. To have loved his mother when she was alive. Even to have joined the people here today…he had raised his voice to a good and true human pitch..but now he knew all along…This had been the plan. To stomp the breath from his belly until he breathed no more. They wanted to erase him and all that he was from the face of the earth. And he was going to let them.

Violence is hard to write and hard to read. Fist is a novel, yes, but Sunil says “two-thirds of it happened. It’s important, to tell the truth.” Though he did not attend the WTO, he did the same kind of in-depth research as another Whatcom READS writer, Daniel James  Brown (The Boys in the Boat)

As a librarian, I love that Sunil referenced his childhood in this way: “I love libraries. They were my refuge, my church.” 

Sunil examined twenty archived boxes of photos, signs, handwritten testimonies, and amateur video and audio recordings in the basement of the library at the University of Washington. In one of the boxes, he found the title of his book on a woodcut by activist-artist Dalia Sapon-Shervin.  

There it was, Your Heart is A Muscle the Size of a Fist. Just right. And I was lucky. The editors let me keep it.”

The cover of the hardbound edition, issued in 2016 is bright yellow with bold, informal font.  “I think the publishers chose yellow,” he said, “because nobody can remember the title or my name, but they do remember a yellow cover with a bold design.”

You might wonder why I chose to abbreviate the ten-word title of his book with Fist, one of the three nouns in the title. Fist identifies the protest, the principle storyline for the book, but the most important word in the title is Heart because this book is about empathy, courage, and love.

You might also wonder why  I’ve called Sunil by his first name instead of the more usual, journalistically correct, last name. Because, after asking him questions at two events and having him sign my books, when I stepped to the microphone at the Mt. Baker Theater, he addressed me by my first name.

And don’t we all like to be recognized?


Eyes Wide Open

About to check my field of vision, the ophthalmological technician, dressed in tall Frye boots, leggings, and a stylish, geometric-patterned sweater, spoke in a calm voice: “I’m going to tape your eyes open. I’ll be gentle,” she said as she stretched each eyelid to an unnatural height and positioned my chin on a cup, leaving me staring into a white, moon-like orb.

Even though the image of Svengali, whose pupil-less eye sockets terrorized me as a child, invaded my consciousness, I didn’t squirm and I followed the technician’s instructions to squeeze a button whenever I  saw flashing lights in that strange capsule into which my head was thrust. The lights were star-like bursts, some up, some down, some in the middle.

Fifteen minutes later, she rewarded me with “Good job,” and a little aside: “Men can be such babies, especially those old guys whose eyebrows get all bushy. They’re the worst.” Then, she guided me through a labyrinth of small offices to one where I was instructed to wait for the ophthalmologist/specialist who would see if my orb-staring results qualified me for blepharoplasty and ptosis repair.

Definition to come––it’s  something to do with one of the cosmetic miseries of aging.

I ended up waiting for twenty minutes, plenty of time to scrutinize the office where I saw…

Pamphlets,  like “Granulated Eyelids––what it is, how to treat it at home.” [Why, I wondered were eyelids an “it.”] And the alliterative “Flashers and Floaters–what they are, when to call your doctor.”

...Eyeball charts with words like carnucle, lacrimal puctum or bublar conjunctive which made me wonder why some words (eyebrow, eyelid) on the chart were unworthy of Latinate designations. My favorite terms were inferior meatus and turbinate. Sounded like a slab of sirloin ready to season up for the barbecue.

and mysterious machines that I had time to explore via Google, right then and after the appointment.  I began to wonder: when my regular eye doctor gets his new office next year, will he enter “ophthalmology equipment,” click on and be beguiled by the money-saving ad “get a phoropter for only $799”? Will he check out the “Opthalmology Synergetics Instrument Kit” whose price is unlisted but is likely expensive?

