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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Kissing Bobby Corcoran

Since I still live right here in my home town, it was no trouble at all to show up at the Corvallis High Class of '69 Fiftieth class reunion, and the high point for me, hands down, was reconnecting with my fourth grade boyfriend, Bob Corcoran.  Like me, he has a solid marriage, kids and grandkids.  He's still cute, fit, and the same sweetheart of a guy I remembered. In high school he was all district half-back on the football team and I had leads in the plays. This made for an uncrossable line in the social hierarchy of the times, and we never talked about anything, much less our grade school romance. So, that Saturday night at the Country Club, I was tickled to learn that he remembered meeting to kiss, all those years ago, in the vacant lot on the far side of my block.

 

I told him I'd written about him in the flashback chapter of my memoir, Wedding in Yangshuo, where I explain what a ridiculously romantic little girl I'd been:

 

When I fell in love with Bobby Corcoran, the coolest, cutest boy in the fourth grade—ask  anyone who went to Garfield Elementary—I  clearly remember thinking, "At long last….love!"  Because I honestly felt I had been waiting for this my entire life.  All ten years.

 

Ah, the wonderful month of May, 1961.  Bobby even gave me a ring—silver and black, with Chinese characters on it.  I was pretty sure they must have meant ALL MY LOVE FOREVER, but as far as Bobby was concerned, love ended that year with the start of baseball season.

 

I nursed my broken heart for two whole years.  Yes, the very years when, as the perfect soundtrack for this torch-carrying episode, the song "Bobby's Girl" topped the charts.  As in, that's what I wanna be, that's the most important thing to me etc.

 

I still loved Bobby Corcoran when, in sixth grade, he gave that new girl—Shirley Something—a rhinestone heart necklace.  That killed me. I wonder what happened to her.  I wonder if she still has that necklace like I still have the ring with the Chinese characters.

 

Good thing I saved it since now I have a son who translates Chinese for a living and can tell me what the characters mean. They mean GOOD LUCK, Miles tells me.  Perfectionist that he is on the smallest of translation jobs, even such personal ones for his mother, he feels compelled to point out that this is good luck using characters as it would be spoken in Cantonese, not Mandarin. 

 

GOOD LUCK.

 

Well, I can go with that.

 

Thanks, Bobby.  As it turns out, I have been lucky. 

 

So lucky.

 

And now Bobby tells me he remembers the ring, remembers buying it in San Francisco's Chinatown with his family the previous year.  When I told him how my heart had been broken over that necklace he gave Shirley, the new girl, he was shocked.  "I never gave her any necklace," he insisted, "I gave YOU the ring."

 

Wow.  So much heartbreak for nothing.  Since I never lied, I never thought anyone else did either.  Maybe she just made that story up because she wished the necklace she was wearing had been a gift from him.

 

In comparing all the details we remembered, I find I'm struck not by the fact that at ten, we were out in the grass of the vacant lot, experimenting with kissing, but that we had the freedom, in those days, to ride our bikes around the neighborhood at will, as long as we showed up at our suburban tract homes in time for dinner.

 

Bob remembered the special advanced assignment our 4th grade teacher, Ruth Jones, gave the two of us: to measure every room in our houses and draw floor plans.  I so wish I could tell her this, but Ruth died recently.  About a year ago a group of us gathered to dedicate a "Buddy Bench" to her on the playground of the last school where she taught--Adams Elementary. If you haven't heard, Buddy Benches are for kids to park themselves if they need a playmate, in hopes of being joined by some other solitary—sort of a pre-internet playdate site.  I have no idea if they work.  I'll ask my grandson Nolan about it.  He just started kindergarten at Adams.

 

If you stay in your hometown, the connections never end, and you can find yourself driving by the site of every memory on a daily basis.  Sometimes when I'd get a pedicure at the salon that occupies the site of what used to be our vacant lot trysting place, I'd think about kissing Bobby Corcoran and the wonderful taste it gave me of all the joy life might hold.

