Saturday, November 18, 2017

So, I Wrote this Book ...

So I wrote this book, Man with No Yesterdays. It’s about a young Green Beret who is injured in Vietnam. Jake Cameron suffers a head injury and is left with severe retrograde amnesia, and when he can’t remember who he is … other than a few glimpses of his early childhood … he sets out on a journey to see if there’s some way he can find himself. He’s been advised by a psychologist that sometimes being in places and with people from his past might “trigger” memories, and Jake gets more than he bargained for.

Not a bad plot, right? I thought so. And since Jake made his first appearance in a preceding novel, I felt he was almost insisting I let him tell his own story. So I wrote this book in the first person. Or rather, I’m fairly convinced it was Jake who did the writing, since I am a great-grandmother weeks away from observing her (gulp) eightieth birthday (please notice I said observing, not celebrating. When you get this close to eighty you’ll completely understand).

It was definitely a challenge. I had seven pre-publication readers who all seemed to find it worth reading and thought I had captured Jake’s voice. A few were very enthusiastic, saying they thought it was the best novel I’d written yet (this is novel number six, actually, since May 2013). Because the Vietnam War figures heavily in Jake’s experiences I decided to release the book on Veteran’s Day (we indie authors can make those choices).

I was really, really, really apprehensive about releasing this book. For all the reasons listed above. But I put it out there, and it’s live on Amazon, and I’ve even sold a few copies on line.

Here’s what’s keeping me awake at night. It’s been over a week, and I haven’t received even ONE review. Those of us who publish our own work really need reviews (I know I’m overusing the word “really,” but I’m doing it quite deliberately). They validate us and make us feel we aren’t totally lost in the vast Amazon book jungle (which grows by ACRES daily!) … a reader liked what we did enough to leave a comment on the book page.

Releasing a book is similar to sending your youngest, favorite, most beloved child off to kindergarten. You want to be right there with him at least through the first day, but you aren’t allowed inside. And I pushed Jake out the door with a great deal of trepidation (for those reasons listed above). Jake’s journey is full of diverse people and experiences. I debated subtitling it “an odyssey” but settled on “a journey.” Right at this moment I wish I’d decided to keep Jake home until at least next spring. Or maybe even for a year. I can understand why Anthony Doerr took ten years to complete his great book, All the Light We Cannot See. At the age of ten, his baby would do great in kindergarten.

I keep telling myself it’s the holidays, people are busy, even if they bought the book they probably aren’t reading it/haven’t read it. On the flip side, I wonder if they’ve read it and they hate it. I’ve had nice readers who have written some wonderful reviews for my novels. But Jake’s story is very different (or maybe I should say really, really different).

I write because I need to write, I love to write; I couldn’t stop writing because it’s become a necessity. But I hate this part. I’ll probably still keep writing, regardless. But right now I’m not so sure. One encouraging review would definitely be nice! Here's the link to the book if you're curious. (Good reviews only, though ... )

Portrait painted by Ashleigh Evans
Cover design by Tristan Flanagan
Or visit my website for links to order all my books:

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Let Us Never Again Blame the Warriors for the War

Watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War over the past two weeks wasn't easy, but it was worth every minute. It took those eighteen hours to encompass all the many aspects of a complicated situation that eventually covered thirty years of this nation's history ... and was surely one of its darkest chapters.
Burns didn't hold back, and I learned a great deal about what motivated our participation in what was basically a civil war in a small country in Southeast Asia ... a war we should never have been a part of, something I think we all agree on, even though the divisions that took place during the war still resonate in the United States.
I'm still processing what I saw, and the strong emotions I felt as a result. I was a young mother during most of the period we were actively engaged in combat, and while I was aware of the war it wasn't central to my life. Perhaps it should have been. My heart aches for every person who served and whose lives were changed forever for many reasons.
My emotions ranged from anger to dismay to sorrow. Anger at the lies we were told, at the arrogance of some politicians and military leaders. Dismay at our abandonment of the South Vietnamese. Sorrow for all the young lives lost, and for what? Sorrow for the warriors - wounded in body and spirit - who were treated so despicably on returning home.
And also, gratitude and hope. Gratitude for their fortitude, for the valiant manner in which so many fought. Gratitude for the vets who built the memorial Wall; for those who have shared their stories. And hope. Hope that despite all indications to the contrary, we will NOT repeat those mistakes. Hope that I saw in the lives of some of the veterans who have reached halfway around the world to embrace their former enemies and in that way found peace. Hope that never again will we blame the warriors for the war.