Retinal cameras, bimodular indirect ophthalmoscopes, manual keratometers, tonometers––I learned about all of them. I don’t like words that have to do with sharp objects around eyes, so when I got to Slit Lamp, I was glad for an interruption: the doctor slid onto a stool to tell me in complicated language that meant: your eyelids aren’t droopy enough. Insurance is unlikely to pay. She’d submit it anyway, just in case. “However,” she said, “the surgery could be done privately in my office for $5500.”

No thanks. I don’t want to pay for blepharoplasty (plastic surgery on the eyelid to remove fatty or excess tissue, aka ptosis).

When I have my next regular eye exam, which also includes chin placement on sophisticated equipment,  and I need a stronger prescription, perhaps I will purchase glasses as a droopiness distraction and cultivate a different image. Tortoiseshell, maybe, as long as they’re not made from the shell of real Hawksbill turtles as they were in the 1920s.  Online, I saw one pair called “Brain Trust” and another hornrimmed variety designed for the “hipster-geeky look.”

Yeah. That’s me alright. A hipster-geeky septuagenarian. At least I don’t have Svengali eyes.







Genealogy and Porn

Two disparate topics, genealogy and porn, appeared together in a Time magazine article and yanked me away from researching my ancestors: a thrice-married great aunt, a well-known Kansas historian-journalist, and a Scottish boy who was kidnapped, transported in a ship’s hold, and sold as a slave to an East Coast family.

Teased by the magazine’s coupling, I wondered, what the strange bedfellows of genealogy and porn had to do with each other.Here it is: according to an ABC News study, porn sites are the most visited websites, with genealogy a distant second.

We all have a sense of what porn is, right? Some kind of pictorial or written depiction that aims to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings. And the effects? I like  what one author said in The New York Review of Books: “No literary genre can match pornography for initial excitement and fast-arriving boredom.”

Since I don’t read or watch porn, I can’t attest to its excitement or boredom, but I can attest to the continuing excitement and fascination of doing genealogy. Pornography may have a stranglehold on number one, but isn’t it grand that genealogy beats out every other topic.

I’ve accumulated many frequent flyer miles on multiple digital destinations: like Ancestry, Family Search, Cyndi’s List, and my local favorite, Ferndale Genies.

Never mind that sixty-years separated my initial spark of interest from my current serious pursuit. My interest began in the eighth grade, when Mr. Callaway, our social studies teacher, asked us to interview a grandparent and construct a simple family tree.

After school, I biked to my grandmother’s house, a few blocks away, where she lived with her two sisters, Anna and Jess. None of them, Louise (my grandmother, nicknamed Louie), great aunts Anna or Jess had married, each pursuing separate careers in different parts of California, and returning to the family home post-retirement.

I showed Gramma the family tree chart. She began to jot down birth and death dates for her parents, her two brothers, and her five sisters. Then, I interrupted her.

“Where were you born? What about the old, old people before you?”

“I was born in Louisville, Kansas in 1878. On Halloween, you know that,” she said, arising from her squishy, floral armchair, and disappearing into the back bedroom. She returned with a book and several typewritten pages.

“This book’s about Kansas. It was written by Aunt Carrie’s husband. We have a writer in the family,” she said, with proud emphasis on that last pronouncement.

I thumbed through the book. I was twelve and not particularly interested in history, but I did remember the author’s name: Noble L. Prentis. Then she handed me the typed pages which had lists of people, including a reference to a Scottish boy named Hugh who was kidnapped and brought to America. “I’m going to keep these items safe,” she said, “but you can have them someday.”

Next, I talked to Aunt Anna who had been a World War I nurse on the front lines in France. She showed me the journal she’d kept. “It’s yours when I die.”

I did not see any of these materials when the three sisters died and neither did my mother, Louie’s only daughter. In a sense, their disappearance was of no consequence then. Genealogical pursuits were pushed aside by the advancement of my life: college, marriage, raising seven children, and a career. Occasionally I’d fill in the blanks in my pedigree chart, the standard family tree form that genealogists use, but not until I was closer to the ages to Louie, Anna, and Jess had been, did I take up the subject with unfettered zeal.

