My Parents, the Enablers

61KPPB-34FL.jpgTracing the roots of my love affair with books, I come back to my mother and father. Let me tell you about some of their tricks.

Those of you with children have surely had this shopping experience: “Mom, will you buy this for me?” It almost doesn’t matter what “this” is. Kids don’t want to go home empty-handed. My clever mom always said yes. But she said yes to books.

I recall going to a drug store late at night. I was probably eight or nine. Back then, drugstores had a toy aisle. I’m sure I found something I wanted. Instead, I walked out with a book on rockets. Years later, I still remember the book, because the excellent illustrations, and because it introduced me to physics—my first attempt (mostly without success) at working my way through concepts like trajectory and escape velocity.

Books for Christmas? Yes. Birthdays, too.

Both Mom and Dad read to us. A long car trip meant a new book. The one that really struck home was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Again, I was fairly young—no more than nine. I was fascinated by this animal story with a moral.

The scene that hit me was when noble Boxer tried to break his way out of the horse van as the pigs shipped him off to the glue factory. Even now, when I hear the word “betrayal,” I think of poor Boxer.

I don’t know if Dad “abridged” the story as he read. Probably not, knowing him. I recall a mention of the Russian Revolution, but only in passing. When I was in junior high, I read the book myself and realized that Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, not barnyards. In high school, I read the book again and understood the allegorical elements. Snowball was Trotsky? Napoleon was Stalin? My mind boggled.

Finally, there were the trips to the library every Monday night with my father. I checked out seven books a week—one for each day. No subject was off-limit. When I was twelve, I started reading psychology texts. Who knows why? I went from subject to subject, like surfing the net. When we finished mining the home town library, we started making the long trip to the Cleveland Public Library—a dark, sprawling nightmare of a building that steered me from science fiction to horror (for which I am grateful).

Dad worked sixty-hour weeks, and time was dear. But so, apparently, were us kids.

Both Mom and Dad are gone now, but my love of books will continue. I used some of the same tricks with my own kids. Even now, everyone gets a book for Christmas…just me, passing on the addiction.

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Binging as a Child

1bbaTracing the gateway drugs to my reading addiction, I give a nod to classic series chapter books written for young readers. I’m going to mention three series that I devoured. Two of them were mysteries (it’s a wonder I didn’t end up writing cozies). The third was a sports series.

The Hardy Boys Mysteries were created by Edward Stratemeyer in 1926. The book that captured me was the first in the series (The Tower Treasure). The fact that the climax occurred in a railroad yard (another obsession of mine) didn’t hurt. The series is interesting because the books, originally written by ghostwriters, were rewritten (dumbed down) for the modern reader in the late fifties in order to compete with television. The language was simplified and some of the richer descriptions were truncated or cut. I believe I read the edited versions.

The Happy Hollisters was a series about a family of amateur sleuths. The series was 1bbaawritten by Andrew Svenson under the pen name Jerry West. I think I was eight or nine when I started reading the books, and the ten-year-old girl in the story, Pamela, was my first literary crush. I often wondered if there was a real girl behind the fiction, and in researching this blog, I discovered that Pamela was based on Svenson’s daughter Laura.

Bronc Burnett stories involved a New Mexico teen with a rocket arm, pitching for his high school team. The team enters a tourney sponsored by the American Legion. Each book covered a different level of the tourney, culminating in a national championship. Subsequent books covered exhibition series against the Mexican champions, Canadian champions…

1bbEach story had a moral—my introduction to a story’s theme. Twenty-eight tales were authored by Wilfred McCormick. I generally stuck to the baseball stories, though the football stories were good, too.

I don’t suppose these stories would matter to the modern reader. I grew up in a gee-whiz world, where families that solved crimes together stayed together, and the guy that won the game in the ninth inning was the one with moral courage. No matter. I cherish the books, and a representative of each series sits on my keeper shelf in a place of honor.

What books captured you when you were young?

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Classics Illustrated

WellsAlbert Kanter was a traveling salesman, born in Russia, who emigrated to the United States in 1904. A lover of books, he had an interesting idea. He would abridge classic literature and print it in comic book form. His goal was to introduce great literature to young audiences. Classics Illustrated (originally called Classic Comics) was a huge success and a launching pad for artists like Jack Kirby.

The first story Kanter adapted was Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Each issue contained some biographical material on the author, educational extras, and a coming attractions tease. Kanter quickly added the works of Kipling, Melville, and Walter Scott.

Back issues became valuable collector’s items. Reprint requests—unheard of in the comic book industry—eventually led to back-cover catalog-style order forms.

