Newburyport Literary Festival Goes Virtual TODAY!

NBP FestivalHey, everyone. When COVID-19 struck and changed all our lives, the lovely folks behind the Newburyport Literary Festival were convinced it spelled the end of this year’s event.

NOT SO! Just check out their website, Newburyport Literary Festival to find out about all the wonderful options.

I’m delighted to be part of things, and will appear, live and in person, at noon to talk about ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd.

I hope you’ll join us!

World Tour – The Final Two Days

By the end of our day at the zoo–and walking around Portland, window-shopping and stuffing ourselves with great food–I was more toast than human. We’d planned on driving the three hours of Bend, OR that night, but Ed and I were both so wrung out we opted to spend another night in the City of Roses. Morning had us on the road bright and early, bidding a tearful goodbye to my friend Wendy, who had to head home to Delaware.

If you’ve never driven from Portland to Bend, I heartily encourage you to do so. It’s a windy trek of road, and often a bit congested depending upon the time of year, and one can become caught behind a laboring big rig. However, there are compensations:

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Mount Hood, taken by David Mark from Pixabay

You watch Hood from a distance, then begin the climb up its flank. Suddenly, you round a turn in the road and the mountain is right there, in your face: miraculous, immense, ancient, and breathtaking.

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By Harry Wegley for Pixabay

Before you know it, you’re over the mountain and heading into the high desert country of eastern Oregon. I had little experience of desert before coming to Bend the first time, a couple of brief visits to Arizona was all. Against all expectation from this water-loving, Scottish-weather sort of girl, I fell in love with the high country. Maybe my love of Westerns fed it, at least in part, but there was something comfortable about the feel of the place against my skin and against my mind. I can’t explain it any clearer than that. I’ve never been in a position to pull the car over and get out to snap some pictures (there’s precious few places wide enough to pull over and the road can be busy), but thanks again to the folks at Pixabay, I can show you what it looks like. (Photos courtesy of ArielJ and Ally Laws.)

Sunriver - Bev & DonSo, we at last landed in Bend, one of my favorite cities, at the home of Don and Bev Henneous (Roger’s brother and sister-in-law) who were generous enough to save us from yet another hotel room. I’ve stayed with them before and it’s always a good time.  Poor Bev had fallen a few days earlier and broken her kneecap which prevented them from attending the big launch event in Portland. But Bev, being Bev, wasn’t about to let something as significantly insignificant as a broken bone deter  her when the events to come were practically in her own backyard.

That evening’s event was held at Roundabout Books, an independent shop in Bend owned by Cassie Clemans. If you’re in the area, go. This is a nifty, nifty bookstore; small, but packed to the gills with so much wonderfulness that I was disappointed I didn’t have time to browse. (That time constraint likely saved my bank account.) Cassie and the other women who run the store were unable to be there, but left the program in the capable hands of their spouses Andy, JD, and Jonathan, who are terrific guys all-around and managed to pack about 40 people into the exhibit space. Because Roger’s hands are quite afflicted with arthritis, his daughter Michelle was thoughtful enough to provide a signature stamp so he could add his name to mine. The audience was engaged, enthusiastic, and so much fun to be with. Plus, their questions were terrific.

(Beginning top left: Roger and me with some of the wonderful crew from Ooligan Books: Vivian Nguyen, Julie Collins, and Emma Wolf; the Roundabout events board; signing the author table; during the presentation; the book display; Roger and me signing books; Roundabout interior; connecting with Roger prior to the event; and Roger gets to sign the table, too.)

Our last event of the World Tour was held at Sunriver Books & Music (Fact, Fiction, and Flights of Fancy) in Sunriver, Oregon. I jokingly say that Deon Stonehouse, who owns the store with her husband Richard, accosted me at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Trade Show last October, but that isn’t far from the truth. I’d no more made my way from the podium after giving my seven-minute presentation, and sat down at the table where I’d be signing ARCs (advance readers copies) when this whirlwind of a woman appeared and breathlessly announced, “Your book is the only reason I came to this!” (What writer doesn’t want to hear that?) She inquired whether I could be induced to come west again to appear at her store and of course I said yes. Now here we were at last, face to face once more, with the added delight of meeting Richard and the rest of the Sunriver Books & Music team (including a German shepherd puppy that near-about stole the show.)

(From top left: the presentation, showing a picture of Roger taken on his last day at the zoo (he always expresses gratitude for those sunglasses, so no one could see his tears in taking leave of his girls); Q&A time; Roger signs books while I get to wear the famous hat (he was a complete chick-magnet); two Sunriver Books interior shots; the after-party with family and friends; the crowd begins to gather; two shots of the book display.)

This crowd gave me some of the best, most thought-provoking and insightful questions, opinions, and observations of the entire trip. We could have easily slipped into a brainstorming session on how best to secure the survival of elephants … which is precisely what Roger hoped the book might do, inspire others to use their resources (mental, physical, financial) to carry the elephants into the future. I could not have been more pleased.