And really, my genealogical work has been somewhat lackluster.

Genealogy—focusing on entering data on a pedigree chart—is the backbone needed for the broader subject of family history. I chase down the facts, but I’m more interested in stories, and the questions the biographic facts generate.

Did the thrice-married woman, known to me as “Aunt Paralee” discontinue the use of her middle name, “Lively,”  when she married Harold Waddle, Sr, at turns a Hollywood stunt actor, a private detective, and the guy who played Santa Claus to his grandkids and their cousins? Paralee was a chatty, animated person, the party girl of the eight children.

Paralee’s reputation included being a poor handler of money, which may explain why she extracted the remaining money from her sister Louie’s bank account shortly after my gramma’s death. My mother refused to speak to her and was furious when I visited Paralee in the hospital when she was dying.

But, I liked Aunt Paralee—she had spunk—and years later I think of her with gratitude. She passed those typewritten pages I’d seen as an eighth-grader along to her grandson Bill. He and I have reconnected, shared information, and rejoiced in our heritage. Those notes allowed me to find out more about the kidnapped kid, Hugh Fraser. His story is recounted in a slender reprinted book The Fraser Clan in America (1915) by Deirdre Duff Johnson:

“More than two hundred years ago one morning, there walked along the streets of Paisley, Scotland, a small boy of seven years on his way to school. He was accosted by two men wearing long cloaks. They invited him to go with them to buy candy…One of the men picked him up and carried him along under his long cloak. The next thing the boy remembered he was on board a ship, seasick, homesick and heartsick bound for an unknown port. That little boy was Hugh Fraser, your ancestor and mine…Arriving at last in America…with the rest of the kidnapped crew, he was sold…Hugh Fraser was fortunate in falling into the hands of a humane man who was kind to him. When he arrived at the age of twenty-one, he married his master’s daughter Miss Peggy Cummins. Like Jacob of old he had served fourteen years for the love of his youth.”

I sometimes wonder why I research this family line. I am not biologically related to the Frasers and their descendants. I was adopted. My mother was not genetically related to them. She was adopted.

Still, their stories are my stories, my identity shaped, I believe, more by my familial connection than my genetic one and I’m happy to be associated with the second most visited category of websites rather than the most popular.

Exit Stage Front and Center: Brian Doyle

One of my favorite writers died recently—Brian Doyle: a left-leaning story grabbing unapologetic Roman Catholic and one heck of a mentoring inspiration to students, writers and the readers who loved his work.

Did you notice that there were no commas in that post-colon, descriptive paean? Doyle had a habit of running words together, defying grammar’s guidance with great craft and lyricism, so I copied him per Oscar Wilde’s observation— “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

Doyle thought novels were like long dreams in which you ” take an idea out for a walk and the characters take over and you really run along behind them, typing as fast as you can.” After his first novel, Mink River (was published in 2010, his brother sent him a page full of commas and the note: “You might want to learn to use these.”

If you’ve ever heard Brian speak—and I did at one of the Chuckanut Writers Conferences—you know that a podium could not contain him. He moved across a stage, engaging his audience with relentless charm, boundless energy, and a rare degree of empathy.

He died of what he called a ‘big honking brain tumor,” diagnosed last November. There is more information in the obituaries listed below, but for now, I’d like to leave you with Doyle’s Last Prayer and the suggestion that you go to your local independent bookstore or library and buy Mink River, Ben Laden’s Bald Spot, The Wet Engine, Martin, Marten, or his newest, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last Prayer by Brian Doyle

Dear Coherent Mercy, Thanks. Best life ever. Personally, I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!

And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we could not have children but then came three children fast and furious! And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!

And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.

I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small.

But no man was every more grateful for your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.

But hey, listen can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life—make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay?

Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon. Remember—otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.

Links to Obituaries: