Friday, April 29, 2011

A Night of Storytelling and Poetry

Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to distinguished professor of English and poetry, Nikki Giovanni, talk about her life, her family, Virginia Tech, the importance of the arts in young peoples' lives and what it means to be a citizen.

Giovanni talked about loss as only a daughter who has lost a mother can. She told a moving story about losing her mother, her older sister and a beloved aunt in six months. When her sister was diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer, her mother fell. Giovanni told of getting a call when she was in Arizona asking her to return to Roanoke immediately, because her mother "was dying." She spoke with her sister and a doctor, both who told her the same thing: Her mother was dying. Giovanni fired the doctor, called another one she trusted, and flew all night to get home. The new doctor greeted her, gave her an update on her mother's condition and said her mother "was dying."

Giovanni realized her mother couldn't bear the thought of burying her daughter and decided to die. And she did. Giovanni talked about wanting to take some time off to recover, but wondered how and when she would take time on. She didn't stop writing or teaching. Her emotion over her mother's passing in 2005 felt as fresh as if it happened yesterday. She reminded us through her tears that a woman rarely if ever gets over the loss of a mother.

On the lighter side, Giovanni talked about getting her way at Virginia Tech when she wanted to take 56 students to a poetry reading. She convinced the president to give her a bus. She still has use of the bus and takes her students to other poetry readings to emphasize that they should never be far from art in their lives.

On a note that didn't go over well with the conservative crowd, Giovanni said we Americans don't pay enough taxes. Her activist message was we are all members of a community and should be taking care of each other. The way to do that is to pay more in taxes. Most of the rich cats in the audience didn't agree. This not-rich cat did.

What did I learn from last night's readings? Let your emotions show. Don't be afraid to be happy or sad. Grieve and move on, but don't forget. Look around us. Others need our help. Pay your share and help. You can get your way if you make your case well. It helps to be an alpha female, which Giovanni is.

She left everyone in the audience with plenty to think about.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Author Interview: Dutch Henry, We'll Have The Summer

Once again, two disclaimers. I met Dutch two years ago, lost track of him, and then discovered we have the same agent. Oh happy days. I asked Dutch if he'd be willing to answer some questions about his debut novel, We'll Have the Summer. He was gracious and provided insight into his background which informed many of his characters. I assume his background, like all of ours, also formed his worldview.

I know you've worked with horses and horse rescue for many years. Can you tell your readers how you got started? I’m an orphan and when I was 8, I was “Farmed out”. That is, placed on a dairy farm to work for my keep. They were nice folks, but there was no love there. My first friends I remember in life were the work horses. I knew they loved me. I felt their spirit. As an adult I met Diane Sept, a wonderful woman who taught me so much about helping horses. It was while under her tutelage that I worked to rehabilitate Tennessee Walking Horses from show ring to trail. The things some of these poor horses are forced to endure is unspeakable. I worked with several who were driven completely out of their minds. (I am talking here of one particular form of showing. Most horse shows are wonderful and fun for both human and horse.) One horse, Zack, took six months to realize I would not hurt him and allow me to lay a saddle blanket on him. In two years time he became a fabulous lesson horse.

Is there any one horse you owned that was memorable? Did that horse become the model for Comanche or Chester? I had a horse, Diablo, a striking black and white Tenn Walker, Diane and I had rehabilitated. As in my novel we had begun to learn musical freestyle performing together. He was one of the most magnificent horses I’ve ever known. Unfortunately the damage done to his feet in the show ring caused him to develop such severe arthritis that at the young age of 10, he had to be euthanized. He was unable to even stand. Still in the three short years I knew him, he taught me much … He is missed.

Chester is my salute to all the remarkable horses out there who teach so many folks the joys of being with and riding horses. It was Winston Churchill who said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

You mentioned in a recent talk that you've rehabilitated many horses, yet other than providing plenty of food for Comanche, I don't see much in the way of rehabilitation with him. Was that in the back of your mind when you wrote about the paint? I worried about weighing the reader down with too many details. I wanted the story to interest non-horse folks, too, and most rescues suffer mostly from malnutrition and neglect so I focused on his rehab along those lines. I tried to imply though that Mary was careful not to overwork Comanche as she rehabbed him, but of course she had a time constraint to deal with.

This is a love story on so many different planes. Did you have real-life inspirations for the story between Mary and Sam, between Mary and Barbara, and between Mary and Comanche? I know the biggest inspiration for the story between Mary and Sam was my own sweet wife, Robin. We are married 35 years, too. I wanted to write a story about an uncommon and enduring love. It seems so many stories today are about quick love affairs and chance meetings. I wanted to share a lifetime.