 

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Warning to Hopeful Writers

I first started writing in total isolation here at Wake Robin Farm. Nobody for feedback.  No writers group, no writer buddies. This was long before the internet, so I'd get excited when my copies of The Writer and Writer's Digest would arrive in the battered mailbox out by the road.  I remember reading them in the hammock strung between two oak trees, just happy that I had this one little thing I intended to pursue entirely on my own.

 

Finally, for feedback, I sent one of my short stories to the Wrtier's Digest critique service.  I couldn't believe my amazing good luck when the writer assigned to me was Merrill Joan Gerber, my favorite Redbook Magazine fiction contributor.  I was thrilled to have her help me with a couple of my stories. She gave me solid advice.

 

But then she said, "You don't need me.  You should be sending your work straight to editors."  She didn't feel right, she said, knowing a good chunk of my critique payment was going to Writer's Digest. She lamented that those working for the critique service were told to encourage even the worst writers, the better to keep that money coming.

 

Interesting. And I appreciated her levelling with me.

 

For many years thereafter I did not have to deal with the concept of people trying to make money off of my hopes.  My books began to be traditionally published by Random House, and everybody who helped me polish and promote those books had the same goal I did, to come up with the best product possible and make money off of its sale.

 

Enter Self Publishing.

 

Long before I actually tried self publishing with my two recent memoirs, I came in contact with the concept when members of the Authors Guild were invited to take advantage of a deal the Guild had worked out with iUniverse to bring back into print the works of  authors who had formally reclaimed the rights from their publishers. It was free for us, and the books were decently produced. What's not to like?

 

Then the phone calls from the relentless iUniverse salespeople started coming, and I am embarrassed to admit that my closets still contain far too many cartons of my own paperbacks. These people were totally hard-sell!  And it's difficult to resist going for the larger quantity in order to get the best price break. Also, I hadn't quite figured it out yet: beyond what iUniverse collects from non-Author's Guild  authors as upfront production costs , they must be making a good share of their money from selling cartons of books to the authors themselves, not  to individuals on their website.  I mean, when was the last time you went book shopping at the iUniverse site?

 

Now Self Publishing has exploded, and there are tantalizing stories of a handful of individuals being incredibly successful.  Wasn't that Matt Damon movie about the guy stuck on Mars based on a self-published  book?  A huge industry selling publishing services has sprung up around all the hopeful writers.  Yes, people might need editors and cover designers, and I'm sure many of those freelancers out there offering these services are highly talented and completely legit. But most of the services offering "promotion" must surely border on outright scam.

 

These are the calls I get these days, two or three a week. Almost always the caller has a thick accent, and I feel so bad that this is what they're forced to do for a job, convince some hopeful writer to throw good money after bad in  trying to promote their self-published book.  When somebody tries to claim they have carefully vetted my thirty-year-old book and wants to discuss it with me, clearly, it's bogus. Because I know better!  But I worry for the self-published author  who would so desperately want to believe  that somebody thought her book was great.  Clearly, when so many of these callers leave numbers asking for a return call, (because they just can't wait to talk to you!) there must be people falling for it. 

 

One caller asked if I'd like to go to the Los Angeles Book Fair. Sure, I said, and you're going to pay for my trip?  Because when you're actually getting properly published, that's how it works.  The publisher gives you a plane ticket to the Miami Book Fair and a hotel room overlooking the bay and somebody throws in a thousand dollars a day for you to speak in schools and pretend to be a celebrity.

 

My husband and I don't spend long on these calls now.  We've got it down, and the bottom line is this: if the caller wants to pay me money for the rights to one of my titles, I'm interested.  If their plan in any way involves me sending  them money, then, no. This shuts them up. After all, a con only works on hope, not cynicism. 

 

No, I don't worry about inadvertantly turning down anything legitimate.  I figure if Reese Witherspoon ever calls,  she'll at least be able to say the title of my book correctly.

