Memoir Monday: Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

Awful, hilarious, tragic, heroic

Deborah Copaken’s memoir, LADYPARTS, — as seen through her traumatized and largely invisible body parts — is awful and hilarious and tragic and heroic. A professional and underpaid/uninsuranced New York City writer, a mother, former war photographer, ex-spouse to a louse, and sometime-girlfriend to less awful people, Copaken’s brutally honest take on life keeps us laughing as we scream in indignation. I was immediately a fan as I cringe-read fascinating graphic descriptions like this, which opens the book:

I’m crawling around on the bathroom floor, picking up pieces of myself. These pieces are not metaphor. They are actual pieces. Plum-sized, beet-colored, with the consistency and sheen of chicken liver, three of them have shot out of me like shells from a cannon.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

That paragraph, described in Jessica Bennett’s review in the New York Times, either made you stop reading (as a friend tells Copaken, ”no one wants to hear about your bleeding vagina at a party”) or made you want to read more, rewarded by phrases like ”….our ladyparts tucked inside like Marie Kondo’d T-shirts in a drawer….” It made me buy the book, despite or maybe especially because of Bennett’s snotty review.

It’s not an easy read. I had to put LADYPARTS down several times. But, I stuck with Copaken, and I’m very glad I did.

A chilling but familiar tally

Three-quarters of the book later, Copaken — lying supine in the nirvana of ringing bowls in Tibet — lays out all the surgeries, biopsies, and multiple violations that have left her body with visible scars and invisible images “‘indelible in the hippocampus,’ as Christine Blasey Ford will later call her assault by Brett Kavanaugh.” It’s a chilling accumulation, but she knows that women will know what she is talking about. And male readers?

Men, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, talk to the women in your midst: your mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends. Ask them for their lists. Theirs might not be as long—being five foot two perhaps makes me an easier target?—but be ready to be appalled by their answers.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Genuine self

When one of her New York Times’ MODERN LOVE essays was produced for the Amazon Prime series, Copaken is played by Catherine Keener. Keener’s forthrightness is right in line with Copaken’s, who says this after her meeting with the actress:

..often those of us with ladyparts are told to follow the rules and stay in our lanes, to play the part society dictates instead of being our genuine selves. Or we’re fed corporate pablum telling us to stand tall and lean in. But you don’t get to become Catherine Keener by simply tilting your body toward the burning wreckage. You say fuck your dumb fire and use the shoulder to drive around it.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

I included that final line in my Amazon review, and immediately got it bounced back by the prissy editor. A dummed down version of my five-star review is up now, along with my less-edited five-star Goodreads review.

A call to action

LADYPARTS is a call to action, and I was able to ask Copaken what actions she’d like us to take. The occasion was a November on-line (“and live, in New York” just like SNL) pop-up book group event with Copaken, hosted by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Here’s Copaken’s answer:

Donate money to research on women’s health. [I’m contacting Congress and the White House to urge more funding for the Office of Research on Women’s Health]; and,

Don’t shush your friends. Talk about blood in a way that normalizes the topic.

Our ignorance, avoidance, and silencing of all discussions of female-associated viscera is not polite. It’s killing us.

Deborah Copaken, LADYPARTS

Experience LADYPARTS for yourself.

Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS
Deborah Copaken LADYPARTS

A Day With A Palm Tree: Florida Writers Triumph in the Royal Palm Literary Awards

A Day With A Palm Tree

It takes a village to raise good writers, and the Florida Writers Association’s annual flagship writing competition, the Royal Palm Literary Awards (RPLA), engages hundreds of “writers helping writers” annually. This year, 25 dedicated RPLA coordinators and nearly 200 judges reviewed an astounding 577 entries, providing in-depth critique geared toward helping each writer continue to improve in our craft. There are no RPLA losers.

However, there are winners, and this year’s were announced during a live Zoom event on October 16, beginning with the Grand Awards.

RPLA Published Book of the Year 2021

Barbara Rein’s Tales from the Eerie Canal won top honors as the RPLA Published Book of the Year. Barbara writes horror short stories with delightfully creepy twists, and quirky personal essays inspired by the oddities that bounce her way. She admits to being addicted to dachshunds.

RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year 2021

Dana J.Summer’s From Hell’s Heart was awarded the RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year. Dana is an editorial cartoonist and comic strip artist turned author. He has written five novels and lives with his wife in Orlando.

