Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow

Book

It’s a wonderful thing

I’m proud and honored to have been chosen to present my book ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd at the “7 Coming-Up Author Showcase” at the recent PNBA Tradeshow held October 6-8 at the Red Lion on the River in Portland, OR.

The event–which rounded out the show, attracting booksellers, librarians, and publisher and sales rep exhibitors–featured seven authors from around the world, representing various genres, speaking for seven minutes on their books, which will appear from now through the Spring of 2020, after which book signings and giveaways took place. Joining me on stage were authors Gretchen Berg (The Operator), DJ Lee (Remote: A Love Story), Jody J. Little (Worse Than Weird), Daniel Mathews (Trees in Trouble), Abigail Hing Wen (Loveboat, Taipei), and Erin Yun (Pippa Park Raises Her Game).

(FYI, ELEPHANT SPEAK is due to be born on March 3, 2020, and will be available from Ooligan Press, as well as through your favorite independent bookseller and other online sites. Please support independent publishing and booksellers.)

(On left, with supportive Project Manager Julie Collins. On right, with Publisher Abbey Gaterud, who talked me off the ledge at least once)

Melissa TalkingSeven minutes isn’t a very long amount of time in which to convey something special about your book, something readers won’t learn by reading it. (On the other hand, seven minutes can seem like forever, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced.) I chose to focus on the evening I first met Roger Henneous. What follows is my talk, as given:

From 1968 to 1998, Roger Henneous cared for the largest captive herd of breeding elephants in North America and he did it right here, in Portland, at what was then called the Washington Park Zoo.

I met Roger in March 1997. He was the Senior Keeper of Elephants and I was a fledgling zoo volunteer drafted to assist in an around-the-clock medical watch on Belle, the herd matriarch. Surgeons from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine had recently excised infected bone and necrotic tissue from her left front foot, the result of pododermatitis, an affliction better known by the evocative name “foot rot,” a chronic disease to which captive elephants are prone. The operation had been risky given Belle’s age, size, anatomy, and other health concerns, but she’d tolerated the procedure surprisingly well and there was every hope for a full recovery.

When I arrived in the elephant barn that night, I found Roger standing with Belle behind the glass of the front exhibit room. Not a big man, he seemed even smaller beside the towering elephant, his bearded face shadowed by the brim of a battered campaign hat. Belle stood in an attitude of deep concentration, her foot wrapped in thick bandage secured with gray duct tape, gently rocking from side to side as she listened to him.

Let me tell you a little about Belle. She was only a few months old when she came to the United States in 1952. She was so tiny that her owner, an animal trainer named Morgan Berry, drove her around in the back of an old Cadillac, the rear seat removed so she could stand with her trunk hanging out the window, waving at people.

Ten years later, in April 1962, Belle made history when she delivered her son Packy. As the first successful elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years, the event triggered a media circus. Belle and Packy became instant celebrities and, for the first time, the zoo’s annual attendance soared past the one million mark. Overnight, Portland was transformed from “The City of Roses” to the “The City of Elephants.”

But that was all in the past. What mattered most the night I met Roger, was getting Belle back to her old self.

When he eventually appeared on my side of the exhibit room glass, Roger brusquely introduced himself and offered me one of two metal folding chairs. I settled onto it and he took the other, elbows on knees, hands clasped, his eyes on Belle. He fretted over every elephant in his care, but she was indisputably his favorite, and had been ever since she’d held at bay another elephant determined to kill him.

Time passed. Belle’s constant rocking unnerved me. There were moments when she leaned so far to the right that it seemed she might fall. It was too easy to imagine her great body losing its balance and crashing sideways. Once, in panic, I blurted, “She’s going over!” because it seemed impossible that she could recover from so steep a cant.

“No, she isn’t.” Roger’s voice was gentle despite the grate of smoker’s gravel. My cheeks went hot, embarrassed by my outburst … by my fear that something bad would happen on my watch, or that I’d say or do something ridiculous and make a fool of myself—which, of course, I’d just done. Roger didn’t hold it against me. My obvious concern for Belle’s welfare granted me all manner of forgiveness.

Mid-way through my four-hour shift, Roger excused himself and returned to the exhibit room, lugging a large plastic garbage can with bright green fronds of bamboo sprouting from the top. Belle took what he offered and dropped it on the floor, clearly disinterested. Roger dug deeper into the can, produced an apple, and held it to her mouth. She lipped the fruit, but didn’t eat. He offered a banana, and this she accepted, grinding it into pulp between her immense molars. She refused anything further, so Roger put the can aside, brought out a hose, and allowed her to drink her fill.

Later, he returned to sit by me again. “She’s got no appetite,” he said grimly.

“She ate a little, though,” I pointed out, “because you asked her to.”

