Monday, February 17, 2014

Author Spotlight: Pamela Gerhardt

Lucky That Way, a nuanced, richly engaging memoir, chronicles the joys and tribulations of a daughter who rediscovers her father as he nears the end of his life.  Ernie Gerhardt, an artist and teacher, is largely estranged from his five children, but when he suffers a debilitating stroke, his daughter Pamela must fly to Las Vegas to tend to him. When she arrives to find Ernie newly and shockingly fragile, she is hit by an unexpected wave of tenderness.  Pamela Gerhardt’s heartfelt story about a family coming to terms with their aging father’s illness and imminent death takes readers on an emotional roller coaster that highlights love, loss, humor, and sadness. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
As the post-stroke journey was unfolding I kept thinking about the emails and cell phone calls as my family tried to manage my dad's care long distance. My siblings and I at the time, like many contemporary families, were living in four different cities (St. Louis, MO; Columbia, SC; Washington, DC; and Tampa, FL). Meanwhile, our father had a stroke out in Arizona while on vacation. So logistically it was pretty crazy. And it felt different from when my parents took care of their elderly parents, who lived in the same town, a 5-minute drive away. My dad encouraged me to write it all down. He too recognized the unique contemporary hurdles.

Also, I began to research literature and books already out there on the subject of elderly care and end-of-life issues. I found that the literature fell into two categories: one, how-to books that told you what kind of questions to ask administrators of assisted living facilities or how to find the best at-home caregiver; two, sentimental, very serious stories that perhaps didn't accurately reflect the gritty, sloppy, and sometimes laugh-out-loud aspects of elderly care.  My dad was a very funny man. We were flawed humans grappling with life’s greatest mystery--the final stages of life. I believed many families and readers would benefit from a different kind of story, different from the other books. I wanted to dig deep and share my very personal story until I arrived at the universal. I think I succeeded. The positive reader responses have been overwhelming.

At the end of the day so much more is at stake than knowing the correct questions to ask the assisted living people.

Q:  What was your family like as you were growing up? 
The book highlights some of our funnier moments. My dad would do stuff like plop the head of a GI Joe doll on top of a chicken as he was dressing it for dinner. Both parents were very creative people. My mom was involved in amateur theater and sang. My dad played several instruments and painted and sang. He came from a long line of musicians and singers--so even the grandparents and great uncles played banjos, mandolins, harmonicas and accordions. My parents had a large group of friends who were musicians, singers, photographers, and actors. So that part of growing up was very colorful. At the same time, my dad could be difficult. As with many artists, he struggled with his own demons at times. After my mom died 25 years ago, those demons took on a more forceful role and hindered his relationships with his children. We realized that my mom had probably been the glue that held it all together.

Q: Was it difficult to write about your father?
No. He had a big personality so it was easy to recall his funnier moments and convey his rich personality. During the post-stroke journey, under his encouragement, I literally wrote everything down and kept copious notes. I knew I wanted to remember exactly what took place, to remember the small details and moments that created the larger story. The only part that was difficult was struggling to get it right. You want to be accurate and fair. You want to be sure that your individual perception is not skewing the information. We all go through that process of recalling family memories and wondering if the story is right. It’s a little bit like several people witnessing a car crash or some other event and they tell the police officer completely different versions of the same story. Perception is a powerful thing. So I tried hard to be fair and objective, to tell the truth--the real truth.

Q: Is there anywhere that readers can go to see some of your father’s artwork?
I currently have a few photos of his paintings on my website, I plan to upload some more photos. Unfortunately, all of the best paintings have been sold. So some of the best works are hanging on the walls of strangers. I have asked some people if they would be interested in selling the paintings back to the family. All of them say no. It’s fascinating--the paintings are a part of their family story. People have told me how they grew up staring at my father’s painting over their family room fireplace. They have more right to the work, more memory attached to it, than I. My dad worked quickly, and sold his paintings quickly. He had five children to feed and clothe. I just completed an essay about this idea of bits of my father on the walls of others and sent it to The Huffington Post. I’m waiting to hear from the editor.

Q: What would your father think about the book?
Oh, boy. He would love it. Absolutely. He would love the attention, and I hope he would find that I did him justice. His friends have told me that he would have been very pleased.

