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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Cheryl Strayed's WILD

Cheryl Strayed is speaking in our town tonight, and people keep asking me if I’m going. I’m not, but only because I satisfied my curiosity about the real woman behind this book I so admired when I ran down and heard her at the Corvallis Public Library right after it came out. WILD was a big deal from the start. Now, with the opening of Reese Witherspoon’s movie version, it has become a media juggernaut.

Some people—other writers—resent Strayed’s success. Not me. Sure, I had a little trouble rooting for her in those first chapters. Why did she walk out on a perfectly good husband? Was she going to explain that? But before long I couldn’t help empathizing with her simply as a fellow human being, however flawed.

Here’s the thing that drew me into Cheryl Strayed’s journey of self-discovery: her kindness to others. A powerful book is not about being able to string nice sentences together. Plenty of people can manage that trick, but without heart, where’s the story? Cheryl Strayed has heart. She gives every individual she meets along the trail a break. For contrast, read Augusten Burrough’s memoir, DRY, where he actively sneers at each every single person he encounters in his life unless he is sexually attracted to them.

Yes, Cheryl Strayed hurt some people along the way. She shot heroin. She wasn’t too careful in choosing sexual partners. “Not a very good role model,” somebody actually confided to me. (!) So what? We’re sitting around this big campfire to share our stories, not set ourselves up as role models. How can you not empathize with someone so honest, a person harder on herself than on anyone else? I think this capacity in Strayed goes beyond her memoir. In her collected DEAR SUGAR columns she also shows a compassion for others, as well as a lot of hard-won wisdom.

True kindness and compassion for others is in short supply in this world. It should be valued. It should be spread around. Cheryl Strayed clearly does not need an endorsement from me at this point. Nevertheless, here it is: You go, girl! Read More 
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The Barbarism of Football

My heart breaks for the mother of 22-year-old football player Kosta Karageorge, who received from her son a final text message apologizing for being such an embarrassment, explaining that all the concussions he’d sustained had messed up his brain.

Of course everyone claims to be shocked by his suicide. As somebody suffering from temporary brain damage due to drug withdrawal, I wasn’t. Brain damage, whether sustained by a war injury, drugs, or a collision occurring during a game played for entertainment, has a weird way of making people want to kill themselves. Sadly, Karageorge is not a tragic anomaly. There are far too many sad stories, some of them suicides, of retired NFL players whose lives were destroyed because of the brain damage they were paid the big bucks to risk. Susan Karageorge’s loss of her son is truly tragic, but it did not come out of the blue. It was not a random fluke of the universe.

I’ve always thought football was barbaric. Having ruined my own knee by kneeling on a sewing needle at the age of fifteen, I could never fathom why anyone would deliberately risk these joints so important to simply walking around. What it did to people’s brains was even worse. I dutifully put together football-uniform Halloween costumes for both of my sons, but I never made any bones over being delighted they neither of them had the brawn to be recruited. I was pleased to have my children be all about their brain power.

Thirty years ago I wrote a passage for my first novel, CHILDREN OF THE RIVER, where the main character, a Cambodian refugee named Sundara, visits her American boyfriend in the hospital after he’s been injured and carried off the high school football field on a stretcher.

“You have a lot of pain?”
“Only when I move. It’s like this horrendous headache.”
“Then it’s true, what Ravy tells me? You hurt your head?”
“Yeah, just a slight concussion, it turns out.”
“But this is very bad,” she said softly, “to be hurt in your head. Jonatan, your head is the place of your soul, your life force. You must take care.”

Here’s the thing about brain damage, whether temporary or permanent: You can stand there looking just fine, but if your brain isn’t working right, you’ve lost it all.

Maybe it’s true what some say, that football is going to be the next tobacco. It should be. How about we smarten up, face the painful facts about football, and shift our culture toward something less barbaric? 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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Lives on Paper

Lives on Paper

I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
It’s one that happened long time ago.... Kate Wolf—Across the Great Divide

My mother is moving out of the house she’s been in for fifty years, taking up residence in the elegant new apartment building being built down on the Willamette riverfront. This has meant for me that my livingroom is currently stacked with all the family memorabilia she will no longer have room to store.