My novels about two of those warriors, Andrew and Jacob Cameron. Historical fiction.
Memories of Jake, available in paperback and e-book on Amazon
Man with No Yesterdays, to be released 11/11/2017

Used by permission of Dr. Bertram Zarins

Friday, August 11, 2017

In Memoriam: Robin Williams and Jerry Hadley

(originally published on August 11, 2014)

 “All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well” – Marcus Aurelius

It was a shock to learn today that Robin Williams, known no doubt worldwide for his many talents, died at the age of sixty-three, an apparent suicide. It was impossible not to hear about it – it was splashed all over the social media and on all evening newscasts. What we are told is that Mr. Williams was, and had been, suffering from depression.

In one of those life is stranger than fiction parallels, I had recently been researching a very fine American singer, tenor Jerry Hadley, who also took his own life not many years ago, and apparently for the same reason, depression. Hadley had one of the loveliest voices I have ever heard. He was opera’s Golden Boy for a time, and sang all over the world for nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1979. From what I have read about him, he was a generous and caring colleague, with charm and wit. He was a very good-looking man. He was a fine musician and was equally at home in the standard operatic literature and in contemporary works. He was also comfortable in musical theater.

He was married to a pianist, Cheryll Drake, whose photos show her to be as lovely as Jerry was handsome. She was his accompanist and mother of his two sons. It would seem Jerry Hadley had it all. Though his fame was not as widespread as Robin Williams, he was well-known and admired by opera lovers. 

And yet. In 2002 Jerry and Cheryll were divorced, and for five years he did not perform. Apparently he stopped singing, and suffered from a deep depression. Whether the depression preceded the divorce or the reverse was true, the result was the same: a beautiful voice was stilled. I read that in 2007 Jerry had begun a comeback, and it seemed he was on the threshold of a second career. There was a new woman in his life. And then on July 10, 2007, he apparently shot himself in the head, suffering irreversible brain damage. He was put on life support for a time, and after being taken off the machines died two days later, on July 18.

I’m sure we will hear a great deal more about Robin Williams’ death in the days to come, and perhaps learn more about the depression he suffered that caused him to end his life. Williams was a genius. It would be difficult to find anyone in this country who was not familiar with his work. Of his many films, two I admired greatly were Awakenings and Dead Poets’ Society. In recent years I don’t recall hearing much about his impromptu comedy, but for those of us who saw him on various television variety shows and watched him launch into an impossibly funny and brilliant routine, it can only be described as “awesome.” He was one of a kind.

So here were these two gifted men, still young (Hadley was fifty-five when he died), famous on at least some level, seeming to have all the things so many people aspire to. Yet both in such despair they chose to leave the world they seemed to have at their feet. Hadley’s depression we know was of long duration; it’s possible Williams’ was as well.

I’d like to think there may be a lesson here. Mental illness still carries far too much of a stigma. If we have friends we think may be in trouble, we have to learn to reach out to them. We have to learn to reach out to them.

Depression is a terrible disease, as we learned to our sorrow once again today. Godspeed, Robin Williams. You gave us much joy. How sad that it seems you had lost it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What Do You Remember?

 I’ve spent well over a year writing a two-book series about two brothers who grow up in the fifties and sixties, serve in Vietnam at different times, and are both affected strongly by their experiences. Jake, the younger, is injured in a helicopter crash and as a result suffers from severe retrograde amnesia. He loses his autobiographical memory … and it seems he may never recover it.

In the second of these books, Man with No Yesterdays, I follow Jake on an odyssey to find some way to learn who he was for the first twenty-two years of his life … a period which has been basically wiped out. He recovers a few brief childhood memories, just enough to make him even more aware of what he’s lost.

Trying to get into Jake’s head has been a real challenge and has made me dig into my own memories. What’s your earliest childhood memory? Is it really something you’ve recalled, or is it an experience your family has told you about frequently? How can you tell the difference? I’ve been in touch with some high school friends from the mid-nineteen-fifties and compared notes about experiences we shared. Some things we both remember. Some things only one of us remembers.

One memory that brought me up short and gave me a sense of what Jake’s going through was a day trip to the village of Cherokee, North Carolina. This would have been in the summer of 1954, when I was sixteen. Audrey and I had compared notes on other events during our high school days, but when she commented on this trip, I had absolutely no recall. Admittedly, that’s a lifetime ago. But even when she sent me photos of this trip … of me, her, and our mutual friend Anita … I didn’t remember anything about this. The photos didn’t bring any memory of the actual event.