Mary and Barbara. I had volunteered as a ‘Big Brother’ about 15 years ago. And of course my own childhood had given me sense for a youngster who wished for a tangible connection they could lean on, depend on.

Mary and Comanche’s relationship was a compilation of horses I’ve had the honor of knowing and I had wonderful examples to draw on over the years from friends and their horses.

What, if any, kind of research did you do prior to sitting down to write? I started to write first but when dealing with Mary’s health I spoke to friends, doctors and nurses. Her Reiki experiences, though, are based on my own. With Reiki I am off pain meds for four years now (Is that a plug?). For Comanche, it was from my own experiences. I called the Arizona office of the Bureau of Land Management, and the Mustang Federation. For the fireworks I called a real-life fireworks guy. And yes, they can do daytime shows! And don’t forget I’ve had a lifetime of learning about love with the Ravishin’ Robbie.

I belong to a writers group that you visited a couple of years ago where you read the first chapter of We'll Have The Summer. How long did it take to write the book from first page until your editor said you were "done?" First draft, 90 days. One of the things I enjoyed reading this week as a published book was recognizing the scenes, sentences or paragraphs that survived “in tact” from that first draft. The gestation was pretty long. I started writing that first draft in July of ’09, and here we are in March 2011. I have a friend who helped me tweek that first draft soon after I wrote it. That took about three months. Then it sat for about six or eight months. I was very busy with writing for the American Competitive Trail Horse Association and my novel patiently waited. Then I found Dawn’s card and she edited it. That took a few months. When Camel Press took it on, the edits were light, and it went fast, about a month. I’ve heard writers say they grew tired of their novel by the time it got published, but I must say, I love it as much now as the day I completed the first draft.

I'm probably a 20-draft writer. Some of my friends are up to 30-draft writers. How many drafts did you do before you submitted it to your agent? And how many drafts after your agent and editor read the manuscript and provided feedback? After my first draft, which I do without outlines, I just write, there were edits as I said, but never new drafts. With the help of two friends, I went over it three times before handing it to Dawn Dowdle. Throughout the entire editing process there were only a very few scenes I re-wrote. The edits were really spellings, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. I had to take out a few overused words like “that.”

Dawn and I went back and forth three times. Camel really only once, then another time for the final proof. The hardest re-write was the first page, that took me a while, but even the middle of that remains original.

Barbara is a troubled teen when she arrives at Sam and Mary's ranch. Her portrait rings true. Have you worked with troubled teens? Only for a brief period with Big Brothers, less than 2 years.

You must have another book in the works. Will it be a sequel or a stand-alone? I have had requests from friends who’ve read it for both a prequel and a sequel. I actually have two stand-alones started, but I don’t have the same feeling for either of them I had for, We’ll Have The Summer.

What are the last three books you read not related to your manuscript? And why did you read them? I read a lot of Tony Hillerman’s books and Wendell Berry and surprise … a few Nora Roberts. I read them to sharpen my writing skills and for fun.

Please feel free to add anything you want here. This is a free-form area and if I've missed any question you want to ask, now's the time. I wanted to write a story of an uncommon love so enduring it could overcome insurmountable obstacles. My passion for horses and the way they can enrich a person's life needed to be part of the story. I believe in the power of love and the spirit of the horse and these two forces came together to tell this story. My only job was to fill in the details.

Join me in enjoying reading Dutch's book, We'll Have The Summer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: We'll Have The Summer by Dutch Henry

This review starts with yet another disclaimer. I first met Dutch Henry about two years ago when he visited Lake Writers at Smith Mountain Lake a couple of times. Dutch read the opening chapter of a novel he was working on. I clearly remember mopping mascara and tears from my face because the prose was beautiful and the romance foretold sadness to come. He didn't return because he lives on the far side of Appomattox from the lake and it was too long a drive.

Second disclaimer: It is happenstance that Dutch and I have the same agent, Dawn Dowdle. When I signed with Dawn, I had no idea he had joined her writing group or that she was his agent. Happy Snoopy dance followed with that information. And so Dutch's book is available.

We'll Have The Summer is a multi-faceted love story. Part romance, part not. One story arc is the 35-year romance and marriage of Sam and Mary, owners of a dude ranch. We learn early on that Mary is a cancer survivor with a cloud hanging over her health. When Sam brings home a scrawny horse, Mary recognizes her favorite show horse, one her late daughter rode. The horse's neglect is enough to perk Mary up and give her something to do every day.

Add a group of guests who've come to spend the summer at the dude ranch, learning how to ride, care for horses, and relax. One family, Phillip, Linda and Barbara bring their troubles with them. Phillip is an abusive husband and Dutch hints that he may have abused his step-daughter Barbara too. The troubled teen, Barbara, brings enough attitude with her to ring true. She'd rather be at the mall than on dirty ranch. She's like totally cut off. No cell service.