Vintage scrapbooks, studio portraits of babies given to grandparents, returned when the older generations passed on. And the stacks of notebooks of my grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Schumacher, dry chronicles of the many trips he and my grandmother took—Japan, Tahiti, Glacier Park, New York City, Alaska. “Took a shower. Took a nap. Dandy dinner at the hotel restaurant.” How he would have loved the current culture of posting reviews on every little thing. In an account of a four day swing around Oregon he notes: “Arrived Medford at 6 PM after stopping at two state rest areas. They were excellent.” The entire trip ran them exactly $97.25.

Let me say up front that my grandfather, departed over fifteen years ago at the age of ninety-nine, was a fine, upstanding man. But a writer he was not. So may I claim these accounts have already served their purpose? Each manila envelope bears the date he re-read the accounts for himself. Of a 1966 trip to San Diego: “Read and checked all material & enjoyed remembering the notes kept regarding expenses and times of arrival and departure. Schu 2/23/85.”

My brother, also a writer, once valiantly tried to interview our grandfather in hopes of getting his stories on tape. No dice. The man seemed to be all about records. Addresses. Prices. Budgets. To-Do lists. Bob and I inherited no creativity from this side of the family, but we are big on To-Do lists.

As a child, I remember being scolded for eating Grampa Schu’s raspberries right off the vine. No eating before counting! The yield must be recorded in his notebook! To this day I take pleasure in standing before my husband’s raspberry vines, conscious of my freedom to gorge without counting.

But surely Grampa never intended us to treasure these notebooks forever.

Right? As a dutiful daughter and granddaughter I’m not necessarily required to operate as a storage unit in perpetuity? These are, after all, the notes of the man whose comment on the publication of my first novel, CHILDEN OF THE RIVER, was this: “What’s the big deal? All you had to do was write down what happened to those Cambodian friends of yours.”

Um, not really. But apparently that was HIS approach to writing. One detail after another as it happened. Yes, I’ve encountered books like that. I consider them raw material for my novels, not a literary experience in themselves.

Still, I find it agonizing to throw away the written word. This isn’t so much the writer in me, I think, as it is the researcher. I can’t forget the thrill of uncovering something someone had written decades ago that shed light on the lives of real people I was writing about in A HEART FOR ANY FATE and BRIDES OF EDEN.

Now, in the middle of this great sort-out project, to make room for what I’m charged with keeping, I have to pare down my own memorabilia. And why not? If I can’t even remember who it is in this fuzzy Polaroid, why make my own daughter agonize over it someday? Of course, dealing with the ones I save, I’ll probably drag it all out, won’t be able to resist explaining, will be compelled to jot down the context, like the one of seventeen-year-old me, heading off to a girls-ask-boys dance in a pretty blue lace dress. My date’s nose is red. I thought I’d learned the rest of the story when one of the cool crowd guys at school kindly informed me he’d had to get drunk to be my escort. Only recently I learned the real rest of the story, which is that he was actually gay. He’d flown a helicopter in Vietnam and come out only later. Poor guy. He had so much going on back in high school. An article in the Oregonian quoted him as saying he’d been terrified from the age of five that the police were going to come after him for liking other boys. So that red nose of his probably had very little to do with me. . .

These are the sort of detours that can weary the most diligent of memorabilia sorters!
That this is an emotionally exhausting endeavor is known full well by all the other daughters out there going through this same thing and yes, I do feel it most often falls to the daughters—unless a bunch of brothers such as husband’s clan find themselves unluckily without a sister.