I used the order form on the back of one comic to buy a fat packet of my favorite titles when I was young. Classics Illustrated was my introduction to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. If the comic caught my attention, I asked for the source material. That’s how I began wading through classic novels at the age of eight.

Over a period of twenty years, the company sold more than 200 million comics. Shortly after Kanter sold his interest, changing economics and distribution problems led to the company’s demise. After the company suspended publication, various companies have reissued versions of the comics. (Most recently, Trajectory Inc. released digital versions.)

I’ve been thinking of the “gateway drugs” that led to my reading addiction. Golden Books and Classics Illustrated, along with parents who read to me daily, did the job. I will be forever grateful.

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More Dry Ink

1aaaI’m pleased to announce that my novel, Sins in Blue, will be published next year by Black Rose Writing. The novel concerns a Depression-era bluesman and his friendship with a would-be teenage music manager in the late 60s. A little bit of mystery, a little bit of sorrow, and a lot of nostalgia.

One fun aspect of the book (for me) involved the song lyrics. I’ve been writing blues songs for a few years, and some of them figure in the novel. I think they hold up pretty well.

The book ends with a recounting of a B.B. King performance in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was there for the show back in 1969. The Great One opened for the Rolling Stones, who played some fine blues that night as well.

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Little Golden Books

1One of my earliest memories involved taking the obligatory afternoon nap. I never went voluntarily, but then, three-year-olds have to do what they’re told. Mom always sweetened the deal a little by putting me to bed with a handful of books.

We weren’t rich, but nearly everyone could afford Little Golden Books—introduced in 1942 at just .25 cents a book. Created by people like Margaret W. Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) and Richard Scarry, the books soon went worldwide (except the Soviet Union, where they were considered “too capitalistic”).

I had favorites. Scuffy the Tugboat (written by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely) traced a toy tugboat’s escape downriver to the sea. As the journey becomes perilous, Scuffy longs to return to the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy. Things get frightening before the happy ending.

The Little Red Caboose (written by Marion Potter and illustrated, again, by Tibor Gergely) chronicles the heroic efforts of a caboose who saves a train from sliding back down a steep mountain grade.

I mention the art, because that’s what stuck with me. At three, I couldn’t read. But having been read to repeatedly (and remembering the plots), I retold the stories to the pictures

1

Tibor Gergely

instead of napping. And those pictures!

Tibor Gergely was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1900. He immigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a self-taught artist. In addition to the titles I’ve mentioned, he illustrated Tootle, the third-best-selling children’s book of all time. He died in 1978.

As an adult, I find naps to be a rare luxury. As for Little Golden Books, I have five in my “keepers” bookcase, including Scuffy and The Little Red Caboose. These gems belong side-by-side with the most influential books of my life. And that influence still operates. After writing a recent poem, I realized that the imagined pastoral was very much like a panel from Scuffy. Dark poem, dark panel. Bless those books.

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The Ink is Dry

greenspan

David Greenspan’s Art

I finally signed a contract with Five Star Publishing for my Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort. The novel will be released in hardback next July (2020). The story allowed me to focus on two obsessions at once–the American Civil War and rocketry.

My fascination with rockets is easy enough to understand. My father, Harold Kaufman, worked for NASA much of his life. He designed a working ion engine (a small rocket engine propelled by vaporized and ionized mercury) in the early 1960s. Space flight consumed my imagination. We spent some summer nights together, gazing through telescopes at the stars and planets. I actually tried to build a rocket ship, a child’s project that ended abruptly when I announced that I needed to buy gasoline from the corner station.

My interest in the Civil War was sparked by the author Bruce Catton, who wrote The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. I fell in love with the illustrated battle maps (done by artist David Greenspan). The book was expensive, so I had to earn the money by washing cars for neighbors. (Bless their hearts – I was nine years old, and I don’t think I was very thorough.) I supplemented my Civil War reading with what my father called “the great American liberal education” (a library card). I’m still reading.

My best writing comes from exploring my obsessions. Luckily, I have a fair number of them. My thanks to Five Star for letting me share two of them with readers. I’ll keep you posted as details become available.

 

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Award Time

Some awards for Independent/small press publishers were announced last month, and my novel, “The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song,” was honored twice.

The Maxy Awards were named for a young girl, Max, born with a congenital brain disorder. Maxy ended her short life at Home of the Innocents in Louisville, Kentucky. Donations to Maxy Award go to the home, which helps children with developmental problems.

I was pleased to learn that my novel won a Maxy in the literary/romance category.

