Monday, May 2, 2016

Notes from Unbound Book Festival: Senator Claire McCaskill on Politics, the State of Journalism and Writing PLENTY LADYLIKE

Senator Claire McCaskill
There was a long line to get into the auditorium to listen to Senator Claire McCaskill and Terry Gainey talk about writing the book Plenty Ladylike. A benefit of being among the first in line was getting a front-row seat in the crowded auditorium.

The one-hour discussion was moderated by Vicky Russell from the "Columbia Daity Tribune." Index cards were handed out in advance for people to write down questions, which were asked at the end of the presentation.

The first question Ms. Russell asked Senator McCaskill was how she is doing after her breast cancer diagnosis. The senator said she is "doing great." She expressed thanks for all the prayers, kind thoughts, and words of encouragement she received during her recovery, even from some of her “haters.” 

Senator McCaskill and Mr. Gainey talked about how the book came to be -- the initial idea and the writing process. He said he believed her story needed to be told in part because she is "a remarkable star and a Senator, who once was on a game show in Hollywood." He began collecting material in 2011, which included interviews and oral history.

Then, according to Senator McCaskill, "Aiken happened.”  The focus of the book shifted to the 2012 election between the senator and Todd Aiken. The agents representing the book later told her they wanted a broader story.

Senator McCaskill's goal for the book was to be "honest, candid, and real, but not hurtful."

Mr. Gainey's role was to be a collaborator, more of a helper, in writing the book. The senator found the biggest challenge working with a co-writer was remaining true to her voice. Because of their difference in writing styles, she said, "it got a little bumpy at times."

He was the disciplinarian who kept her on deadline. Mr. Gainey joked that "at times it was like capturing Peter Pan’s shadow.”

The senator admitted she is not one to keep a journal, although she remarked, “journals look good in stores, but I never write in them.” So she provided him just what she remembered.

The risk of writing a book like hers, she believed, was that the book itself could become a news story. She said could’ve written some stories that would have sold more books, but that would’ve hurt people and she didn't want to do that.

She wanted to write something to let young girls know "it's okay to be bossy and have a big mouth," because she believes "women don’t have to be uncomfortable owning their ambition or not being likeable."

Regarding the editing process, she said the original manuscript was twice as long as the final book. "They really cut the hell out of it," she said. 

When asked if she'd do it again, she compared writing a book to having a baby. "The first five to six months are not so terrible, but the last hour is painful. Then you forget the pain with the joy of creation."

When asked what she might want to write about, she said she is concerned about politics today in terms of the breakdown of the journalistic model. She believes that journalism is searching for a business model. The senator would like to see a focus on expansive pieces with more investigative reporting; with reporters developing sources and writing in-depth articles -- for example, how Medicare for all would be funded.

Regarding politics, she compared the state of today's politics to a "demolition derby with so many bad actors," and the media "focusing on what makes people mad or afraid."

When asked about her political ambitions, she said she is "irritated at Jefferson City and the elected officials in the state." To sum it up, she said, “We need to stand our ground in Missouri.”

This was the first time I'd ever heard Senator McCaskill speak in public, and I'm so happy I sat in on her session. I found her refreshingly candid and, typical of most Missourians, down-to-earth. Senator McCaskill was also intelligent and classy -- and very ladylike.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Unbound Book Festival: George Hodgman Discusses His Memoir BETTYVILLE

Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some notes I took during the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri, on April 23.

The first event I attended, along with writing friends Dianna Graveman and Mary Horner, was George Hodgman’s candid and inspiring conversation about his memoir, Bettyville.

I read Bettyville a couple months ago and was captivated by Hodgman’s lovely writing, unvarnished honesty, and moments of grace and humor. So, I was excited when I read he was going to be one of the featured speakers at the festival. Bettyville is Hodgman’s award-winning book, which has been described as a “Love letter to small towns that are declining and to his mother who is in decline.

After sharing some background information and a few personal stories, Hodgman spoke about memoir writing.

Here are some highlights:

Memoir is a mixed state of knowing and admitting.