If I could only get this job done and try to think more about the future. . . Well, at least thanks to my Schumacher genes, I have this on a To-Do list. It will be so satisfying to cross it off! Read More 
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DETOX LITE

The other night I woke up at 2 a.m. in the grip of yet another wave of drug withdrawal symptoms. Yes, appalling. Eighteen months one hundred per cent “clean” of the Oxycodone I took for pain after total knee replacement surgery, and this monkey is still on my back. Waiting for whatever relief ibuprofen might provide, I sat in the breakfast nook and leafed through the latest New York Times Review of Books, hitting on a short review of ALL FALL DOWN, the story of a suburban mom’s addiction to painkillers. Confession: my thoughts were not kind. Great, I thought. Author Jennifer Weiner gets another best seller, and I’m just the real live woman who has to actually live through this crap.

I downloaded the book the next morning and started reading, grateful at least for the distraction of my intense interest in how Weiner was going to handle this hot button topic. Weiner has a huge fan base. People love her books. Who am I to in any way criticize her style? I set out only to see whether she got detox and withdrawal right.

This book may give a few of her readers pause about their own history of substance abuse. She hits hard the notion that yes, you can look like a perfectly nice lady in the checkout line at Whole Foods and still be a drug addict. By the end, we’re supposed to give her character, Allison Weiss, credit for finally admitting that she is, in fact, an addict, and at a twelve step meeting she is among her own kind.

But Weiner may not understand the degree of denial operating in women who are secretly hooked on such opioids as Oxycodone, Vicodan and Percocet. She has Allison swallowing uncounted handfuls of pills, up to 300 mg of Oxycontin daily. This is truly a horrific dose. My own opioid receptors were thoroughly messed up, in contrast, by just 60 mg of Oxycodone taken for twelve weeks. The more common path to addiction for people originally taking these drugs by prescription is much less flamboyant than Allison’s, more darkly insidious. People agonize as they slowly increase their doses to get the same pain relief they had received initially, and to avoid going into the hell of withdrawal that comes with tolerance after extended use. I personally know women who would read ALL FALL DOWN and insist that they are not a true addict like Allison because—hey!-- they are taking their pills, not nearly so many, in what they desperately want to see as a carefully controlled manner. And look! Their doctors are still prescribing it. Doesn’t that mean it’s okay? They will fight the label “addict” all the way, as if what you call it makes any difference to a hijacked brain.

Weiner knocks her lights out endlessly detailing Allison’s stressful life situations--garden variety middle class mom stuff--as the reason she “uses,” apparently trying to persuade the reader to understand and sympathize, then makes the mistake of creating a character who is essentially mean-spirited and apparently was so before she ever got into trouble with drugs. Her name-brand-laced depiction of her lifestyle has that bragging-while-complaining quality that grates from the beginning.
Truly offensive are Allison’s antics in rehab, which seem designed as a set piece for the movie Weiner might like to see come of this. Hey kids! Let’s put on a show! Let’s write hilarious drug words to the songs from THE SOUND OF MUSIC!

Please. I have a hard time believing people in withdrawal feel like putting on shows.

Yes, I know anything can ultimately be the subject of humor—tragedy+time=comedy—but the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction is happening right now, and it’s not one bit funny to the addicts or their families. Weiner’s is not the dark, sardonic humor of NURSE JACKIE, which I love, but an annoying, inappropriate, and over-the-top cutesiness. To appropriate for material something so painful, so tragic as addiction, and then ask me as a reader to enjoy along with her the fun she had making up these clever songs was simply more than I could bear.

While she did plenty of homework on the slang used by addicts in rehab, Weiner has nothing to reveal about the brain damage that occurs in people on long term opioid use. Unless you understand Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, it WILL just seem like these people, these addicts, these junkies, are simply making bad decisions as they try to recover and end up relapsing. To an outsider it seems so simple—what do you want, your life or another high? Why can’t people exercise their free will to make the right choices?

Because their brains are damaged, that’s why! Without their natural dopamine, they (okay, WE) suffer from Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure) Hyperalgesia (anything that’s going to hurt hurts way worse) a lack of energy, depression and anxiety. Personally I have never relapsed, but every time my assignment for the day is to live through yet another wave of PAWS, I’m struck anew by my understanding of why other people do. In fact, it’s so hard, it seems a wonder to me that anyone DOES make it through this. Recovering addicts are sick people. They need help and compassion, not punishment, not guilt trips.