 

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Wedding in Yangshuo

Once upon a time at Wake Robin Farm in Oregon, I was miraculously pregnant with our first child.

That same summer, on the Li River in Southern China, a pretty woman exactly my age was also expecting. She and her husband were both artists.

Our child, born in August, was a son. Theirs, born in October, a daughter.

Twenty-two years later these children, now grown, would meet in Beijing.

The girl from Yangshuo had been studying English.

Our son, traveling with a university program, was rapidly become proficient in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

These two could talk to each other.

They could fall in love.

And did.

This is their story.

And ours.

Everything in this book actually happened, even the lovely, fateful coincidences.

Especially those........


So begins my new memoir, which is just out as an ebook and will be available as a paperback shortly. For readers of Children of the River, now in print almost twenty-nine years, Wedding in Yangshuo can be read almost as a companion book, as it explains the inspiration for the YA novel, and shows how deeply impacted the future of my life was by its research, writing, and publication.

For everybody else, my memoir is simply the story of my writing life, my marriage, and the life-changing trip my husband and I took to Yangshuo, trying to carry the family flag as our son married a girl from this most scenic corner of China.  Read More 
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BRIDES OF EDEN: a True Story Imagined

Finally....a reprint edition of Brides of Eden, which was originally published by HarperCollins in 2001. The new edition, in paperback and ebook, contains all the original historic photos of the original.

So much has been written over the years about the scandal that erupted in sleepy little Corvallis when charismatic Franz Edmund Creffield came to Corvallis, dubbed himself Joshua, and gathered around him the wives and daughters of several prominent families.

When my book came out, I ended up meeting some of the descendants of these folks. One older man was still terribly upset about the whole affair, although why he traveled a hundred miles to confront me in a bookstore to say he wished people would stop writing about this and embarrassing him in public I cannot say.

Other descendants of a younger generation seemed to understand that, unlike everything else written about this episode, I was telling the story from the point of view of the young women involved. I had sympathy for them as the victims they were.

One man called me and said he had only just learned that he was descended from the followers of Creffield. He had been advised not to read about it, but was told that if he did, he should read the one called Brides of Eden, because that's the only one that explained how it really happened. I took this as the best compliment, especially as my book is the only one written as a novel.

The story of a powerful man bending women to his will just keeps playing out, doesn't it? Check out the link to my newly posted book trailer to see how it happened in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1903.  Read More 
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Fire on the Wind

The forests of Oregon are on fire, and we are sitting under a blanket of smothering smoke. My town of Corvallis, situated on the west side of the broad Willamette Valley, had been spared the worst, giving us only the sun as a red disk at rising as a smoke indicator. Then, Sunday, the overcast layer began to thicken, smell like smoke, and become truly oppressive.

It makes me think of the scenes I researched for my historical novel, Fire on the Wind, which details with an accuracy of which I’m proud the course of the huge Tillamook Burn of 1933. All the descriptions of the fire and smoke darkening the skies were taken from eye-witness accounts published in newspapers of the time.

One scene I wrote jumped to mind—that of a young farmwife on the coast, running out to greet the welcome rain pinging on the roof, only to find falling from the sky blackened fir needles.

So, last night, when my daughter—that’s her at fourteen on the cover of my book—texted that ashes were raining down on her Southwest Portland neighborhood, I felt like we were all living this story again. These would be ashes blowing in from the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, blown east by that same drying wind from the desert that played such a part in the Tillamook Burn. My Mary, the model for Story Faye, the log camp girl in my book, is now thirty-one and pregnant. I want breathing her fresh air!

If you’re stuck inside, waiting for the skies to clear, you might find Fire on the Wind diverting. It’s such a fast read, in fact, that if you download it to your Kindle and start in, you’ll likely be finished long before the smoke over Oregon blows away.