Memoir is about a relationship, a trusting relationship with the reader.

Give them (the reader) something so they know you trust them.

Storytelling is totally healing.

We connect and we learn.

Admit your reality.

Look for moments of recognition.

There is a relaxation in the “letting go” part of writing, solving problems.

You have to let go!

Place is a central character in memoir.

The richest (memoirs) always have a background of place.

He ended his writing day with a specific thing, e.g. revision of a scene.

That way he would start with a specific task the next day.

His writing process was self-punishing; he wrote at the card table at 4 a.m. until his mother awoke.

He also shared a few personal stories:

When he returned home to Paris, MO, to care for his mother Betty, a scene grew, a picture in his mind of his mother Betty driving a blue Impala taking him to kindergarten.

After returning home, he fell in love with Missouri again.

Most people don’t know Missouri: it’s beautiful, it’s cultural, people here are funny and smart.

He felt rooted in small towns and as a child was comfortable with adults.

He felt accepted here (in Columbia), in this cultural and artistic community.

He grew up around kindness, with community and church.

Moments of surprising kindness move him.

The most memorable moments during his conversation were when he read an excerpt from Bettyville and spoke lovingly about his mother Betty, who died last July 26. He said, he is “only now starting to grieve,” and “Spring flowers make me think of her.”

He also said he loves his dog (a black Lab). Of course, anyone who has ever had a black Lab (like our thirteen-year old Harley) knows how lovable they are.

If you haven’t read Bettyville, I recommend you pick up a copy, especially if you appreciate elegant writing, have an elderly parent, understand what it's like to be from Missouri, or grew up in a small town.

Next week I’ll post some notes I took during Senator Claire McCaskill’s conversation about Pretty Ladylike, the book she co-wrote with Terry Gainey.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Spring Cleaning for a Good Cause

I'm looking forward to this Saturday's free Unbound Book Festival in Columbia.

It's well worth the just-under 100-mile drive to the event on the campus of Stephens College.

The line up of events and speakers for the April 23 festival is impressive. What's more impressive is that the event is free.

Alex George, festival founder and director, and his volunteers have worked tirelessly to organize the event and obtain sponsors and write grants to put on the festival. Here's a link to his interview with Jane Henderson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Although the event is free, festival organizers ask that attendees please donate gently-used books and deposit them in the  bins which will be placed outside the doors of the meeting rooms. The books will then be distributed throughout the Columbia area to people who love to read but might not be able to afford to buy books.

My bag of books is sitting next to my front door ready to be put in my car.

To me, it's a triple benefit. I get to do some spring cleaning, attend a free festival where I can learn from some amazing writers, and pass on some good books to other readers.

How great is that?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Free Unbound Book Festival Features Author Events, Panels, Signings and More

If you're looking for an educational and inspirational writing event this month, the Unbound Book Festival should be on your list. Festival founder and director, author Alex George, has done a brilliant job planning and organizing this literary event, which celebrates literature of all kinds.

Note: While all events are free, festival organizers have requested that attendees bring gently used books to deposit in bins that will be placed outside the doors of the meeting rooms. These donated books will be distributed throughout the community after the event.

Friday evening, April 22, the Missouri Theater in Columbia will be the site for a conversation with internationally renowned bestselling author of The English Patient and many other exceptional novels, memoirs, and books of poetry -- Michael Ondaatje.

The main event will be Saturday April 23 on the campus of Stephens College in Columbia, MO. The schedule includes programs for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children's Events. Senator Claire McCaskill is among the score of top-notch speakers who will be featured during the day. You can find a complete list of speakers here.

A variety of panels will also be held during the day, including the First Page Rodeo, where an expert panel (New York literary agent Margaret Sutherland Brown, Unbridled Books senior editor Greg Michalson, and New York Times bestselling authors Eleanor Brown and George Hodgman) will share their thoughts on a selection of first pages of novels submitted in advance of the festival by the general public.

Five first pages have been selected, from authors as far away as Texas to Massachusetts. The panelists will discuss what works and what does not, as well as what will grab the attention of industry professionals.