He shrugged, reluctant to take credit for anything. Cocking back the brim of his hat, Roger folded his arms across his chest. “Belle and me, we’re like an old married couple,” he said. For the first time that evening, a tiny smile curved the edge of his lips in an expression made up in equal parts of tenderness and exasperation. “We’ve known each other a long time and we respect each other, but neither of us is terribly impressed anymore.”

Some great love affairs never die. So it is with Roger and the elephants. More than twenty years since that night, he remains as enamored as he ever was and, I hope, quietly pleased by the mark he’s left on the field of elephant care. In an era when the standard procedure for dealing with such immense and intelligent animals might involve confinement, abuse, isolation, and starvation, Roger labored to create a compassionate and rewards-based environment grounded in mutual respect. He cared little for the accolades gathered along the way, including the Marlin Perkins Certificate of Excellence. The only thing that mattered was the elephants.

“Abuse is the lazy man’s solution to a problem,” he told me. “Maintaining control is an exercise in intellect. More can be achieved with kindness than with brutality.”

When Roger first arrived at the zoo in 1968, he was just looking for a job working with animals. He’d no particular interest in elephants, and no idea they would soon take over his life, affecting every part of it, ultimately influencing his notions of dedication, determination, empathy, compassion, and family. During his 30 years at the zoo, he inspired both loyalty and consternation among his coworkers, and never stopped moving from the moment his boots hit the ground in the morning until he took them off at night. Along the way, he dispensed common sense, sentimentality, and sarcastic wit. Once asked by supervisors to describe his job, he replied, “Days, weeks, and months of back-breaking labor punctuated by moments of abject terror.” Those who met him, however briefly, walked away with the experience indelibly stamped on their lives.

“I never met a keeper that cared more for his animals than Roger,” said a former coworker. “He was crusty and cantankerous on the outside, but a big soft jelly doughnut on the inside when it came to the elephants. He didn’t romanticize or anthropomorphize, but he loved them for what they were.”

Initially, Roger was reluctant to share his story, uncertain whether he wanted to relive those years, some of which had been indescribably painful. In the end, he chose to proceed not for his own benefit, but for the sake of the animals he loved.

“I don’t much care if anyone remembers me once I’m gone,” he said. “But I’d like it if they remembered the elephants.”

Melissa_2Thank you to my “author wrangling” team at Ooligan; to everyone at PNBA; to all the independent booksellers and publishers, librarians and sales reps who work long hours to promote books that might not otherwise come readily to a reader’s hand; and to my fellow writers wherever you are.

 

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We earned this celebration! Denise Morales Soto (Design), Julie Collins (Project Manager), c’est moi, Faith Munoz (Social Media), and Melinda Crouchley (Managing Editor)

 

Book Launch!

Three on a matchI’m pleased to announce that THREE ON A MATCH is now available for purchase directly from me (send me an email if interested), and will also be available on Amazon as of Tuesday, September 5.

Be prepared to be shocked to your socks.

In Splendid Chyna by Kristi Petersen Schoonover, a woman’s hope for a fresh start changes to terror when a dark secret proves that while she may be done with the past–but it’s not done with her.

All’s Well That Ends by g. Elmer Munson harkens back to the classic pulp stories of old when a routine call turns bloody for police officer Angel Lewis.

My own story, Thicker Than Water pits an innocent young woman against the witch hunter determined to find her guilty.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to my fellow authors (see below), thank the folks at Books and Boos Press, and in particular thank Kristi Petersen Schoonover for planning and executing our fantastic book launch party last night. Thank you, ma’am!

Book Release Party

When A Writer Gives Up, Part 1

pexels-photo-269451In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the notion of story ideas drifting about in the ether, coming to rest with one writer or another. If given attention, the ideas stay and grow. If not, they eventually move on to a more receptive audience.

I believe this.

More than two years ago, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and go. If you possess an ounce of sensitivity in your soul, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a quality to the space … the silence … the sense of energy, of presence, behind that silence. Anyone who thinks it’s a boring old bunch of empty fields dotted with memorials is missing the point. Because of that visit, I will never be the same. I’m grateful for that, and can’t wait to return.

At any rate, shortly after that visit, a line of narrative popped into my brain–a description of a minie ball blasting into the abdomen of a young soldier from Maine on the fields of Gettysburg–and I knew I had the idea for my next book.

But I also had an idea for a book of narrative nonfiction about this man I’d met 20 years earlier who spent 30 years lovingly caring for the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity. My research into that book–my tentative forays to locate this gentleman–had suddenly borne fruit, and here I was juggling two ideas.

My first inclination was to go after the Civil War story. But the minute I decided that, I heard–literally heard–a voice in my head say, “If you do that, you will lose the elephant book forever.” And I just couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t risk it. Telling the story of Roger Henneous and his pachyderm family was more important to me. It felt vital. It felt necessary. And, in truth, it felt like a goal I’d been working my way toward my entire writing life.