Weiner limits the physical aspects of Allison’s withdrawal from her horrendous doses of opioids to a couple of movie worthy scenes of dramatic illness, and then we never hear about it again. The use of a rollercoaster track on the cover seemed an allusion to the up and down, roller coaster nature of recovery, but this is never mentioned. In outpatient recovery, Allison laments not being able to use pills to help her cope with the nasty things in life like her husband’s annoying noises when he eats cereal or the spit blobs on the sidewalk. Without describing, detailing or understanding the chemical brain changes in withdrawal that heighten anxiety and irritability and make people feel absolutely suicidal, a reader can only feel that Allison is weak and shallow for needing a pill to face such petty issues. This contributes nothing to the understanding of addiction.

The final straw for me was when Allison’s outpatient counselor hands her a phone and instructs her to call each of the doctors she’s scammed and tell her story. And they answer! She simply phones each doctor and in turn they pick up their phones and talk to her! Not only that, but one of them actually says, “Oh, my God, Allison, was this my fault? Should I have seen this coming?”

Weiner is famous for her resentment of the label “chick lit,” but this is the kind of thing that puts her book way outside of anything reflecting real life. Perhaps doctors DO immediately take calls from Jennifer Weiner, but she should know that this is not the case for most of us out here. Seriously, how many of you can just pick up the phone and immediately speak to your doctor? Weiner will no doubt argue she constructed this scene purely for dramatic effect, the way a movie scene is set up, but when the inability to actually GET HELP and make those connections with medical professionals is such a huge part of an addicted person’s story, this seems patently unfair. Particularly if Weiner wants to accept kudos for tackling this serious subject. The painful and important truth is that the last thing doctors will admit to is any concern they might somehow be responsible for the horrible outcomes of patients to whom they’ve so casually prescribed these damaging drugs. To me, this is the bottom line of the opioid epidemic story, the clueless doctors who send patients off on this journey that so often proves to be one of No Return. A group called Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing will back me up on this. Google their site for more.

Maybe the best we can hope for from ALL FALL DOWN is that it starts a few conversations. Please check my APPEARANCES page for more on why this is such a hot button issue for me.  Read More 
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Home for a Bunny

We are a family of book lovers, and everyone is competing to read to our newest member, my first little grandson. Of course he’s brilliant! Only five months old and he’s already getting the hang of turning the pages. The grownups in his life all enjoy their Kindles and Paperwhites and iPads, but we are agreed screens can wait for this little one. One rule my husband and I had as parents was that the kids could have all the books they wanted, and thus Powell’s Books in Portland became son Miles’s dream destination. Now his baby will get the same treatment.

My very favorite baby book is Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown with illustrations by Garth Williams. Of course the pictures are perfect and the rhythm and repetition of the words make it a lovely read aloud, which is a good thing since I make a point of reading it to my grandson every single day.

This is a character driven book and I love that bunny! Please note, when the groundhog is rude—“No, you can’t come in my log,” said the groundhog.—does our bunny pause to point out how poorly he’s being treated? Does he remark on the meanness of the groundhog? No, he does not. He simply heads on down the road, bravely continuing his search for a home, thus retaining the reader’s sympathy.

And people, what a plot! The search for home. In finding his mate, he finds his home, my idea for the best happy ending ever. Yes, I do believe we’re programmed to pair up. I was so happy to hear that our poor gray wolf, OR-7, who’s been roaming Oregon for several years in search of a mate, has finally found her! Wildlife biologists say it’s likely these two have spawned pups who are snuggled up somewhere in their cozy little den.

It’s the oldest of stories, and always a good one.








































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HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Everybody wants a review! Have you noticed that? I returned home from having my teeth cleaned the other day and already at the top of my e-mail list was a request from the dentist’s office. SO, HOW DID WE DO? Buy a card at the Hallmark store and they’re at great pains to explain that if you’ll rush right home and rate on your computer the experience you’ve just had in the store, they’ll give you points toward a $2 coupon or something. Internet sales sites beg for your feedback before your item has even arrived.

