Red Letter Day

Pink House 2

The Pink House on Plum Island

It wasn’t my intention to be absent from this blog for so long, but I was waylaid by a vestibular migraine, something I’ve experienced most of my life, but was actually diagnosed last April. For those who don’t know (and who would, unless they had them?), vestibular migraines (in my case at least) present with no headache pain, but with debilitating vertigo and motion sensitivity, as well as sensitivity to bright light and sound.

Fun times, no? Decidedly no.

The after effect is bone-deep exhaustion, making it difficult to do much of anything for several days. Again, no fun.

But I’m back on the horse, as they say, and although I’m having some residual minor side-effects, overall I feel pretty well. Well enough, anyway, to announce that yesterday  was amazing.

How so, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

First came the news that ELEPHANT SPEAK received a wonderful review in Publisher’s Weekly! If you’d like to read it, click here, but be aware that there are spoilers. (And one teensy error. Where “Crandall” shows up about half-way through, substitute “Henneous.”) I’m honored that they felt my book merited a review.

The second bit of news is that I’ve been chosen to be a guest at the Newburyport Literary Festival in Newburyport, MA on April 24-25, 2020. I’m a huge fan of Newburyport and have been visiting there, and on Plum Island, for decades, so I’m really looking forward to spending time in one of my all time favorite places, put in some hours on the beach, and get to know lots of writers and readers. Plus, Newburyport is home to Jabberwocky Books, and they don’t get much better than that. Oh, and let’s not forget the infamous Pink House on Plum Island, long may it stand, and at least one meal at Bob Lobster. (Best fried clams ever.) This is a great honor, and I’m so appreciative.

Spring is shaping up to be busy, but a lot of fun. Stay tuned.

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The beach at Plum Island, my heart-home.

Happiness is a Warm Paperback

Especially when you wrote it!

Just had to share the smiling faces of my friends at Ooligan Press when they unboxed copies of ELEPHANT SPEAK the other day.

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I can’t speak more highly of their great team. We are exactly five weeks out from launch, and I’m so excited. As a bit of surprise to myself, I’m not all that nervous. I guess I expended all that getting ready for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in October. Now I’m ready to send my baby out into the world with these, my loyal midwives.

 

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Isn’t this pretty? Many, many thanks to Linda Reifschneider and Janie Chodosh for the pull quotes.

“Books are stooooopid!”

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Me and the beloved

Thus spaketh my beloved five-year-old granddaughter, preparing to pitch a hissy fit because I refuses to watch a vulgar and moronic video with her before bedtime, and instead had suggested I read with her.

It was late, and I was tired. (She’s a night owl, and I’m not.) Without thinking, I bent down and got right in her face. Keeping my voice low and nonthreatening, I replied, “You just said that to the wrong person, kid, because I write books.”

Her eyes darted from side-to-side. “Oh.”

Oh, indeed, Snooks.

Beloved’s mother, my own beloved daughter, loves books, but admits that her reading time has been curtailed to those few minutes before she falls asleep at night. Who can blame her? She’s the full-time mom to a rambunctious five-year-old with the sleep schedule of a vampire.

“I need to read more in front of her,” she says, and I believe she means to try. It’s a good point. Kids emulate what they see their parents do, and if Beloved sees her mother enjoying books, well, she might, too.

Beloved’s dad, on the other hand, is no fan of books. That’s not to say he doesn’t like the written word, merely that he prefers to read from a screen rather than a printed page. To each their own, so long as they’re reading, but I feel a pang under my heart for several reasons when he denigrates physical books, particularly in Beloved’s hearing.

See, a love of books is something I’d hoped to bring to this growing relationship between me and my granddaughter. Not just a love of words, which would be nice, too, of course, but also an appreciation of physical books; to enjoy their smell, their weight, and the texture of their pages. I want for her to experience the deep contentment of settling into a favorite chair or into bed with a new or much-loved book, something “snuggleable.” I want to engage her imagination. Yes, please! I dream of talking about her favorite scenes and how she sees them in her mind’s eye, how they compare with my own. I want to share favorite passages, and even argue over the merits of a story.

I send her books, but it’s hard to convey the love from several hundred miles away. And, sure, yes, she can read and imagine and share with glowing words printed on a hard screen. And yet…

And yet.

Those who don’t cuddle with books can’t, or won’t, understand. I’m a dinosaur in this age of electronics, but a proud one that maintains there’s value in the page-printed word. And I’ll likely be clutching one of those most beloved books when the asteroid hits and wipes us all away again.

 

Book Launch Announcement

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For some reason, this shows up as green. The actual cover is in shades of blue.

I’m beyond delighted to post information on the first of what I hope will be many bookstore visits as ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd takes its first steps into the world.

March 4 – BOOK LAUNCH at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, 7:30 pm.

March 5 – An as yet TBD event, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the zoo.

March 6 – Roundabout Books in Bend, OR, 6 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books in Sunriver, OR, 5 pm.

I’m looking forward to meeting all those people out there who love elephants! See you soon!

 

Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Tradeshow

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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