I used this 16th century poem in my book and I thought of it again today:

Oh, Western wind, when wilt though blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again……

Yes, please let it rain. Read More 
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After the Eclipse

Life moved on quickly after the eclipse last week. People got in their cars and drove back north or south on I-5, south on 97, joining what proved to be the only real traffic jams caused by the celestial event. In the Willamette Valley, we turned our attention to the thick smoke of forest fires blanketing us, and tuned into the reports of devastation out of Texas thanks to Harvey. All the reports of devastation from Houston made the dire warnings of the effects of too many eclipse visitors to Oregon seem almost laughable.

Afterwards, authorities said they’d just picked that number—a million visitors—out of the air, and probably the fact that it wasn’t so bad is due to the fact that not nearly that many showed up. The predictions of traffic gridlock were so scary, we warned our out-of-town guests we wouldn’t blame them if they backed out.

Now we’re so glad they didn’t! Because seeing the eclipse in totality turned out to be amazing for everyone, and none of the bad things predicted came to pass. That afternoon, when it was over, I took my niece Mallory from Vancouver, B.C., downtown, and I had never seen so many people walking our streets. Happy people. The mood was totally celebratory. They came, they saw, they shopped for souvenirs.
A lovely woman from Davis, California, wrote a letter of thanks to our local paper, the Gazette-Times, for the hospitality she found in Corvallis. No, thank YOU, Stephanie. You and everybody else who showed up and played nice. Apparently nobody picked fights or started forest fires (Mother Nature handles that on her own), people didn't overwhelm the hospitals with fried eyeballs, and authorities in Central Oregon were reporting a surprising lack of residual trash.

Whether the viewing party was formally arranged as was ours, or ended up being an impromptu gathering of neighbors, it seems everyone felt blessed to be able to go outside and for a few minutes, share this amazing phenomenon with others.

Our farm is two miles from town, but just like my memory of the eclipse of 19790, at the moment of totality, we could hear the cheering.  Read More 
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Countdown in the Zone of Eclipse Totality

Yep, my own hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, is sitting square in the path of totality for next Monday’s eclipse, and every day the news warns us that a million people are headed our way and surely all hell is going to break loose.

How come this didn’t happen with the eclipse of 1979? No internet? My husband and I don’t even know anyone else who even saw it. We, however, did.

It was February, so there was no way going to be a shot at seeing it from the rainy Willamette Valley. We decided to go to Eastern Oregon, looping up around the Columbia Gorge and then south. We booked a motel room in Cascade Locks a couple of weeks ahead, no issues, nobody even talking about it. Then, on the day before, we headed north from Corvallis on a scenic route through Silverton and the Cascade foothills.

Our troubles began when we hit Highway 26 at Sandy. We took a left and I was all for waiting until the helpful green highway signs, in which I have great faith, said something recognizable like “Troutdale” as a hint for when to turn right for the Gorge. But Herb felt that surely one of these other right turns must lead to the Gorge as well. Neither of us understood the geographical fact that the Sandy River was between us and the Gorge.

My husband took an impulsive right and soon we were lost. Or at least not making progress towards our goal. And here’s the thing: I was four months pregnant, and soon desperately bladder challenged. Herb was 29 and naturally had, as a young man, no inclination to stop and asked for directions, either to the Gorge or a restroom.

I do not remember how all that was resolved, only that eventually we got back on Highway 26, took the proper turn for Troutdale and eventually checked into the Cascade Locks motel.

It poured rain that night and we were fighting. I could not understand how I was having a baby by a guy who seemed incapable of saying he was sorry for being flat out wrong and making me suffer.

In the morning, still hardly speaking, we got up and drove east until we emerged from the rain to the dry side of the Cascades, then headed south. When we figured we were in the zone, we pulled off to the side of the road and climbed a small knoll.
As predicted, the moon’s shadow began to cross the face of the sun, and here’s what I remember: When the shadow totally eclipsed the sun, a great cheer rose from the neighboring hills, startling me. I hadn’t even been aware other people were standing out there until that moment.

