Host John Valeri was kind enough to add me to his roster of authors. You can watch the interview here.
Hey, 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!
I shift closer to the fire, toss on a log, make the sparks fly. It’s my night to sit up with the children that can’t sleep and I’m damned if I’ll do it cold.
I look around the circle at their pale faces made healthy-rosy by the flames. We’re worse-off than some, better than most. It’s a rare day they go with nothing in their bellies.
Back when it all went to shit, lots of people rushed for their money. Don’t know where they thought to spend it. Maybe they figured it would buy them out of this nightmare. Some hoarded and barricaded indoors and turned their backs on those in need, then acted all surprised and hurty-feeling when those others turned their backs on them in turn and let them die in the Beyond.
Me, Gwennie, and Johnny took a wagon to the library. We been friends since way-back and book lovers before that, and it was the hardest job we ever had, saying yea or nay to this book or that, judging whose words would live and whose die, pages turned to pulp by seasons of rain and snow, or burned to ash in a fire lit by some poor jamoke trying to keep warm.
We come first for the books that would get us by physically–the how-tos on gardening and repair and building and putting up food for winter, root-cellaring and the like. We went back again, this time with two wagons, and took favorite novels and a dictionary and such to put aside for those evenings when a body’s soul flickers like a Tink-candle and all but goes out.
I hold my hands to the fire. “What’s it to be, then?” I wait for the shouts, each naming a favorite story. They don’t none of them really care; they just want to be read to. So I read, the cadence of my voice rising and falling, mouse-high or bone-deep depending on the character and what I think they might sound like. The children pillow their heads on arms, old backpacks, each other. One by one, they fall away, asleep, dreaming what I hope are pleasant dreams in this often unpleasant world.
“You’re a good teacher.”
I look up. Mallachy sits across the way, cross-legged tailor fashion. I never saw him arrive, but that’s nothing unusual. He’s a quiet one, but he loves the stories as much as any of them. Next year, when he turns twelve, he’ll take his place among the readers and his turn at the fire, keeping watch against whatever’s out there that wants to extinguish the light.
I shrug in reply.
“No,” he says. “You are. They learn. You make them feel safe.”
I poke the fire. The last thing they are is safe and they know it, which is why so many of them have trouble sleeping. If they feel safe, I’m doing them a disservice. But how long can a body go on, week after month after year, feeling nothing but terrified?
“I don’t want to be too good. Bad has its place.”
He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he doesn’t understand. I jab the sand with a stick and listen to the distant roar of breakers on the rocks beyond the dunes. One of these days, I’m walking into that surf and not coming out. Maybe tonight, because I don’t know if I can explain it the way Mallachy needs to hear. I can share what another has thought, but coming up with my own words is a hardship.
“Look, I grew up in a place where children weren’t valued. Then I went off to school and it was more of the same. My first teacher hated kids, you could see it in her eyes. Another one physically segregated the class into the smart kids and the stupid ones. Used those words. And those of us at the stupid tables, well, we knew we weren’t stupid, but live through a year of that sort of ridicule and you come to believe it. Maybe they only hated their jobs and not us, but they certainly didn’t want to do the work of teaching. They’d rather paint us stupid so they wouldn’t have to.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“I know that. But for decades I thought I was. Too much and too many in the world painted it true, telling me over and over, no, you can’t have this good thing you want because you don’t deserve me, you’re this or you’re that and me taking it because I’d been taught it was so, and forgot the real truth hidden inside me.”
He sidles up close to the fire and stares across at me with eyes like a fox. “What changed?”
“Me.” I look past my fingers into the flames, cup my hands to hold the light. “I got mad. Furious. And so damned tired of being told no. I decided they were wrong, that they’d been wrong all along. I didn’t realize they were wrong, and I didn’t believe they were wrong. All that came later. But I made the decision they were wrong and told it to myself every day until I knew it was true.” I glance around at the sleeping children. “What I want for them is a little bit of rage to keep them warm, keep them honest and true to themselves.If I leave them with anything, it’s the knowledge that no one has the right to take the fight out of you.”
Mallachy nods. Between one eye blink and the next, he’s gone, faded back into the shadows. That’s one who sleeps soundly because he believes he has nothing to fear. But these here, they think they do.
I reach out and curl a small hand inside mine. Stretched out behind me, my years feel bigger than the Before, endless, and too damned many yet ahead.
Copyright Melissa Crandall 2020
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:
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.
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.)
So, 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.
A local gentleman I know — Stan Malcom — is an award-winning nature photographer as well as being an entomologist with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. He’s been honored with both a species and a genus named for him. Yesterday, I received this from him:
“I think you’ve earned the title Dr. Crandall. Considering your years of data gathering from Roger and other sources, plus the context you’ve developed about elephants and elephant keeping in general, plus the engaging non-fiction prose, plus steering the book through reviews and publication…if that’s not a Doctoral Dissertation, I don’t know what is. Congratulations!”
Thank you, Stan.
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.
I don’t listen to music while I write, mostly because it distracts me. Let a song come on that I know and like, and my head veers away from the work like a train shunted onto a different track. I prefer things quiet, the only sounds the drumbeat of rain on the roof, birdsong (including the gurgling gobble of Barry White and the Turkettes), or the whispered voice of the wind.
It’s a different story when I lack … not inspiration, per se, but the OOMPH to set things in motion; those days when that traitorous voice inside says things like “Hey, loser, why are you even attempting this? You don’t have the talent or the skill, and we both know it. Give up, give up, give up…”
I ran into that voice quite a bit while working on ELEPHANT SPEAK. Several times, reduced to tears, I nearly gave up. Who was I trying to fool? What made me think I had what it takes to finish a book like this, let alone see it all the way to publication. That inner voice told me I was spot-on, that continuing was ridiculous. Pack it in. Not only that, pack in all my other writing as well, donate my reference books, get rid of the computer.
Fortunately, that other little voice in my head spoke up. It reminded me of my successes, gave me confidence, and imparted the means to turn my insecurity around and give me the energy and drive to put my butt in the chair and do my time.
It gave me Gloria Estefan.
Obviously, I’ve known about Gloria for a long time. We’re contemporaries (she’s six months younger than me), and while I was slogging through the tail-end of high school, she was making music with Miami Sound Machine. If I’d realized back then that we were the same age, I’d’ve shot myself in despair of ever doing anything with my life. (Overly-dramatic, you say? Me? Well, yes, sometimes, and I was a teenager after all. If that isn’t the time in your life for a hefty dose of sturm topped with a dollop of drang, when is?)
Gloria’s hovered at the back of my mind all these years, occasionally eliciting a bit of finger-tapping and singalong in the car, and that was about it until the direst of writing days. That’s when I rediscovered “Get On Your Feet.”
See what I mean? (And if you didn’t watch the link, go back and do so.) I defy anyone to not be energized by that vitality. It’s more than the words of the song, it’s the emotion behind her voice: Gloria believes you can do what you set out to do. And I realized so did I.
So I did.
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.
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.
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.
Isn’t this pretty? Many, many thanks to Linda Reifschneider and Janie Chodosh for the pull quotes.