I learned my lesson early. I wrote a review of a sweater from Sundance, one of my favorite catalogues. It was rejected! Okay, maybe they didn’t want to hear gripes about their ridiculous shipping charges even if they did come attached to raves about the sweater. Still. The last thing I need is rejections on anything I write, so that was the first and last review I ever tried to post.

Also, I’m perversely proud of my record of never having hit “Like” on anything on the internet. What does it even mean? Hopefully any approval of anything I might express will carry more weight for being so stingily granted!

With that in mind, I want to give a sincere shout out to Fishwife Seafood Restaurant on North Lombard Street in Portland, Oregon. Check this place out!

For the past month, my husband and I have logged more time in Portland than at Wake Robin Farm, as we have been fixing up a lovely 1904 house in the University Park neighborhood to go on the market. Well, it’s lovely now that we’re done with it! For eight years I’m afraid it was a bit of an Animal House, with our son and his fellow classmates at the University of Portland living there. So now, while my husband worked his gardening magic on the yard, I repainted the entire interior.

Each evening we would drag ourselves over to Fishwife and drop, exhausted, at the same red vinyl table by the window and enjoy a wonderful, reviving meal, served by the friendly, smiling waitresses. Herb and I are so much alike. While others seem to crave novelty and want to continually explore new venues, we are creatures of habit and enjoyed making Fishwife our home away from home during this project.

Their menu offers all the best seafood standards—I ate a lot of crab—but Herb always tried their non-seafood specials and found them excellent. The atmosphere is casual and family friendly, and it was fun to watch people with their children. Although I wouldn’t have minded dressing up a bit more, it was nice that we felt welcome even when we showed up looking a bit grungy—painting and yard work will do that to you! With all the tattoos, piercings and inventive costume choices that seem standard for North Portland, we were hardly going to draw attention anyway.

Now our days of eating at this fun restaurant three or four nights in a row are at an end, but I’m sure we’ll find an excuse to go there again. This is my first ever restaurant review, and I’m giving FISHWIFE five stars.

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Keeping it Local

Yachats—pronounced YA-hots (go figure)—is known as the Gem of the Oregon Coast and boasts a gem of an independent bookstore called Mari’s Books And…..For several years the lovely owners, sisters Mary and Mari, have been cheerfully handselling my set-in-Yachats middle grade novel SOMEDAY I’LL LAUGH ABOUT THIS, making it one of their small-scale bestsellers. Sweet deal--I let the store know when my mother is heading to her beach house in Yachats and she delivers whatever new stock they need of this title plus BRIDES OF EDEN, which also has a local setting. In this person-to-person way, we save shipping costs and keep it local.

For this recent Mother’s Day, my mother was booked with my brother and his clan (four great-grandchildren!) at the Yachats house before I invited her to our smaller gathering, so, to get a card to her on the right day, I sent a Mother’s Day card to the bookshop, with a note to Mari and Mary asking them to hand over the card when my mom showed up with the current delivery of my books.

When I didn’t get a call from my mom, I worried. Had she inadvertently left my books at home and so not visited the bookstore? I didn’t want her to think I’d forgotten her on the big day, and the Hallmark card (first off the rack to choke me up) was a misty-making epistle about a Lifetime Legacy of Love which I knew she’d agree was perfect.

Well, I needn’t have worried. As it turns out, the sister who received the card was not the sister in the store when my mom came in. When they realized the card hadn’t been handed over, Mari took it upon herself to go looking for my mom at the family cabin, knowing only that it was up at the end of Salmon Street. How hard could it be? She ended up delivering the card to my mom as she sat with the rest of the family down on the beach.

Now, I ask you—do you think anybody at Amazon.com would pull through for a writer like that? Please support your local independent bookseller!