Our spat was suddenly so yesterday. We were going to have a baby. Our first. And in spite of everything, we had managed to get ourselves to this spot at the right time to see this amazing spectacle. Together. We drove home happy.

So now, thirty-eight years later, we are ground zero right here at Wake Robin Farm and hosting family from Victoria, B. C. and San Francisco for the big event. Kids closer to home are still on the fence about whether to brave the predicted highway gridlock to come share this together. I cannot advise them.

We are stocking up on food, as suggested, and I am cleaning my house. It needs it anyway. I have complete confidence in the scientists that the sun will be totally eclipsed next Monday morning. I have no idea how the drama of a million people coming to Oregon will play out.

But I can be confident that whatever happens on Monday, on Tuesday, my front step bricks will be clean!  Read More 
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Brides of Eden: a True Story Imagined Now Available as an ebook.

Brides of Eden was first published in 2001, before ebooks were a thing. I've finally now been able to make it available in an ebook edition that contains all the lovely historic photos of the original.

Check Goodreads for a lot of great ratings and reviews.








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Childhood at the Beach

Well, time flies! My little cover model for Someday I’ll Laugh About This, Gillian Stephenson, probably around eleven when she posed for me, just graduated from high school. Congratulations!

Coincidentally, I was just shipping another box of this title to the lovely sisters at Mari’s Books And…..in Yachats, Oregon. I wonder how many titles can claim to be sold exclusively in one store? I was going to write that the book is available on Amazon but nobody buys it there, but when I went to check I saw that, yeah, that’s right, probably nobody has ever bought it through Amazon. That’s kind of what a ranking of 8 million or whatever means! So, Amazon gave up. Can’t blame them.

So, this summer vacation story can be bought only in Yachats, where Mary and Mari, the store's owners, do a great job of hand-selling the book the way only independent book store owners can, doubtless pointing out to customers that Yachats is the actual setting of the book, renamed Perpetua for fictional purposes.

It’s certainly dated in terms of the technology available to my characters; the beloved beach cabin, Sea Haven, doesn’t even have a phone, and cell phones are still in the future. But the heaving emotions of puberty are still the same, and I was so sad to see that last summer, a teenage girl from Eugene died in a rolling-log-in-the-surf accident similar to what I describe in the climax. The need to warn of this Oregon Coast peril will never be out-of-date.

Gillian, my model for Shelby, is the granddaughter of my dear friend, Margaret Anderson, who has herself just released a memoir entitled From a Place Far Away: My Scottish Childhood in World War II.

I loved this book! Read it last night in one sitting and it was so soothing, such an antidote to the current state of political affairs and the degradation of our culture. So pleasant to read about decent people coping with the threat of war as they live through what will in retrospect seem rather idyllic childhoods.

Margaret is a wonderful writer, and she had me laughing out loud over and over, describing her childhood antics. It’s a difficult thing to write about oneself, and she pulls it off to perfection. Fans of her earlier novels—who are no doubt now reading these books to their own children—will definitely want to read From a Place Far Away and learn about the places and incidents that inspired her earlier and much beloved works.

From a Place Far Away is a gem. Don’t miss it!  Read More 
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Fashionable Reforestation

I never asked for InStyle Magazine. I’m not sure why somebody started sending it to me. But, okay, lying on the sofa, still trying to recover, I confess I flipped through it. The bizarre fashion shots always amuse me, but this one crossed the line into what I consider my own territory, a shampoo company magnate talking about reforestation.

“Years ago, while visiting Oregon’s Elk River, I learned that most of the forest was going to be clear cut…and I immediately jumped in to help save it.”

Wow, Paul, thanks for coming to Oregon and setting us straight! My husband joined me in cracking up over this photo shoot.

Here’s how a couple of actual Oregon tree farmers looked on some recent tree planting expeditions. Read More 
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