On the other hand, I vividly remember other events from that year of my life. I’ve asked yet another friend if she recalled some of those and she did not. Most of my memories are pictures I can bring up in my “mind’s eye,” and they have a sound track as well. Recollections from my past I can pull up at will.

When I’ve considered what my character Jake Cameron has had to deal with, it’s no wonder he makes some bad choices as he seeks to learn more about the person he was before his traumatic brain injury. Just my inability to recall that one event … even staring at photos … made me realize how Jake must have felt, seeing pictures of himself in a football uniform, in an Army uniform, and yet unable to recall anything connected with those times in his life. And unlike the vast span of time between my sixteenth year of life and where I am now, over sixty years later, Jake is a young man when he is injured, and these are recent memories for him. Or they should be.

Jake’s story is due to be released this fall. Memories of Jake is his brother Andrew’s story, and when Jake disappears Andrew is devastated. You can pick up a copy of Memories of Jake while you’re waiting for Man with No Yesterdays. People who read it have good things to say! Check out the reviews on Amazon. The Kindle edition is offered currently at a reduced price, through the end of July.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Mother and the Prodigy

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

     If you had met my mother when she was a poised, accomplished adult, wife of a Vice-President of Borg-Warner, you’d have most likely been very surprised to learn that she had grown up riding a horse on a working ranch near Norman, Oklahoma. And possibly even more surprised to learn she’d dealt with discrimination from a very young age, since her father was the son of a member of the Choctaw tribe. In other words, he was a “half-breed Indian.”

     At some point in what I laughably refer to as my adult life, I realized what an extraordinary woman had given birth to me, and I made a point of telling her how much I appreciated who she was. She married my dad the summer after her high school graduation (I realized eventually it was most likely a shotgun wedding) in the depths of the depression. I recall she took some college courses when I was in elementary school. She read constantly. She was one of the most observant people I knew, and because of that and her intelligence she remade herself as often as necessary to keep up with my dad’s rise in the corporate world. She was devoted to my father. She was the wife he needed; she kept a beautiful home; she was a gracious hostess.

     She was also an incredibly kind, witty, loving, nurturing, and considerate person. When writing Eli's Heart and recalling the friendship I enjoyed with Samuel Sanders the summer I was fifteen, I also remembered the role my mother played in that relationship. We met him one spring evening near the end of my sophomore year when he performed for our Junior Music Club while visiting his sister, who lived in my home town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His genius as a musician and pianist was apparent from the first notes he played, and everyone who was there that night was enthralled.

     When he returned for a longer visit during the summer he came to our house on several occasions. As I recall, he generally arrived in time for lunch and he always requested the same thing: a grilled cheese sandwich, Coke, and Hershey’s chocolate.  Mom and I were both aware of Samuel’s heart condition ─ one of the first things he told us was that he’d had an operation which took away the blue color from his lips and fingers, but that he wasn’t expected to live past the age of thirty. So we knew this extraordinary boy was dealing with two challenges, a bad heart and the burden of being a prodigy.

     His activities were restricted because of his heart condition and we were confined to indoor activities. We talked, listened to baseball games on the radio, listened to recordings of classical music. He seemed to enjoy playing piano for me while I stood next to the piano and watched and listened. He played with such confidence, and the music seemed to pour out of him. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe this prodigiously gifted boy was seated at my piano, performing solo recitals for me.

He also wanted to play piano duets with me, which I found intimidating and he seemed to enjoy immensely. Sometime during his college years, he changed his career path and became an accompanist … a collaborating artist rather than a soloist. He said he found performing with other artists much more enjoyable. Considering the isolation he suffered as a child, it makes perfect sense, and he had a vibrant career, playing with many important artists. Over the years, additional surgeries, including two heart transplants, extended his life to twice what he had anticipated. He was sixty-two when he died.

     Samuel seemed much younger than sixteen and I looked at him as a sweet, funny, slightly geeky little boy with this huge talent. Mom never said much, but she may have seen what I did not see ─ that he was most likely going through a late puberty and experiencing a lot of emotions I was totally unaware of. She said many nice things about him, but never suggested I should look at him differently or think of him as anything more than a good friend. Both my parents encouraged me to think for myself, to be my own person. Which meant making my own sometimes bad choices.