Q: What books or projects are you working on now?
I am writing essays. I just sent one to the The Huffington Post and one to The New York Times.  My past work has been published frequently in The Washington Post (you can find past articles and essays on my website). I teach narrative nonfiction at The University of Maryland, an advanced writing course for juniors and seniors, which I love.  In terms of book projects, throughout the stroke journey I became very curious about why no one has ever written about the assisted living experience from a first person perspective. Why are there no stories from the inside, from people living it? So I’m very interested in putting together a Studs Terkel type book (as in his book, Working) where I interview people, transcribe their stories, and let them speak in first-person. Showtime recently ran a documentary reality series called Time of Death. It was fabulous, but brutal to watch, as it highlighted the final weeks, days, and hours of people with terminal illnesses. I would be interested in hearing from people who are not necessarily terminal, but approaching the final years.  People who are in relatively good health but know time is running out. What’s it like when you know, statistically, you have only a short time left? Maybe we would be surprised. Maybe it’s not as horrible as we fear.  For several decades now we’ve been obsessed with youth. At the same time, the advent of modern medicine and ICUs cloak the end-of-life experience, hide it from the everyday. But hospice, palliative care and the growing home-aide industry are ushering some of that experience back into our living rooms.  As a society we are slowly moving away from Death Denial (an actual term). The Baby Boomers, a huge segment of the population and a generation accustomed to self-reflection, might really benefit from shared experiences as they face aging.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Author Spotlight: Michael E. Shay

In the midst of the Philippine-American War, twenty-two-year-old Robert Dexter Carter served in Manila as a civilian quartermaster clerk. Through his letters to his family, he provided a vivid picture of army life in Manila—the sights, the smells, and his responses to the native culture. In addition to his letters, his diary, and several related articles present a firsthand account of the historic voyage of the United States Army Transport Grant through the Suez Canal to Manila in early 1899. Carter’s writings not only tell of his sometimes harrowing experiences but also reveal the aspirations and fears of a young man not quite sure of his next steps on life’s journey.  Enhanced by photographs from collections at the Library of Congress and the Military History Institute, as well as many of Carter’s own whimsical drawings, the book will appeal to armchair historians and scholars alike.

Q: How did you come across Robert D. Carter’s story?
History does not take place in a vacuum, and the study and writing of it often takes me in many directions. That is a large part of the enjoyment and the challenge of writing history. Sometimes I just don’t know where the idea for the next book will come from.  In some way, you could almost say that the book picks me.

Carter’s story is a direct outgrowth from my research for a biography of Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Edwards. As a younger officer, Edwards served on the staff of Maj. Gen. Henry Lawton during the Philippine War. Young Carter served as a civilian quartermaster in Lawton’s division. He was also the son of a good friend and former colleague of Lawton, and he owed his job to that connection. I came across a reference to a collection that contained Carter’s diary and letters, and I followed up with the curator of the materials.

Q: What was the context for the Philippine War?
The Philippine War was fairly inevitable, but somewhat accidental in its timing. Inevitable because of the increasing demands for expansion during the 1890’s by important persons like Theodore Roosevelt and others who wished to project American power abroad, particularly in the Pacific Rim. They were referred to as “Imperialists.” The instrument used for this extension would be the United States Navy, and given the technology of the day, the warships would need coaling stations, among other things. There was tremendous pressure to annex Hawaii, for instance. Increased trade, they argued, was sure to follow. Accidental, because when we went to war with Spain in 1898, Commodore George Dewey was ordered to Manila to take on the Spanish fleet anchored in Manila Bay. His victory in May 1898 was so swift and so total that the United States was left with a dilemma: How much or how little of the Philippine Islands do we want to retain? The problem was the fact that there was a simmering insurrection in the islands, and we initially sent a mixed signal to the rebels that we would not stand in their way. In fact, the U. S. transported several prominent rebels back to Manila from their exile. It came to a head, when President McKinley decided to keep the entire archipelago. Since Spain was defeated, the insurrectos, angered at what they saw as American duplicity, turned their attention to the new landlord.

Q: What did you enjoy most about Carter’s story?
I enjoyed getting to know young Carter. Although the language of his Diary is spare, not so with his lengthy letters. Like many young people he was ambitious, and in his case, he was undoubtedly chasing his father’s shadow. Newly married, he felt that the Philippine War was important enough to leave his wife and join with other young men to do his part. He was frustrated by the fact that he did not receive a commission, yet he had enough pride to want to do his best as a quartermaster clerk. Just reading his letters aloud, you can hear a young man conflicted about what he wanted to do next with his life, as well as how he met his day to day challenges alone in a foreign place, in the absence of his obviously close-knit family.