Dutch writes with a clarity that enables a reader to see and feel what is going on. Words leap off the page and the action sucks the reader into the scene. When Barbara turns out to be a natural horsewoman, Mary sees a chance to return to the state fair for one last competition. She'll ride her daughter's rescued horse.

Dutch is an accomplished writer. Though this is his debut novel, readers can hope it is not his last. It's perfect for book clubs, for a weepy beach read, or for anyone who has loved a horse or been in a long-term loving relationship with a spouse.

The biggest beef I have with this book is that it isn't being sold with a box of tissues. For me, it was a six-tissue read.

Check out Dutch's web site for more about his writing life.

We'll Have The Summer is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Author Interview: Gary Noesner on Stalling for Time

From time to time I present blog interviews with authors of books I liked. Gary Noesner, author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, was kind enough to answer my questions. In hopes of introducing you to an articulate writer and in generating interest in his memoir, here are Gary's answers to my questions.

1. Let's begin with why you wanted to be an FBI agent. You write in the book that your interest started when you were a kid. Can you give people who have not yet read your book what triggered your interest? I wanted to become an FBI agent from watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. Yep - the one and only. I was about 12 and while watching the daily show after school one day they did an espisode on the FBI. They visited FBI Headquarters, interviewed Hoover, and shot machine guns on the firing range. I was sold by the tales of chasing spies, bank robbers, and kidnappers. After that, it's all I ever wanted to do.

2. One thing I've heard is that the FBI does everything by the book. I was interested in your episodes of writing a "new book" for negotiation rather than the use of force. Can you talk a little about how you went about this? Was it frustrating to run up against the J. Edgar Hoover approach to ending a standoff? The FBI may not always do things by the book to the extent that you might believe. It's true that the FBI is a bureacracy and as such is generally resistent to change and innovation. The same holds for most law enforcement and the military in my view. Still, the FBI has historically been in the lead in a number of law enforcement innovations and negotiations was certainly one of them. We didn't event the approach, but we perfected and marketed it worldwide. When moving the FBI's negotiation program away from the limitations of a pure bargaining approach to a more crisis intervention model, there was much support adminstratively. The resistence more likely came from field commanders who held onto some of the traditional beliefs about the projection of power. This was the core problem issue at Waco.

3. I particularly liked some of the less well-known events in the book. Can you tell your readers why you picked the Cubans seizing the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution? Is there a particular message you had in mind in this negotiation? I thought the Talladega Prison incident would be instructive to the reader by showing a very dangerous situation in which the prisoners had been dealt with in the past, but had not had their grievances adequately addressed by the government. With that as a backdrop, they began the siege very resistant to any negotiation efforts. This made our job at obtaining a peaceful resolution extremely difficult. They simply didn't believe us and felt we were only trying to trick them into submission. Despite these challenges, the negotiation effort yielded significant results. I felt this would show the reader that even in desperate circumstances the negotiation process can do much to achieve a positive outcome.

4. Once you decided to write this book, how much of it did the FBI have to vet? ('m assuming you hold a security clearance and have to secure permission to write anything about the FBI. Right?) My security clearances, which were quite high, basically ended with my government service. However, like all FBI employees, I was required to submit my full manuscript to FBIHQ for final approval. That approval process does not concern itself with content. The FBI is only able to block information which is classified in nature or discloses sensitive investigative techniques, which does not encompass hostage negotiations. While writing the book I avoided including any classified information knowing that doing so would create a problem.

5. Many people want to know the process you went through to find an agent. Did you send in a query letter and book proposal? Or did you have a personal connection with your agent before you decided to write the book? When I decided that I wanted to write a book, I went to lunch with my friend Peter Bergen. Peter is a CNN analyst and has written two books on Osama Bin Laden. Peter kindly put me in contact with his literary agent and she was absolutely wonderful. Her support and guidance made all the difference in my securing a contract with Random House.

6. From beginning to publication, how long did the writing, editing and publication process take? I wrote the book in about one year. I delivered twice the length of material than contracted for, knowing it would be cut back considerably. The editing process took over a year. This process was very time consuming and was also sporadic in that often weeks or longer would go by before I would receive additional feedback from my editor regarding the suggested changes I had made. My editor was extremely helpful and provided much sound advice, but due to other manuscripts he was working on, I often had to wait before we could proceed to the next phase of our work.