     After that summer I saw Samuel Sanders only one other time, when he returned some months later to perform with our local symphony orchestra. He played the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto ─ brilliantly, passionately. He’d also grown up. He wasn’t a little boy any more, but a poised and appealing young man. I think my extraordinary mother saw what this extraordinary boy was going to become.

     My book Eli’s Heart is not about Samuel Sanders, but it was inspired by the remarkable opportunity I had to enjoy a brief friendship with him. My mother, (Lillie) Erma McKee Moore, appears in the book as Lily Porter. And Lily definitely is my mother. I’m glad I had the foresight to preserve some of her wonderful qualities in the book.

(originally published May 2015)

Eli's Heart is available on Amazon, paperback and Kindle

Sunday, May 7, 2017

That Broken Heart Disease You've Been Hearing About

When I first became aware of the trauma Jimmy Kimmel and his wife endured with the birth of their son, I understood immediately what had happened. I had researched this same condition a few years ago when my character Eli Levin in Eli’s Heart was born with this disease. It was heartwarming to learn how quickly Billy Kimmel was diagnosed and treated. A true testament to the great work done by medical researchers and to how far medicine has come with this once inevitably fatal condition. These days, children born with this "broken heart" generally live long, productive, and non-restricted lives, and can excel even in sports: Olympic snowboarder Shaun White is one such person.

My novel Eli’s Heart was inspired by a friendship I had decades ago with a brilliant teenage pianist born with the congenital heart condition Tetralogy of Fallot. Samuel Sanders was fifteen when I first met him and heard him play. He was visiting a sister who lived in my hometown and he came to my house several times, and we listened to recordings of orchestral music, played piano duets (which was definitely daunting for me!), talked about books and baseball. His activities were restricted because of his congenital heart defect.

With a lot of help from Dr. Aarti Asnani, a cardiologist with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I finally developed a grasp of the condition. There are four separate defects of the heart: a hole between the lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart, which means unoxygenated blood is mixing with oxygenated blood; a narrowing of the valve between the right ventricle and the lungs, which means not enough blood is getting to the lungs to be replenished with oxygen; a thickening of the wall of the right ventricle; and an aorta which is misplaced and is drawing blood from both ventricles. 

The result is a considerable reduction in the amount of oxygenated blood distributed to the body. The average person receives between 90 and 95% oxygenated blood. TOF patients receive sometimes less than 50%. Breathing is a struggle. Any physical activity, even walking, becomes difficult and can be life-threatening. Many children died in infancy, or did not survive puberty. Cyanosis (blue coloring of the skin, especially fingers, toes and lips) is a primary symptom. This is why babies born with the disease were once referred to as "blue babies."

In 1944, Drs. Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, with considerable help from Blalock’s assistant Vivien Thomas, developed a procedure to alleviate these children’s suffering. A shunt was created by attaching a branch of the aorta to the pulmonary artery which increased the flow of oxygenated blood. Sometimes this increase was dramatic; sometimes enough to at least ease their symptoms. From my understanding, patients who survived the procedure lived more normal and longer lives. However, the heart was not repaired. The Blalock-Taussig procedure was considered “palliative” ─ it eased the worst of the symptoms, but all four defects of the heart were still there.

About ten years later an open-heart surgery (called the “total correction” or “total repair”) was performed which patched the hole between the ventricles and widened the opening to the lungs, giving the patients a chance at a better quality – and quantity – of life. Over the past decades, as TOF patients have lived longer (some into their seventies and even eighties) other surgical procedures have been developed and refined, and a range of medications also exists to help treat the condition. It was at first considered a congenital heart defect. It is presently considered a congenital heart disease, a life-long struggle with a heart which can never be made “normal.” From my understanding, there is no one “standard” procedure for these patients. One comment from Dr. Asnani in our extensive correspondence stands out in my mind:

“With regard to treatment options for (adult) TOF patients, it’s definitely not a straightforward decision to pursue surgery, so we will often try to manage with medications for as long as possible.  Newer technologies like cardiac MRI are helping us figure out when the heart dysfunction is progressing to the point where heart surgery is absolutely necessary to prevent a further decline, though we’re still wrestling with defining the exact timeline.”

One of the first things Samuel Sanders told me was that he didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Other than that, and telling me about the cyanosis and that he’d had surgery, he didn’t discuss his condition and I didn’t ask questions. We concentrated on enjoying the time we had together.