Q: Why did you leave some of Carter’s obviously racist language in the book?
I weighed this problem very carefully, but in the end, it was a fairly easy decision. I believe that the function of a historian is to tell a story as accurately and as straightforwardly as possible. It is not the function of a historian to “sanitize” the record. As has been said many times, 'we need to know where we have been in order to know where we are going.' Unfortunately, racism is an ugly part of our past history, and, to an extent, exists at the present time. To deny it is not being truthful, and Carter’s is an authentic voice for his time.

Q: What are the challenges in editing a book of someone’s letters?
Aside from the obvious, like poor handwriting and lack of punctuation, the next biggest challenge was identifying the people and places that Carter referred to. Obviously, his correspondents already knew without asking. I had to determine how these people and places fit into the overall story, and whether or not they were important enough to merit an endnote. I also had to be somewhat selective in what to retain (most) and what to cut-out (relatively small). Unlike most history, which is often told chronologically and as a big picture, the letters were mostly personal, day to day anecdotes. So, the biggest challenge, and the most fun, was placing the letters in the context of the larger story of the Philippine War. That called for even more research and study, which is the really interesting part.

Q: How will future generations learn about life in the 21st Century?
This is a cause of some concern for me. For one thing, during the last 100 years or so we as a people have been gradually moving away from letter writing and the teaching of cursive. We rely too much upon technology, and our people-to-people contacts are becoming more remote. Language has become very spare, and we communicate with fractions of words and little punctuation. There is a coarsening and cheapening of language. Communication is becoming more visual (e.g. Skype), and we often see, but we don’t hear. Technology makes it easy to manipulate just what we see (e. g. Photoshop). Moreover, vehicles like Twitter give everyone the feeling that every single thing they do, moment to moment has great significance. The job of a historian is, in part, to sort through the information, verify it, gauge its significance, and draw accurate conclusions. While it is easier by far to obtain and share information these days, there is so much data system-wide that it is often harder to do that important job of winnowing. With all that clutter, will future generations have the patience to do so? If not, I fear that the picture will be distorted.

Read an excerpt of A Civilian in Lawton’s 1899 Philippine Campaign here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Author Spotlight: Carolyn Marie Wilkins

In They Raised Me Up, Carolyn Marie Wilkins juxtaposes her personal story as an up-and-coming musician and single mother in the 1980s with the histories of influential women from her family’s past. This poignant and telling narrative not only offers insights on the travails of a musician and single mother but also humanizes the struggles of black and biracial women from the early twentieth century into the 1980s.   The interweaving of memoir with family history creates a cohesive, entertaining, informative, and engrossing read that will appeal to anyone with an interest in African American Studies, Women’s History, Ethnomusicology, or simply looking for an intriguing story about music and family.

Q. What inspired you to include the stories of your ancestors and mentors alongside your own?
 I think the most important part of the book is not my story, but the stories of the other women in the book.

Q. Did you ever consider abandoning music?
Yes.  I actually quit for a couple of years when my daughter was around two years old.  I went back to school, got a degree in Paralegal Studies, and worked in a law firm for a while.  But I just couldn't stand it. Shortly afterwards I moved to Boston to focus full time on my music career.

Q. What does your daughter think of the book?
She's been very supportive!  A big motivation for me writing the book was to give her more information--more about her roots.  Now she knows who her people are and where she comes from.

Q. How much more accessible to women has the music industry become since the ‘80s?
Things are much better now.  The amazing drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who graciously wrote a blurb for my book, just won a Grammy for her latest album.  That would never have happened thirty years ago.

Q. What advice do you have for young women looking to pursue a career in music?
Prepare yourself as thoroughly as possible--learn all aspects of the business and of your craft. Most importantly, work on building a strong sense of self-esteem--it's rough out there.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from They Raised Me Up?
My hope is that readers will be educated, entertained, and inspired by my book.

Q. Do you have any upcoming writing or music projects?
Thanks for asking! I'm in the midst of writing a murder mystery.  Also, I plan to release a solo piano CD this fall.