Then, I received a letter from the Eric Hoffer Award. “The Eric Hoffer Award honors the memory of the great American philosopher Eric Hoffer by highlighting salient writing, as well as the independent spirit of small publishers.”

“The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song” was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, awarded to books that “either illuminate, progress, or redirect thought.”

Nice to be recognized. And ironic – I never intended to send the novel out for publication. The story had been in my mind for nearly 15 years, but I had no faith in the book’s marketability. I wrote it for myself. A very good friend and author, Pat Stoltey, encouraged (badgered) me into submitting the book, and I’m so glad she did.

A shout out to my publisher – Black Rose Writing – who took a chance on a literary baseball novel, and helped me make a success of the project.

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Big News Coming

The ink has to dry first, but I have big news coming. In the meantime, let me drop a teaser consisting of a photo and a bullet list of facts.

space museum 11

  • The first war to feature rocket warfare, submarine kills and aircraft carriers was…the American Civil War. (The Hunley was a Confederate sub that sank the US warship Housatonic. Floating flattops were used as launch and landing pads for observation balloons.)
  • President Abraham Lincoln was nearly killed by a friendly rocket test.
  • Thousands of individuals fought for both sides during the Civil War.
  • Manned rocket flight was proposed (and perhaps tested) in the first part of the nineteenth century.

Watch for further announcements!

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Finding the Time to Write

timeWriters procrastinate. In a busy world, finding something other than writing to do is easy. Having dawdled away entire decades, I found myself without anything to show for the time spent talking about writing (most often with a beer in my hand). By the time I got serious, I was a forty-year-old man with two full-time jobs, a mountain of debt, and three children to worry over.

That’s when I began to write my first novel.

My two jobs left me with a weekly writing window of about five hours—Sunday morning from 2 a.m. until dawn. Because that was my only free time during the week, writing had to share time with a VHS movie, some cooking and cleaning, and the aforementioned beer.

I maximized my efficiency by spending working hours inside my novel’s world. The more mindless the task (and there’s nothing more mind-numbing than a cook deveining shrimp), the better I was able to slip into my novel. Time dissolved for me, a phenomenon that had its drawbacks. Cooking involves sharp knives—it’s a wonder I kept my typing fingers intact. By week’s end, however, I was ready to put words on the page.

I don’t mention this time of my life to illustrate my superior will-power. I’m setting up a punchline. My kids are grown. I’m down to one job. My evenings are free. And I still have trouble finding time to write.

So must it always be. But rather than commiserate, let me offer some suggestions for a problem that I believe is, for writers, universal. I present you with four tips for finding the time to write:

  1. Steal time. Too often, your grandiose plans for a full day of writing go astray. Plan your sessions in smaller blocks, which allows you to jam your short sessions into a few minutes of dead time between the breakfast dishes and the laundry. Have a long commute? Try dictating your novel as you drive. Sneak away from the family whenever you can, and be happy with your page or two—they add up.
  2. Plan to avoid distractions. When you choose a location to do your writing, select somewhere that’s off the beaten path. (The living room of a family home might not be the wisest choice.) Stay away from television screens, and shut off your social media. (Will you really miss those political posts on Facebook?) Explain to friends and family that you are working (and be prepared to repeat yourself endlessly).
  3. Plan for efficiency. Project management tools like outlines and do-lists can help. If you have trouble with a scene, move on. Make a note of your sticking point, and go to the next scene. Efficient writing also means a quick start. Try leaving your previous writing session in the middle of an action sequence or dramatic scene to make picking up the storytelling that much easier at your next session.
  4. Enjoy writing. Finding time is easier if you revel in your craft. And if you love writing—really love writing—you’ll find the time.

When discussing this topic with successful writers (some of whom post maddening daily word count totals on the social media I advised you to ignore), the common prescription is “just do it.” For most of us, that’s not helpful. Hopefully, you found a useful nugget or two here to apply to your situation. Happy writing!

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A Small Favor

crittersCritters Writer’s Workshop is a free, online workshop for writers, fun by Andrew Burt, former VP of Science Fiction Writers of America. Critters holds an annual poll for the “best-of,” and my novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song was nominated for novels (all other genres).

This being a poll, I’m posting to ask for your vote. If you’re so inclined, visit:

https://critters.org/predpoll/novel.shtml?fbclid=IwAR3UiIj3S5b7ze06BxnhXCU7f2j3Sc_2NZN8uisIKQoigUB5qv8tIWTDbHM

When you scroll down, you’ll find that I’m in the first category. Voting is pretty easy (two minute’s work). Critters will want your email address so they can send you a verification email.

Pretty simple. And if you vote, much appreciated!

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