RPLA Children’s Book of the Year 2021

Arielle Houghee’s Pling’s Party won Children’s Book of the Year. Arielle, owner of Orange Blossom Books, is a five-time RPLA-winning author, editor, speaker, and executive vice president of the Florida Writers Association. Arielle’s expertise also helped me update this very blog last year!

The Candice Coghill Memorial Award for Youth

NM Collet’s Ode to Rain, submitted in the category of Unpublished Poetry, ages 12 to 15, won this year’s youth award. This award was established in memory of Candice Coghill, who was an active member of Florida Writers Association, a youth writing advocate, and a tireless contributor to the writing community.

RPLA Winners 2021

This year’s roster of winners includes Al Pessin, a five-time RPLA winner and fellow critique group member, whose thriller BLOWBACK — set in Syria, the second in the Task Force Epsilon series — won Silver. A well-deserved win! I wrote about SANDBLAST, the first in the series that takes place in Afghanistan, move over Homeland, here comes Sandblast. Order your books, check out the reviews and read this longtime journalist’s thoughtful piece on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan here.

And check out all these other remarkable RPLA 2021 winners: Doug Alderson, Marty Ambrose, L. Reynolds Andric, Sophie Bartow, Nancy Beaule, Kerry Blaisdell, Barbara Bond, Diana V. Braddom, Bonnie Hoover Braedlin, JC Bruce, Lisa Buei-Collard, Edward Burke, Nancy Buscher, Kip Cassino, Stephen Charles, Bette Lee Crosby, Shutta Crum, Arthur M. Doweyko, Kristin Durfee, Jessie Erwin, Linda Feist, Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick, MR Gallows, KE Garland, Juliette Godot, Lee Gramling, Elle E. Iré, Raymond Hall, Chris Hamilton, Robert Hart, Veronica H. Hart, Michael R.Howard, Donald Jay, Claire M. Johnson, Catherine Kean, Krista Keating-Joseph, Patrick Kendrick, Susan Kite, Linda Kraus, Coby Lee, Loren Leith, Joan Levy, Susan Lloyd-Davies, Lawrence Martin, Claire Matturro, Sharon L.Menear, Mark H. Newhouse, Vanna Nguyen, Virginia Nygard, Dakota Orlando, Elle Andrews Patt, Ken Pelham, Jack Pendray, Craig Pennington, Amarilys Rassler, Vicki Riley, Wendy L. Sanford, PhD, Kelly Sanford, Lynn Schiffhorst, Cliff Sharke, KL Small, Alison R. Solomon, DG Stern, Betsy K. Stoutmorrill, MR Street, Mary T. Wagner, Ryan Wakefield, Patty Walsh, Elizabeth Weiss Vollstadt.

[Whew! I’ve been singing the ABC song all week as I worked on this little project!]

How great to celebrate these authors and the Florida Writers Association, truly “writers helping writers.” Here’s to gathering in person next year to celebrate those who garner the 2022 RPLA wins. The process begins in February!


Family Friday: A Conversation With the Creative Team Behind “Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog”

Several years ago, I wrote about an abandoned Golden Retriever, Levi Journey, who was rescued by a retired teacher and became a therapy dog. Last year, I wrote the happy news that Levi’s story was becoming a book. Now, I am thrilled to announce that Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog has been published here .

I recently spoke with Author Julie Iribarren, Illustrator Martin Peers (Toast Cartoons), and Palm Beach County Library Children’s Librarian Vanessa Rossel about how this charming and touching book came to be.

Julie lives in Florida and Martin lives in the UK, but the illustrations fit the story so well.  How did you find each other?

Julie: That is pretty remarkable. I discovered Martin on Facebook through his mother, who is on the page devoted to commemorating the development of the Golden Retriever breed in the 1860s by Lord Tweedmouth in Scotland. Browsing Facebook last March, I found a charming Golden Retriever cartoon that had been posted by Martin’s mother. I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew I had found my illustrator! 

Martin: I’ve been drawing cartoons all my life, and I especially enjoy drawing animals.  Ever since my family owned the first of several Golden Retrievers, I have been drawing cartoons of this characterful, handsome dog breed. When Julie reached out to me in March, it was perfect timing, because I had just quit working for the railroad and was devoting myself to cartoons and illustrations full-time. I loved the idea behind her book, and accepting her invitation to be the illustrator was a commission from heaven!