Note: At least one of the first-page selectees is from Missouri, and she will be in the audience hoping the panel isn't too harsh on her one-page submission.

You can find a complete schedule, list of authors, and more details on the Unbound Book Festival site. Hope to see you there! And don't forget to bring your gently used books to donate.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Interview with Don and Dianna Graveman, co-authors of LEGENDARY LOCALS OF ST. CHARLES (Part II)

Today we continue with Part II of my interview with Don and Dianna Graveman, co-authors of Legendary Locals of St. Charles, what is sure to be a classic book about the historic Missouri River town of St. Charles, Missouri. 

Published by Arcadia Publishing

I highly recommend Legendary Locals of St. Charles for anyone interested in American history, Missouri history, and famous American explorers and larger-than-life figures, such as Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Elijah P. Lovejoy, Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, and many other legendary figures. One of my favorite chapters was Chapter Six: Military and Law Enforcement. The photos and the stories are inspiring.

The following questions and answers 7-12 complete my interview with the Gravemans. Their answers are in blue.

7. With so many legendary locals from St. Charles, you no doubt weren’t able to include them all. Did you have a criteria for which to include?

This was the biggest challenge. In the beginning, we had a “working list,” compiled from people who automatically came to mind or whose names others had suggested to us. The Legendary Locals imprint requires a featured local to have a photo along with the accompanying information. So we weren’t technically supposed to include people for whom we couldn’t obtain a clear photo. We got around this in some cases by including a photo of somebody’s former residence or a historical marker. An example is Jeremiah Millington, who served as the first postmaster when St. Charles was the state capital, practiced medicine, and managed his castor-oil business—all at the same time from his house on South Main Street. We also decided to include the names of some of the people for whom we couldn’t obtain photos in the introduction to each chapter. That way, we could still honor them.

As we explained in our book’s introduction, we focused on people who have lived, worked, or made their biggest contributions in the city of St. Charles, because it would have been impossible to include notables from the entire county in a book this size.

8. Did any of the information you found come as a surprise?

One surprise was the story behind the shrine to the Virgin Mary on I-70, as you mentioned at the beginning of Wednesday's blog post. Another involves the first surgery performed in the history of St. Joseph Hospital, at 305 Chauncey Street, by Dr. Benjamin Geret. A native of Bavaria, Dr. Geret used instruments he boiled on a stove and a table padded with blankets to perform the emergency gall bladder removal. Still another involves playwright Rupert Hughes, who is believed to have written his first play here. Hughes would later become uncle to the famous tycoon Howard Hughes.

9. There are so many amazing photos included in the book, it must be hard to select a favorite, but I have to ask: Do each of you have a favorite?

Dianna: I like the photo of Sophie Hupe, who became a midwife at 51. Previously, she had worked as a clerk, run a millinery shop, and partnered in the hotel business. For a woman born in 1848, that’s pretty amazing.

Don: My favorites are the pictures of Patt Holt and the Patt Holt Singers. Patt was my eighth-grade music teacher and had a big influence on me when I was young. My wife and I met in the singing group. Patt turned 80 this year, and a lot of young people benefited from her mentorship over the years.

We also wanted to include some notable locals who haven’t lived long enough to be true legends but who we think have made notable contributions to the community. We wanted there to be some surprises. So there is a good mix. We would like to acknowledge Grace Nichols, the first female mayor of St. Charles, who wrote the foreword for the book.

Sadly, three of the subjects (that we know of) passed away after our book was finished but before it was released: Mel Wetter (November 23, 2015),  Robert Fleming (February 2, 2016), and (Laura) Elizabeth Rauch (February 20, 2016). All three were legendary in our community for their many contributions to the city of St. Charles.

10. Please tell us about author talks or book signings you have scheduled over the next months.

As of this writing, we have a book launch scheduled at Main Street Books on Saturday, March 26, from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. We will sign books the following Saturday, April 2, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in St. Peters, and on Sunday, April 3, from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center. A signing with the St. Charles County Historical Society is in the works.

