A Gnarly Spring

June 1, 2006

This has been a gnarly spring; a mudtime of growth and grubbiness. But now the gentleness of early summer is on us.

Prior to the release of the movie, “The DaVinci Code,” we had the copyright infringement trial and not-guilty verdict of DaVinci Code author Dan Brown, who was challenged by Baigent and Leigh, authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. It was highly interesting to me that Brown’s wife, Blythe Brown, had conducted the majority of the research for his novel, and that she was “unavailable” to testify at the trial as to whether her research included Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

At any rate, the misfortune of poor timing or failure to capture the public imagination has been played out before, and will certainly happen again. This past January Sanora Babb, author of Whose Names Are Unknown, died. I’d never heard of Whose Names Are Unknown or Sanora Babb. But her novel about the struggles of Dust Bowl migrants was about to be published by Random House in 1939 when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath began flying off the shelves, relegating Babb’s book to obscurity. Babb had been working for the manager of the Farm Security Administration in the late 30’s, which gave her the inspiration for Whose Names Are Unknown. Her first novel was not published for another 20 years, and Whose Names Are Unknown was finally published in 2004 by University of Oklahoma Press. Babb worked as a presswoman and a screenwriter all her life.

I find anecdotes of writing inspiration fascinating β€”for example, Stephen King has said he combined two adolescent mysteries, of menstruation and the outsider, to compose his short story, Carrie. His first version of this story was the attempt that his long-supportive wife redeemed from the trash can. Robert Alexander, author of The Kitchen Boy, a historic mystery that in my opinion is superior to The DaVinci Code, related that in his research of the Romanovs’ last days, he was intrigued by a diary notation of Czarina Alexandra, “Leonka [The Kitchen Boy] has been fetched to see his uncle β€” he flew away…” Written just before her family’s execution in the cellar at Ekaterinaberg, that cryptic note led Alexander to fashion a tale of privilege, downfall, and rescue that haunts with its mystery.

Mired in the business of book publishing, I decided to treat myself to exploring “beautiful books.” It’s been a long time since I’ve read a mass-market paperback, mostly because the small type and size give me a cramped, uncomfortable feeling as I’m indulging in my great pleasure, reading. (I don’t think computer screen text – pleasure reading will ever be for me, but never say never.) I’ve been seduced by many a book’s cover, and overwhelmed by hundreds of book recommendations, so I decided to indulge in shopping for a book that was physically appealing to me. Visiting my local bookstore, Darvill’s Book Shop, owned by Jennie Pederson, I picked up a small, handmade-looking book, Bannock, Beans & Black Tea: Memories of a Prince Edward Island Childhood in the Great Depression by John Gallant and Seth (John Gallant’s son). This little green book is maybe 5.5 by 7. 5 inches, with a heavy-weight cream-colored paper, font like comic sans ms. The illustrations are like a comic book, the pages are unnumbered, and there is a thin black satin ribbon bookmark. I expected to take this highly-personalized book home and curl up on the sofa and read it in comfort. But the story is bitter, about how Gallant’s father refused to work and kept his family in poverty: “It is unfortunate that we cannot select our own parents and the time and place of our birth. If we could, I would never have picked my parents, nor would I have been born and raised in St. Charles in the 1920s and ’30s. Whoever made that decision made an awful mess of it for me and he should have been fired.” Bannock, Beans, etc. is no David Copperfield, the wording is unpolished, but this little book accomplishes its goal: “I have tried to pass on to the lucky people of today … to be thankful for all of the advantages they’ve had.”

My love of woodcuts, and of reference works, attracted me to A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich, first published in 1935. This book of 40 chapters, describing “The true fairy tale of the evolution of mankind,” was written for children, much like Dickens’ A Child’s History of England. E.H. Gombrich was 26 years with a doctorate in art when he wrote this book in six weeks! This edition was revised in 1985 with a post-World War II update. It is translated by Caroline Mustill and features woodblock illustrations by Clifford Harper, and was published in 2005 by Yale University Press. Years ago I bought the entire set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, and while I’ve referred to it many times, the idea of the history of the world presented in 284 pages is very appealing. I quote from Chapter 30, Terrible Times: “If I wished, I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won’t.”

