Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Author’s Thanks Giving

This, the weekend of Thanksgiving 2014, brings me to a state of gratitude that is close to overwhelming.
I used to think that creating a book was totally a solo act. Much of it is, in terms of the hours and days, the months and years a writer spends alone heeding the impulse to create. But with the publication of my novel, Dream Singer, in October, I’ve come to see this very differently, coming to a deeper appreciation that it is also about creating a community.
This Black Friday weekend, I went into Longfellow Books in Portland to buy a friend’s novel. Longfellow Books, one of the leading independent bookstores in Maine, hosted the official launch of Dream Singer, earlier in the month. Bill Lundgren, a staffer, greeted me when I entered, and asked, “What do you think?” And I said, “about what?”
And he pointed to the wall where Longfellow Books displays the store’s current best sellers. There on the wall was Dream Singer.
I was stunned. I turned back to him, stammering a “thank you.”
“For what?” he said. “We didn’t do anything. You wrote a beautiful, beautiful book.”
What’s beautiful is hearing someone whom you respect in matters literary tell you that you’ve written a beautiful book. Writing such a book was certainly the hope. But Bill was being modest about Longfellow’s commitment to and belief in my novel. Longfellow Books sits high on a long list of those who have become a vital part of the community supporting Dream Singer.
Big thanks go to members of this community, including, among others:
>  Chris Bowe and Co. at Longfellow Books
>  Craig Tribuno, Jamie Morin, Jim Braley, and Leigh St. Pierre who stepped forward to create Artisan Island Press to publish Dream Singer – and works by others yet to come.
>  Novelists Pat Conroy and Terry Kay for contributing comments for the back cover of the book.
>  My friend Dana Sewall who drove me to catch a freight train in Portland, Oregon, many years ago so I could do the magazine story that bore the seed that became Dream Singer.
>  Friends and family who mentioned Dream Singer on their Facebook pages, including award-winning novelist Cathie Pelletier
>  27 readers, to date, who have reviewed Dream Singer on Amazon – giving it a solid gold bar of 27 five-star reviews.
>  Robin Elliott at Nonesuch Books in South Portland, for “hand selling” Dream Singer when customers ask for a book recommendation.
>  Sherman’s Books in Freeport and Portland for hosting book signings during the Christmas season.
>  John Howard in Maine and Dennis Milburn in Montana who bought numerous copies to give to others.
>  Jen Xu who bought 10 copies to start a “lending library” so her friends in the Bay Area could read it.
>  Teddy Mastroianni in Washington, D.C., who bought a copy to donate to his neighborhood “Little Library” stand.
>  Currently, eight community libraries that have scheduled readings over the next few months.
>  Bud Laurent, who is responsible for at least a score of book sales via his Facebook postings, and who donated a copy to the Benton County (Oregon) Democrats to be auctioned at a fundraiser.
>  Honeck & O’Toole, my long-time accountants, who featured the publication of Dream Singer in their November newsletter.
>  All the readers in France, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Virginia, D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and California who bought copies of Dream Singer.
>  And to “Lonesome Walt,” the Modoc tramp I met riding freight trains thirty years ago in the Pacific Northwest, who was the inspiration for Elijah McCloud, whose story is the heart of the novel.

Yes, I’m proud to have written a novel that people think is “beautiful.” But I am also humbled by the generous, big-hearted community that has coalesced to support and promote Dream Singer. This was completely unanticipated. But it is something for which I am deeply grateful.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lotus Stories

Mei Selvage is a captivating artist, bringing her whole history and heritage to her art as a painter, a poet in colors. Born in China, matriculated in Montana, she turned to painting to embrace her Chinese-ness in the face of ridicule, in part, for speaking with an accent in her adopted home in the U.S.
She is a creative cauldron of contradictions and complexities. Gloriously self-taught in art, she formally studied Zen Buddhism. Though a painter, she passionately views her canvases as “stories” – replete with main narrative and backstory. Brilliant, insightful, and grateful the grace of the moment, she blends worlds, East and West, in her thinking and her painting. As she also does the worlds of the arts and high tech in her career. She is a respected and sought after IT consultant. She laughs, saying, “what I am doing with my art is what I do in my job – I’m looking for patterns, integrating data that resides in silos.”
Mei will be the featured speaker at the first Ya Ji East/West Cultural Gathering, sponsored by Fox Intercultural Consulting, in Portland, Maine, on Wednesday, November 19th, 5:30-7 p.m. The event will be held at ThinkTank, an innovative co-working hub in the heart of downtown. (533 Congress Street.) Mei will share her story, “Journey to the East,” and her mission, which is mirrored in her gallery show that hangs at ThinkTank. Admission is free, and Chinese tea will be served.
    “When I work with old Chinese texts, I’m connecting to a rich heritage,” she says. “Chinese is very unique – based on pictures.” When you look at a Chinese word – what she calls an icon – she says there are multiple meanings. Like in painting, there is both the hidden and the perceived.” (
“When I paint a plant, for example, the goal is not just to understand the characteristics of the plant, but their associations with Chinese history,” she says. “I want to honor my ancestors’ techniques, but not just the techniques – also the association with how humans exist in the cosmos.”
Art for Mei “is the boat that carries me through,” she says. “Through my painting, I realized I was storytelling. Bridging East and West. That is my mission.”
One of her favorite themes in her painting is the lotus. “There is a Buddhist chant,” Mei says, “‘May we be like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.’”
Come listen to Mei Selvage tell her story on November 19th. You will be transfixed, and in the moment, transformed. She is a spellbinding storyteller – but more, a radiant spirit like a lotus blossom.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Secret of Stealth Bestsellers