Sunday brought us early to the Portland airport (watching the sun rise over the desert and illuminate Mount Hood is an image I’ll never forget) and a long flight home. There aren’t words enough to thank everyone involved: Roger’s family and friends who came out in force to support him and me; the folks at Powell’s, Bob Lee and his team at the Oregon Zoo, Roundabout, and Sunriver who believe the book has merit (I agree!); and my wonderful crew at Ooligan (with a special shout-out to Abbey Gaterud, Julie Collins, Melinda Crouchley, Vivian Nguyen, and Emma Wolf. Special-special kudos to Sydnee Chelsey and Faith Munoz, who jumped into a car and drove three hours from Portland to Bend with extra books because we were afraid we’d run out).

Particular thanks to the Henneous clan, who welcomed me so warmly into their home and their lives; to Wendy Carofano, who wildly decided to hop a flight and come 3,000 miles just to provide support to a friend; and particularly to my husband Ed Everett, who kept all the loose ends (including this author) from flapping in the wind. I love you all.

And then there’s Roger–muse, mentor, friend, father, ally, and partner on this journey. There’d have been no book without his trust in me, his willingness to tell his story, and his bravery in facing down the dark days of the past. I love and admire him beyond words. We drive each other crazy sometimes, as often happens in the very best of relationships, but we always have each other’s back. I love him immensely, and can’t imagine a world without him in it.

Me and Roger (taken by Bev)

Photo taken by Bev Henneous

March Events

As the ELEPHANT SPEAK launch date approaches, I thought I’d give everyone a run down for the month of March (so far):

March 4 – KATU “Afternoon Live” appearance (to air between 2-3 pm)

BOOK LAUNCH – Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street, Portland, OR                      at 7:30 pm.

March 5 – Elephant Lands Keeper Talk – Oregon Zoo, 4001 SW Canyon Road, Portland, OR                    at 12:30 pm. Book signing to follow at Gift Shop.

March 6 – Roundabout Books – 900 NW Mt. Washington Drive #110, Bend, OR at 6:00 pm.

March 7 – Sunriver Books – 57100 Beaver Drive, Bldg. 25C, Sunriver, OR at 5:00 pm

March 14 – Bank Square Books, 53 West Main Street, Mystic, CT from 1-3 pm.

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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)

 

Favorite Animal Books

hanako1From the time I learned to read, animals were my favorite subject. I devoured their stories–fiction and non–with a hunger that couldn’t be quenched. Discovering the library at my elementary school was like opening the door to Aladdin’s cave. I chewed through stacks of books per week: Aesop’s fables; classics like The Yearling, Rascal, and Old Yeller; the dog novels of Albert Payson Terhune; the wilderness tales of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Over 50 years later, that love of animal stories is undiminished. They remain my favorite topic, my boon companions. And so, this: a list of ten beloved animals books, in no particular order.

  1. King of the Wind (Marguerite Henry) – though I loved others of her books, this story of the Godolphin Arabian remains my favorite.
  2. A Wish for Wings that Work (Berkeley Breathed) – A gentle life-lesson delivered by two of my favorite people – Opus the Penguin and Santa Claus.
  3. The Snow Goose (Paul Gallico) – The Hallmark movie of the same name was my introduction to this story of crippled artist Philip Rhayader, orphan girl Fritha, and the bird they love. SPOILER ALERT: I recently learned that Gallico was made to change his original ending–wherein Rhayader and Fritha, now grown, fall in love and share a brief time together–because publishers felt that the reading public would oppose the notion of a deformed man united with a healthy woman. Such nonsense! (Oh, and for anyone interested, Gallico’s The Silent Miaow, Thomasina, and Jenny are also excellent.)
  4. The Catwings series (Ursula Le Guin) – a darling set of books with lovely illustrations about an alley cat who gives birth to a litter of kittens with wings.
  5. The Whales’ Song (Dyan Sheldon) – What first drew me to this story of little Lily’s communion with whales were Gary Blythe’s astounding illustrations. The story is an added bonus.
  6. The Book of the Dun Cow (Walter Wangerin) – The stirring tale of the rooster Chauntecleer and loyal companion Mundo Cani in their battle against the evil Cockatrice. One of my all-time-favorite books.
  7. The Incredible Journey (Sheila Burnford) – I have Disney to thank for first introducing me to this story–NOT with the most recent incarnation (which, I’m sorry, is an abomination)–but with their original movie in which the animals never speak because, thank God, they’ve no need to; they’re quite good actors without dialogue.
  8. Born Free (Joy Adamson) – Oh,  how I wanted to grow up to be her! Who wouldn’t want to bottle-raise a lion cub, raise it to adulthood, and reintroduce it to the wild?
  9. The Mouse and the Motorcycle (Beverly Cleary) – Adventurous Ralph the Mouse receives the gift of his dreams and ultimately saves the life of the boy who gave it to him.
  10. All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot) – by far the strongest book in the series, this story of the English veterinarian gave me hours of enjoyment and laugh-out-loud moments.

    There are others books, of course–Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Doctor Rat, The Poky Little Puppy, Gorillas in the Mist–but I’d be here all day listing them. What are yours?