11. Where can readers purchase a copy of Legendary Locals of St. Charles?

The book can be purchased at most bookstores and retailers in and around St. Charles, but we’d like to ask readers to support indie booksellers like Main Street Books, if possible. The book is also available at Arcadia Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, St. Charles County Historical Society, and the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center.

12. Last question: What project are you working on, and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Dianna completed two books last year—this one and another (on a work-for-hire contract) for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Researching and writing two books in a year while working full-time seemed like a lot, so we’re just catching up on our regular jobs right now.
We also both like to read and hike, and we’ve become political junkieswatching all of the debates and news from both parties. And with one grown child in St. Louis and two living on opposite sides of the country (Wyoming and Florida), we take advantage of any opportunity we can to see all of them.

Thanks again, Donna, for featuring us today! We really appreciate it.
Thank you, Don and Dianna, for sharing your wonderful story with us about your fascinating book. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Interview with Don and Dianna Graveman, co-authors of LEGENDARY LOCALS OF ST. CHARLES (Part 1)

Hi Dianna and Don,

Thanks so much for letting me interview you and for having a copy of Legendary Locals of St. Charles sent to me by Arcadia Publishing. With Legendary Locals of St. Charles, I think you two have hit another home run!

The vintage images in your book portray the story of St. Charles from its very beginning all the way to modern times. The photos capture images and tell the stories of early settlers, such as Louis Blanchette, St. Philippine Duchesne, and Lewis and Clark, as well as living legends, such as Grace Nichols, the first female mayor of the City of St. Charles; Mark Buehrle, Major League Baseball pitcher; Bobbi Smith, New York Times best-selling author; Art Holliday, award-winning journalist and newscaster, and many others.

Along with the visually stunning images, your book includes historical -- and some surprising -- information in the captions. As an example, your book answered a question I’ve had for a long time: Who was responsible for erecting the lovely shrine on Highway 70 near Mid Rivers Mall? (Answer: Ralph Borgmeyer, page 67)

Because Don and Dianna were so generous with their time and shared so much fascinating information in their answers, I’ve divided their interview into two parts.  

The six questions in Part I (below) include a glimpse into how Dianna and Don approached, researched, and organized this amazing project, along with some background on Don and Dianna, which I believe reveals their passion and dedication not only to this book, but also to the City of St. Charles.

1. In Legendary Locals of St. Charles you’ve created another historical gem. What prompted you to tackle the project of compiling and writing Legendary Locals of St. Charles?

Thanks, Donna, for featuring us on your blog.

Arcadia Publishing emailed us in late 2014 and asked if we’d consider taking on the project for the company’s new Legendary Locals imprint. In 2009 we did a book for Arcadia titled St. Charles: Les Petites Cรดtes, and it did pretty well,  so we guess that’s why they contacted us. We wish we could say it was that easy, but even though Arcadia had contacted us to do the project and not the other way around, they still required us to develop a thorough book proposal and obtain sample photographs before they issued a contract.

2. Will each of you share a little of your backgrounds and how they meshed to write your latest book?

Don: I have lived in St. Charles all my life except when I was away at college, and my family has lived here for five generations.

Dianna: I spent a good deal of time around the Main Street area as a child, even though my family lived in St. Louis. My grandmother lived here, and my uncle was a police officer here. Most of my dad’s family lived here.

Based on recollections from our early years, we are certain we crossed paths in St. Charles many times as children. We were often in the same place at approximately the same time. Members of our families knew each other. Ironically, when we finally met face-to-face as adults, it wasn’t in St. Charles—it was in New Athens, Illinois! As for the book, Don has always been interested in regional history, and Dianna has an editorial background, so blending our experiences and interests together to compile a book about the town in which we’ve spent most of our lives made sense.

3.  Legendary Locals of St. Charles includes wonderful photos over an extended period of time period from a variety of sources. How did you gain access to the historic photos, archives, and other sources?

Don: I sat on the board of directors at St. Charles County Historical Society for five years, so we already had contacts and friends there. That made it easier to obtain permission to use some photographs and get answers to questions that came up as we did research. (A percentage of our profits from this book benefit the historical society.)