And don’t forget to stop in at Mari’s Books And…in Yachats.
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Horizon Gazing

I just finished reading—and loving—Maria Semple’s novel WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE. It did what my daughter Mary and I agree our favorite books do; it took me, with delightfully snarky authority, to places I’ve never been, and let me listen in on pockets of people I will never know: The culture of Microsoft, Seattle real estate, architecture in Los Angeles, the MacArthur Genius Grants, and an amazing trip to Antarctica. I particularly enjoyed Semple’s West Coast take on things, and the fact that none of her areas of exploration involve anything to do with yet another view of life in Manhattan.

Because she had me believing every detail, one sentence jumped out at me. The father explains to his daughter that, “When your eyes are softly focused on the horizon for sustained periods, your brain releases endorphins. It’s the same as a runner’s high.”

Wow. So that explains it. My husband and I have noticed that we can’t seem to read with any efficiency while sitting on the beach. Our eyes keep drifting up. I’ve always described it as the scene simply being too compelling, but now Maria Semple offers the science behind it: gazing at the horizon is a better brain fix than anything anybody can write.

I guess this also explains why I’ve always longed for a cabin with a porch facing West, and now that I have it, why it feels so good to me to sit there and gaze across the valley of young trees to the forested ridge beyond.

Seven months ago today I had total knee replacement surgery. I’m doing okay with the knee itself. I’ve had a bad knee almost my whole life, ever since I knelt on a sewing needle at fifteen, so, no big deal there. The hard part has been detoxing from four months of Oxycodone. My brain, apparently, has to learn how to pump out the endorphins on its own again, and it sure is taking its sweet time about it.

People have always known about this horizon gazing, of course, even if they didn’t know the science. Isn’t it right there in the King James version of the Bible?

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

A good RX for me.

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Stranger Than Fiction

The topic of this morning’s “This American Life” on NPR was coincidences. It made me want to tell about a couple of mine.

While working on a remodeling project one fall day back in the seventies, I spun the radio dial, looking for something diverting, and landed on a channel I’d never listened to before. A few minutes later I almost fell off the ladder when the DJ said, “You know what today is? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, today is the anniversary of the day Harold Oaks of Hood River broke the world apple picking record.”

Harold Oaks! He’d been my fiance! I’d been there watching the day he picked those apples!

As if this weren’t enough, the DJ went on. “I thought I’d give him call,” he said, “but instead I got his mother on the line. She thanked me for calling and said, as a matter of fact, Harold’s getting married today.”

Wow. What a weird way to find out what happened to the guy you almost married. Maybe Facebook makes this sort of random surprise a thing of the past?

Fast forward about twenty years. In the antiques mall in Lincoln City on the coast, I picked up a beautiful old scrapbook. The first time I went to put something in it, I saw that it wasn’t empty after all, as I’d thought. A few pages in, someone had pasted an autographed concert program and single newspaper article. The review of pianist Samuel Sorin was written by:

Kathryn Oaks! Harold’s mother!

I am not making this up.

Poor Kathryn. She spent a good deal of the review lamenting the poor attendance in the Hood River High School Auditorium for Mr. Sorin’s most excellent performance. She was a former opera singer herself, and now I think how hard it must have been for her to be stuck in Hood River, mothering twin boys, who would have been about three at the time the esteemed pianist briefly graced the fruit growing hamlet. I remembering seeing a gorgeous photo of her, dressed as Juliet. I was mightily impressed. I could have been her fan, but she didn’t like me. Maybe I wasn’t patient or appreciative enough, watching her son pick all those apples. But it was boring! I would have preferred hearing her sing opera….

Anyway, coincidences like this happen in real life, but you could never get away with them in serious fiction. I ran up against this in writing BRIDES OF EDEN: A TRUE STORY IMAGINED. The editor who’d worked with me on my previous books wanted me to forget what really happened when Edmund Creffield came to Corvallis in 1903. She and the others at Random House thought I should just fictionalize whatever I wanted and make it a novel.

But that was the whole point! That this strange story was true. It all really happened! I’m glad I stuck to my guns and the folks at HarperCollins agreed. Real life IS stranger than fiction sometimes, and not everything should be turned into a novel.
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