So I set aside the Civil War story and threw myself into the elephant book. In six months, I had a first draft. A very rough first draft, but at least it had a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve since lost count, but my guess is the manuscript went through something like six iterations before reaching a point where I could search for an literary agent–happily accomplished when I signed with Bonnie Solow–and begin the ongoing task of offering the book to publishers.

At long last I could turn my eyes toward the Civil War and all the research books I’d collected in anticipation! Except the power of the story had left me. The drive to write it had withered and vanished. I suspect the idea got tired of being ignored and wandered off to a more fertile field, one ready to accept it.

Every now and then I toy with going back to see if I can revive that sense of vigor and excitement, but I don’t know. I may have missed my chance this time. But that’s okay. Something else miraculous occurred.

When Reading Leaves A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

food-man-person-eating

Photo courtesy of pexels.com

“Milk takes on the flavor of what it’s next to in the refrigerator.”

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you’ve undoubtedly read that quote or something like it more than once. I’d heard it long before King made it known because, like him, I grew up with a mother born and raised in Maine; way up Maine in “The County” –Aroostook, for those of you not in the know — about as far as you can go without becoming Canadian.

As a child, I incessantly nagged my parents to move to Maine. My grandparents were there — well, Pop was there; the one grandparent in four who actually paid attention to me — as well as a plethora of cousins my own age. Back home in New York, I had a grandmother who apparently hated everything in the world except her son-in-law and her boxer dogs, a handful of disinterested aunts and uncles, and cousins all vastly older than me. (When you’re a kid, a gap of 6+ years is vast. We won’t get into the 12+ year difference between me and my sisters.)

But back to the milk.

The saying works because it’s true. Store some chopped onions next to your carton of milk if you don’t believe me. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen the phenomena in your children once they begin school. They go off that first morning, your little kindergarten angel, only to return as Satan having, in the space of a few hours, picked up all sorts of noxious behaviors.

Where I find the truth of that quote applies to me is in the books I read. Assuming they write long and hard enough, each writer develops his or her own voice … or should. If not, there’s a real problem that needs addressing. That being said, writers also “borrow” from other writers.

We’re not talking plagiarism, which is a much bigger issue and should never-ever-ever happen. What I mean is that as you read something, you may find bits and pieces of that other writer’s style slipping into your own work. And that’s okay, so long as you don’t lose yourself in the process. Personally, I don’t mind a dash of Harlan Ellison or Barbara Hambly, Terry Pratchett or Stephen King sprinkled over the top of what I write. Hell, they–and several other writers–have been some of my best teachers on this long road of learning the craft. (You do read, don’t you? I mean something more than blogs or the newspaper? As a writer you must, and if you don’t, shame on you.)

But sometimes that unconscious tendency to borrow backfires.

I’m reading a book right now. It’s new, recently out, and no I won’t give you the title or author. It’s good … I think … although I swing between viewing the protagonist an independent woman and a chronic whiner. But the thing is, the damn story is bringing me down, man. It’s delivering no creative spark, no impetus to go at my own work with renewed verve. Instead, it’s draining me of the urge to write at all. Worse, it’s making me feel old and that, goddammit, is not acceptable. So I’ll be returning the book to the library unfinished, yet to even reach the heroine’s basic conundrum (assuming there is one).

Because, see, I can’t afford to take on that sort of flavor.

Where To Go For Elephants

Hello, all! I wanted to let you know that I’ve started an adjunct site to this one, focused entirely on elephants and the stories behind my book The Man Who Loved Elephants: 30 Years at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo, which is being offered to publishers by my agent, Bonnie Solow.

Roger pontificating

Photo courtesy of Roger Henneous

Gruff, bow-legged, and whiskey-voiced, Roger Henneous admittedly “suffers fools lightly, and damn fools not at all,” but when it comes to elephants, he’s nothing but a big marshmallow. For nearly 30 years, he served as mother, mentor, teacher, and therapist to the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity, among them the illustrious Belle–who made history in April 1962 by delivering the first calf born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years–and her equally famous son, Packy.

Belle became special to Roger for a different reason when she saved him from being killed by another elephant. From that moment, the two of them were bonded in a way UC Davis veterinarian Larry Galuppo later described as “incredible.”

At The Man Who Loved Elephants I’ll talk about these stories and more, and share photos from Roger’s days at the zoo. I hope you’ll join me there!

The Joys of Book Promotion

Well, it was a hot day, but the breeze kept it from being oppressive and the beautiful shade tree kept us from overheating. Worst things were a) the mess of tent caterpillars, and b) the second set the band played. Otherwise, it was a fine day on the Colchester Green, promoting reading, Books & Boos Press, and our own creative efforts.

Colchester

Left to right: Terry George, Stacey Longo, g. Elmer Munson, and yours truly. Photo by Jason Harris.