Dianna: My flexible work hours enabled me to spend afternoons at the historical society or at the Kathryn Linnemann branch of the library doing research. I was also was able to interview some subjects in person, like Donna Hafer of the Mother-in-Law House, Ernie Dempsey at Pio’s Restaurant, and Cordelia Stumberg, civic leader and pianist, who played her beloved piano for me one afternoon at her home—a real treat.

By lucky accident, we received some interesting photos and information from Scott Grimwood at the SSM Health Archives. We’d contacted him for permission to use a photo of Sister Mary Elizabeth Becker, one of the founders of SSM Health St. Joseph HospitalSt. Charles. He not only arranged for us to receive permission for the photo from Franciscan Sisters of Mary, he sent early photos of the hospital and of a few early St. Charles doctors, along with some great historical tidbits from the archives.

4. Your meticulous research shines through in the informative captions, which go beyond a description of the photos to include historical tidbits. How did you balance photos and captions in the layout of your book?

That is kind of tricky because of our publisher’s format and guidelines for the imprint. Word counts for captions differ depending on whether you have one or two pictures on a page, whether the pictures are horizontal or vertical, etc. Sometimes we cut the captions short when we actually had more information to include, based on Arcadia’s guidelines. After we saw the proofs, we realized that in some cases we would have had room to lengthen our captions. So that was a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s really a learning process.

5.  Can you share a bit about how you decided on and organized the chapters, which range from Chapter 1: Settlers, Famous Visitors, and Early Residents -- to Chapter 6: Military and Law Enforcement (which I thoroughly enjoyed).

We based our chapter titles on the pattern we observed in other Legendary Locals books from around the country. Where we diverged a bit was with the chapters on Educational Leaders and Military and Law Enforcement. We really wanted to recognize some dedicated teachers we’ve known, and we both felt compelled to honor all of the law enforcement officers who died while serving in St. Charles, one of whom was Dianna’s uncle, Al Musterman.

One challenge with the organization within the chapters was that we wanted to arrange photographs chronologically. Since each chapter had to end on an even page with no blank pages, and since we had two pictures for some subjects and one for others, it didn’t work out that way.

6. This is your fifth book you’ve co-written. How long did it take from concept to completion, and how did you divide the workload?

Our contract provided about eight months for completion. We didn’t really think of it in terms of dividing a workload, so that’s a hard question to answer. Since we are married, we’re together most of the time, and we just worked on it when we could. At times, one of us was working on it more than the other.

Check back on Friday for Part II of my interview, in which Don and Dianna share some surprises, a few favorites, and their plans for events and signings, where readers can meet them in person.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Hocus, Pocus: What Happened to My Focus?

One issue I've struggled with in my writing is lack of focus. Truth be told, I start a lot of things but don't finish them.

Maybe it's because of the weather. Maybe it's because there is so much going on in my little world. Or maybe it's because there are so many external distractions--like all the hoo-hah with the Presidential elections. Which reminds me: How many more debates must we endure?

Whatever the reason, most days I feel like Louisa von Trapp singing her part in "So Long, Farewell," from the "The Sound of Music."

If my mind could sing, it would be replaying the lyrics, "I flit, I float, I fleetly flee, I fly."

Take today. I scrolled through some old file folders searching for short stories I've written over the years. During one search I found a folder with a title that wasn't familiar. I opened the file and read the beginnings of a YA novel I started (complete with chapter outline) two years ago. It was pretty good, but I had completely forgotten about it. Feeling frustrated, I plucked out a short story. Same thing. The story was off to a good start but never got finished.

I've decided that to overcome my lack of focus, I'm going to give myself a spring break. While the guys are out turkey hunting, I'm going to hunt down my old stories and beginnings of novels and try to clean them up. If I tackle one thing at a time, it just might work. It's either that or wave a magic pen over my laptop and say "Hocus, Pocus, bring back my focus."

How about you? Do you struggle with focus? Do you have any tips to bring back focus? Or do you have a magic pen I can borrow?