Finally on the subject of beautiful books, I would like to congratulate Diane Kinman, of Wimer Publishing, and Franca Mercati Martin, authors of Franca’s Story: Survival in World War II Italy, for their recent awards for that book. Franca’s Story won the Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin gold award for best interior design of a book using 1-2 colors. Seattle designers Peggy Zafarana and Lautaro Gabriel Gonda worked with author Diane Kinman on the book’s design. Franca’s Story also received ForeWord Magazine’s Silver Award: 2005 Book of the Year for Autobiography/Memoir. This lovely book has Franca’s original artwork in sepia tones accompanying her account of a young girl’s daily life in the battleground that was Italy in World War II.

Early in May, the Orcas Choral Society held their spring concerts, featuring vocalist Susan Osborne, formerly of the Paul Winter Consort. Susan’s brave and beautiful solo work on “Sound Over All Waters,” originally composed for Coretta Scott King, with backup by the Choral Society and baritone sax solo by biology teacher Gregory Books, brought the house down both nights. We all thrilled to the words, “Dark night is over, dawn has begun.”

On May 14, I flew back to Washington DC, to attend the Publishing University, sponsored by the Publishers Marketing Association and Book Expo America, the annual publishing trade show. PubU/BEA was a mix of excitement, support, discouragement, hype, and bounty. My objectives there were to grow my publishing business and to increase interest in The Fisherman’s Quilt and future projects of Port Gamble Publishing β€” a memoir and an oral history of returning US soldiers from Iraq. I’ve been reporting on my experiences at PubU/BEA on my web log, www.PortGamblePublishing.com, and I hope you’ll take a look to read of my varied encounters with authors, publishers, editors, and marketers, and strangers that became friends and colleagues.

While in Washington DC, I experimented with the radical marketing ploy of “reverse shoplifting.” In this process, books are placed on bookstore shelves without being purchased by the store. It is a creative way to obtain visibility for your book and perhaps inspire the bookstore to order your book if a customer brings it up to purchase. Upon leaving DC, I still I had brought six copies of The Fisherman’s Quilt that I’d brought with me, and didn’t want to pack them home again. On my last evening there, I went to the U Street bookstore/cafe, Busboys and Poets, named in honor of local poet Langston Hughes. After a delicious salad and latte, I roamed the bookstore and impulsively placed three of my books on the biography shelf. Then reverse shoplifter’s remorse set in, as I looked more closely at all the shelves and saw that the store focused on political, social, and environmental titles. The Fisherman’s Quilt was, poetically speaking, a fish out of water in this atmosphere. So now I had the tricky dilemma of how to sneak my own books back into my bookbag. It was one of the guiltiest moments in my life, but I managed it. Later I was able to give copies of my book to hotel- and taxi-mates who were in Washington DC for the “Spiritual Progressives” conference. That felt much better than abandoning my books anonymously.

And summer beckons. Here’s my schedule for the next few months: June 10 Liberty Bay Books, Poulsbo WA, 2-4 pm June 15 Report on Publishing University, BPNW meeting, Scott’s Bookstore, Mt. Vernon WA, 4 pm June 17-24 NCL “Sun” cruise from Seattle to SE Alaska; speaking on Reading-Writing-Editing-Publishing June 28 Lopez Island Book Club, 4 pm June 30 Boardwalk Bookstore, Friday Harbor WA 5:30-7 pm July 8-9 Yakima Folklife Festival: How to Publish Independently July 14-15 Pacific NW Writers Association Conference, bookstore and author signing

I hope to see you at some of these events!

Margaret Doyle