7. Many of us who write are multi-draft writers. I probably rewrite chapters over ten times until I get them "right." How many drafts did you go through? I don't know that I can count the number of drafts per se, but each individual chapter was worked on extensively. I did not encounter a situation where I had to significantly change an individual chapter, but my editor would often ask for more of one thing and perhaps less of another. Each time I touched the manuscript for a particular chapter I would tweek it to slowly get it to where I felt it was just the way I wanted it. One of my daughters, an English teacher, also read each chapter and provided critical feedback on both content and style.

8. How much interaction did you have with your editor at Random House? Was s/he instrumental in shaping the final book? Or did you come to the editor with a firm concept in mind of how you wanted to book to turn out? I had a good idea of what stories I wanted to include in my book, but I was a bit conflicted over story telling versus teaching lessons. In the end, with my editor's support, we decided to tell good stories within which key negotiation teaching points were embedded. In addition to the book being a personal story about my life, I wanted it to bring credit to the law enforcement negotiatino profession, and also serve as a learning tool for current and future law enforcement leaders who must command these incidents. It was my goal to influence the business while also entertain the reader. I hope I accomplished this. As the book got into its final draft, my editor spent a significant amount of time with me on the phone going over almost the entire book. I did all the writing, but he helped me stay on point, add in information that added value, and drop information which wasn't necessary to the story.

9. What are you writing now? You must have another book in you. Will it be non-fiction again or will you try fiction? I'm not currently writing, however, I have two clear ideas for my next project, which I probaby won't undertake until the Fall. One is another non-fiction work along similar lines and the other is a fictional work inspired by the true life events in which I was involved. Right now if I started that effort I would be in hot water with my wife, so it will have to wait for the quieter Fall and Winter months.

10. What are the last three books you read for pleasure and why? The book I just finished was Modoc about the circus elephant. It's such a wonderful and well written story. I could hardly put it down. My wife strongly recommended it to me. I was in Africa some years ago with my son and a herd of about 60 elephants crossed the road a short distance in front of our car. Watching the matriarch supervise her large flock and mothers protect their babies was so moving and wonderful to see. I'll always treasure that moment, so I guess the book had a special appeal to me. I try to intersperse fiction with non-fiction. But for entertainment, I've recently been reading books by Bernard Cornwell, the historical novelist. I just read the three books in the Arthur tales and before that the five books in the Saxon tales. I also read a book not long ago called "The Religion." I cannot recall the author's name right now, but it's another historical novel set in Malta that I enjoyed very much.

I find that I like a good yarn that also teaches me something about the past. A few months ago I read the "World's Wettist County" about the Franklin County moonshine trade around the depression. Since I live in the county I found it historically interesting.

11. I'm sure there are questions I haven't asked. Please feel free to add anything else that you feel important. An additional goal in writing my book was to share with readers the essential interpersonal communication skills that I believe help people be successful in life. By that I mean successful in relationships with spouses, children, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and almost anyone that you might interact with. If the skills I learned and share in the book work in high stress dangerous situations, than certainly they can benefit us all in less critical interactions we have with others.

If you think Gary's book is interesting and something you'd like to read, click on the link in the opening paragraph to go out to Amazon. Yes, the book is for sale there. Yes, this is a blatant sales pitch. But, hey, I can make it. I didn't write the book.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stalling for Time by Gary Noesner

On Thursday, April 7, Gary Noesner will speak about his new book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator. The event is sponsored by Valley Writers, a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Noesner is a writer living just across Smith Mountain Lake from my house. He's a hell of a story teller.

Stalling for Time takes us through several high-profile and no-profile FBI hostage crises. From cases that made local, but not national news, to those that kept us glued to our television screens for weeks, Noesner shows us which tactics work and which don't, who makes the best negotiators, how and why things can go dreadfully wrong. Since he was involved in developing the current hostage negotiation techniques, he knows what he's talking about.

Small cases like the distraught man who takes his two children and wife hostage in a hot railroad car. Noesner helped various law-enforcement groups on the same tactical page of trying to talk the man out with limited or no loss of life. Unfortunately, the baby and wife died, but the man emerged with his daughter. Both are safe but forever changed by what happened.

High-profile cases like the Branch Davidian stand-off outside Waco, TX, filled the headlines and television nationwide for weeks. Even though the negotiators were making progress, some in charge were unwilling to wait. We remember what happened: the FBI abandoned negotiations, attacked the compound and too many people died in a conflagration.

Noesner talks candidly about his clashes with colleagures and superiors. Some times he wins the power play; some times he loses. He never stops trying, however, to move the non-violent negotiation through to a peaceful resolution.

A good story very well told. If you want a glimpse into what it's like in an FBI hostage negotiation, read this book. You'll find the stress and boredom collide to produce intense fatigue and happiness when everything goes according to the script.

I wonder what he'll write next.