After hearing him play – brilliantly –  the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto a few months later, I lost touch with him. Some thirty years later I met a young man who was studying accompanying with Sam at Juilliard, so he’d have been in his early forties at that time. His student also told me Sanders had opted to work professionally as an accompanist rather than pursuing a career as a virtuoso pianist. I was very glad to hear he had survived past the age of thirty and was still sharing his extraordinary gift.

I thought of him again when I watched the HBO film “Something the Lord Made” (highly recommended) and wondered how he was. Internet searches revealed that he had died at the age of sixty-two. He’d had the B-T procedure when he was nine and two additional surgeries (the total correction and a heart valve replacement), and eventually not one but two heart transplants. The second one failed, sadly.

While not a household name, Sanders had a long and illustrious career as a collaborative pianist and performed with some great musicians who definitely ARE household names. He kept a schedule that would have exhausted even a healthy musician … sometimes playing as many as a hundred concerts in a year. He taught at Juilliard and at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and oversaw a summer music festival he founded on Cape Cod. For some thirty years he was Itzhak Perlman’s pianist, but he also performed with a lengthy list of distinguished soloists. A few of his many recordings are listed in the discography at the end of the book.

My book is fiction, and my character Eli Levin is the product of my imagination. I did not know Sam Sanders beyond that brief friendship when we were both little more than children. However, his passion for music certainly had a lasting impact on me; he was indeed an extraordinarily gifted pianist and musician. We don’t meet many musical prodigies in our lifetime, and if and when we do, we never forget them. The fact that this one also had a damaged heart made him even more unforgettable.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Crazy Writer Lady

Since I started writing seriously … or should I say seriously writing … something has happened to me. I find that I live in whatever book I’m working on more than I live in the real world. I wake up with thoughts about my characters and sit at the computer to put them “on paper.” Sometimes I do this at 3 a.m. I live with a cat. She doesn’t mind my odd hours.

Of course, I do have to spend time in the real world. I have to pay bills and feed the cat and check on my children and grandchildren. But my worlds overlap all the time. I can be wandering through the supermarket and have a sudden answer to a knot in a plot and have to hang onto the thought (see what I did there?) until I get home. Instead, someone I’ve known for years says hello and I struggle to pull myself back into the twenty-first century (all my novels take place in the twentieth century) and remember who in the world this person is.

I’ve become the crazy writer lady. Since I’m approaching the milestone birthday that marks me as older than God, I’m sure some people attribute all this to advancing age. I don’t feel old, but I definitely feel distracted. I need to get back to the twentieth century to work on my book.

My background is music and theater. Primarily musical theater as I directed musicals for over thirty years. I experienced some of this while working on a production, because along with the many other people involved we recreated the world of that particular show. But a key word here is “recreated” ─ we were bringing the work of the composer and authors of the musical to life as best we could. We tried to understand what the creator of the work wanted to tell the audience and were acting as a conduit for those truths. I was part of a team and we were all working together to make this happen
Here’s where being a show director is gratifying. With an audience, there’s an immediate response to your work. The audience applauds, sometimes cheers, and sometimes stands in appreciation.

Releasing each book is difficult. It’s like sending your child off to kindergarten and hoping she will be safe and happy. But being a creator is exciting and fulfilling in ways directing could not be. These are my words. This is a world I have created and am inviting people to enter. These are my characters that I want people to care about. It’s not a task undertaken lightly. I know I have a good story to tell, and with each book I believe I learn a little more about how to tell it better.

My characters talk to me. They argue with me. They do things I never intended for them to do and refuse to behave themselves. They are very real and I come to love them. I’ve heard other authors say this, so I understand it goes with the territory, and if I don’t love them and believe them, neither will my reader.

 I’ve come to understand that while there is an audience, they aren’t all there at the same time. They come into the world of my story one by one. Sometimes they speak to me in the supermarket or in a parking lot to tell me they enjoyed a book. Sometimes they send me a message to let me know the same thing. Occasionally they write a review, and that’s especially nice because other potential readers see that review and are intrigued enough to buy a copy of the book.

When I first started on this “third act” of my life, a theater friend, who happens to be a writer, reminded me often: “There is no opening night.” He was cautioning me not to rush to publish. And then I realized there is also no closing night. People continue to find their way into the world of my books. One audience member at a time.

All in all, I love being the crazy writer lady. It’s a great third act.


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