Every author’s fantasy is a huge advance, a big marketing budget, and a review in the New York Times. That’s how your book becomes a bestseller.
            It’d be nice, sure. But rare to the point of being fantasy.
And it’s not the only way to go big.
            True story: Paul Harding wrote an elegant, slim novel, Tinkers, and a very small press, Bellevue Literary Press, printed a modest number of copies. BL Press felt it was the kind of book that needed to find its readers.
            Skip forward: A friend tells another friend that he’s read a fabulous book. Not knowing that that year, his friend is head of the Pulitzer Prize fiction committee (a secret society of sorts). His friend reads it, loves it, and has BL Press send copies for all the other judges. And that’s now Tinkers became the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
            But wait. Here’s an even more incredible story.
Terry Kay is a Georgia writer of uncommon talent as a storyteller and writer. He’d had several novels published by the time he wrote To Dance with the White Dog, a hauntingly beautiful story. His agent sent it around to New York publishers. It was unanimously rejected. So Key sent it to a small press in Atlanta. They liked it – and published it. But Kay got no advance. No budget. He was essentially given a box of books to go sell. Not exactly the road to stardom.
            Then a distant friend reads it, loves it, and gives it to his friend. His friend happens to be Paul Harvey, the late, great heartland radio host with a huge national following. Harvey reads it, likes it, and talks it up on air. The book takes off. It gets made into a fetching Hallmark movie, starring the late Jessica Tandy and the late Hume Cronyn, two great, classic American actors. (Husband and wife, they starred together in numerous movies, and on stage.) To Dance with the White Dog turns out to be the last film that the two of them made together. 
            “And now the rest of the story” (Paul Harvey’s signature on-air line).
            To Dance with the White Dog gets translated, one version into Japanese. It does modestly. And then one Japanese store clerk reads it – and goes wild over it. He begins telling everyone who comes in that they have to read the book. They do. And they tell their friends. And their friends tell theirs. And before you know it, To Dance with the White Dog becomes a gigantic Japanese bestseller – more than 2 million copies going out the door.
In the bookstore trade, this is known as “hand selling.” If you don’t get picked by Oprah, there’s always the hope that legions of bookstore people reading it will love it – and fervently tell customers they’ve got to buy.
            Call it the “power of the hand.” The most intimate connection a writer can hope for. It is the essence of the potential power of books to move us. As readers, we want to be entertained, but we hunger to be moved.
            So kudos to all readers. Telling your friends about books you love is tribal. It builds an intimate, organic “community.”
So read those books – but don’t forget the power you hold in your hand. It’s more powerful – and tremendously more meaningful to writers – then getting a mammoth advance and a treasure in marketing dollars.
            Go out and hand sell! Please.

Dream Singer, by Frank O Smith, has just been published by Artisan Island Press, a small literary press dedicated to “curating books worth publishing.” Dream Singer was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, “in support of a literature of social change.” Order a copy – and start talking.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Backstory on Race in America

“Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” is an honest, apprising look at race, and why it has remained such an intractable issue in America. Author Debby Irving writes that race is “the elephant in the room.” Her cultural memoir is, as she describes it, “my story of racial ignorance.”
“I was talking with a friend of mine, a woman who came to America from Trinidad, a black woman,” Irving told me, speaking about the beginning of her journey toward greater understanding. “She was telling me about a group in her church she was involved in, and that it was amazing to her that white people didn’t think they have a race.
“That actually included me. It was a moment when I chose to be silent – yet it could have been a perfect moment to speak up – to wake up,” she said.
“Whites I meet now will commonly say, ‘I’m so afraid of offending people.’ But when I dig deeper, it’s much more about revealing their ignorance on race.”
“Talking about it is messy,” said Irving. “When you live in a culture that is risk averse, we don’t learn how to talk about conflict. For a very long time, I didn’t have the confidence that a blowup in such a conversation could be resolved.”
“Waking Up White” is a long conversation about race and how messy it can be. Irving tells the story of her own messy journey, growing up middle class, of good New England stock, thinking that race was a story about other people – people of color. How she had no understanding of the invisible, systemic racism that had favored her race, her family – herself – at the expense of people of color. Her book is neither preachy nor condescending. It is informative – and enlightening. And though it fundamentally stays grounded in her own experience, it invites readers to assess their own backgrounds and beliefs, too.
She speaks of the elephant, and how difficult it was for her to learn how to speak to others, black and white. She told me, however, that “it is very important for white people to do their education on their own. People of color are exhausted from having tried to educate us for four hundred years.”
Read her book. It’s an important one, and it offers a ray of illumination for how we might move to new place ground on race in America. 

Note: Read the afterword from my novel, Dream Singer, on my website:,
where I write about race as relevant to my novel.