What were your concerns and expectations going into the project?

Julie: Well, this was my first book, and so it was a rough start. I knew the story I wanted to tell — in fact, I’d been telling the story to children across Palm Beach County when Levi and I visited for the Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program. It was one of the Royal Palm Beach  librarians, Vanessa, who pushed me to write the book.  Each time Levi and I visited Vanessa’s library, she had a new idea, a new approach, how it might begin, a website to check out. She was marvelously relentless! 

Vanessa: I watched how the children and their parents reacted to Levi’s story, and I knew Julie needed to tell the world this inspiring tale — from abandoned and alone, to rescued and loved, to  serving a greater purpose as a therapy dog. I adopted my own dog, so the story broke my heart. It was amazing how Levi calmed the children’s nerves and helped them want to read just by his presence. Telling the story seemed a fitting tribute to his journey. And when the pandemic hit, the libraries closed and ARF was suspended, I knew Julie was going to use the break to create the book. 

Martin: Last year, I set myself up as a freelance illustrator and this was my first big commission.  I was not at all concerned by this project – on the contrary, I thought it was a brilliant story and I couldn’t wait to get going!   I knew exactly how I should approach the illustration work and went through Julie’s manuscript in meticulous detail to work out how the illustrations should look, what sections of text would be best served by illustrations, and most importantly to capture a character design of Levi in cartoon form that Julie was happy with. 

Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons
Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons

How about the project’s challenges and joys?

Julie: I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know how. As a retired teacher, I wanted the book to be a teaching tool, but I got bogged down in the details and Levi’s sad beginning made the story so dark. Then, the West Boynton/Wellington Florida Writers Association critique group and another writers group that also meets at the library gave me some starting points, but it was when Martin and his artistry came on board that the story sprang to life.

Martin: I knew right away that the “voice” needed to be Levi’s, and when Julie made that change the book became much more fun and engaging and suited the illustrations even better. She gave me room to create while providing me with photos of all the people and places in Levi’s life, so that the illustrations could have the right look and feel.

Vanessa: I’m in the illustration of the library ARF program!

Julie: And our neighbors and their pets, rescue volunteers Joe and Diane, and Dr. Del La Torre (aka Dr. D.) from the animal clinic used by Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue have all loved seeing themselves in Martin’s cartoons. 

Martin: I am very particular in everything I do for clients, so it was really important to get these images right. I began with sketches, then full page layouts that showed where the text should go. I was heavily involved with the approval of the final draft with the publishers, as I was adamant that my illustrations should be presented in a certain way, with the correct sections of the text, and that the font sizes were consistent. There was a lot of back and forth with the publishers to sort out these technical changes. I imagine it must have been so frustrating for Julie! But it was definitely worth all the effort. 

Julie: It was intense at times. I am fussy and picky, and it was frustrating not to have direct control on the design side of the publishers, but they were overwhelmed with work — the pandemic brought out the inner author in a lot of us.

Vanessa: The book really captures the emotions of this story. 

Martin: The best part of being an illustrator is that my work brings people so much joy. The positive reactions this book has garnered on release and the enthusiastic response to my drawings feel wonderful!

Julie: It is more than I ever expected this book could be. I’m thrilled with it.

So, what’s next?

Julie: Well, the book is now available through BookBaby. Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges). I’m beginning to schedule readings at schools, libraries, and community center to promote the book. In fact, we’ll be in Kelly’s neighborhood later this week and again in May. 

Vanessa: We are thrilled to have Julie and Levi kick off the library’s virtual summer reading program, and we’ll bring them back to the ARF program when we resume in-person programs.

Martin: Levi’s story has been such a tremendous experience for me as an illustrator, and working with Julie has been great.  It has really shown me what I can be capable of after so long drawing pictures in a non-professional capacity.  I really feel I have done the right thing in transitioning to illustrator and I hope that my work on Levi’s story will be the first of many illustration projects – either working with other authors or, ideally, illustrating my own children’s book!

Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi his story
Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi Journey his story

Julie: This was a labor of love. On the good days during this past year, I could envision a whole Levi series — “Levi Goes to the Beach,” “Levi Goes to the Farmers Market.” But there were so many challenging days that my husband made me promise that this was going to be the only book, otherwise the Levi series would have included “Levi Meets His New Daddy.”

Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog is available through BookBaby, and Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges).

Travel Tuesday: Listen to the Longing for Pandemic-Prohibited Travel in this Song by Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro

One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Fresh Air, in which host Terry Gross interviews all kinds of interesting people — writers, scientists, singers, film stars. Much like the PBS NewsHour and CBS Sunday Morning, Fresh Air almost always expands my mind, enriches my brain, or opens my heart. Sometimes, it’s all three. If you are not yet a subscriber/viewer, back up and click on those links before you read any more.

Seriously, do that.

Thanks for coming back. So, one of Terry Gross’ most recent guests was Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nagasaki -born, London-raised novelist whose works include Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

…who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.

2017 Nobel Prize for Literature press release.

I’d not heard Ishiguro interviewed before, so was surprised by his English accent and stories of his British youth. He was a sort of celebrity child singer of church music and thought he’d be a singer-songwriter in his youth, and “voice” continues to inspire writing.

I take enormous inspiration from listening to singing voices. I love to listen to Stacey Kent, whom I write lyrics for. There’s something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of the singing performance.

Kazuo Ishiguro speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air

Terry concluded the interview with Stacey Kent’s I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again, lyrics by Kazuo Ishiguro. The song is sweet and the message is one so many of us feel very deeply, thirteen months into this pandemic. I wish I could go traveling again …..

Barry Goldstuck on YouTube, lyrics and images for Stacey Kent’s “I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again,” lyrics by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

Wildcard Weekend Book Review: “The Beauty in Breaking” by Michele Harper

I have been broken many times. I suspect most people have. In practicing the Japanese art of Kintsukoroi, one repairs broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. The choice to highlight the breaks with precious metals not only acknowledges them, but also pays tribute to the vessel that has been torn apart by the mutability of life. The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections. In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

In her memoir The Beauty in Breaking, emergency medicine doctor Michele Harper draws on her experiences with patients to slowly address and heal the deeply-seated emotional pain of her traumatic childhood, chaos that landed her in an ER waiting room as a young teen.

All of us had converged in these hallowed halls for a chance to heal our wounds, to offer up our hurt and our pain to be eased.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

That experience led her to the decision that ER medicine would be her life’s work.

Unlike the war zone that was my childhood, I would be in control of that space, providing relief or at least a reprieve to those who called out for help … That would be my offering to the world, to myself.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Harper offers us multiple opportunities to experience redemption as she reflects on the people in her care. The crushing blow of losing an infant makes way for healing.

After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A young Black man lies dying from a gunshot wound, crying for his mother:

… as he was absolved by the bright lights of the trauma bay.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A woman in the psychiatric unit reveals an awful secret in a moment that feels like the shattering of a glass house:

We had trod mindfully over the shards and escaped with nonfatal wounds to a new freedom.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Over and over again, Dr. Harper sees the person, not the patient.

I read this book in the early months of my ongoing recovery from a near-fatal ruptured aneurysm while on vacation in Holland in 2019. I could see myself through Harper’s eyes — a woman lying on an ER gurney bleeding internally to death. I felt her “call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most” just as those ER doctors in Amsterdam did in finding and sealing the rupture, snatching me back from death.

It was a short-lived victory. I was in the ICU for another month as my body failed and failed again. But, at every turn, the Amsterdam doctors and nurses not only pulled me back from the brink, they held me and my family up with kindness and compassion. As I emerged from the fog and began to recover my wasted body, my OLVG caregivers continued to treat me as a person, not a patient. They filled my heart as they healed my body.

My story has been refracted a million times over by the coronavirus pandemic as compassionate, exhausted doctors stand between COVID and death around the globe. What a time in which to see the struggle through the eyes of this passionate woman and compelling author.

In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking
Portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick. See his Facebook page here

NOTE: The photographs on this post are portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick of Clifton Park, NY, who was featured by CBS News some months back. See his Facebook page here to see more paintings and to learn how to purchase them.

Swimming, Singing, and Diplomacy

My father, Robert C. Amerson, was an American Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency during the Cold War. Building relationships was an essential part of his diplomatic responsibilities, “winning hearts and minds” for America.

Growing up as the perpetual new kid in school gave me the ability to quickly make new friends. That may be one of the reasons that I so enjoyed teaching exercise, and when I moved to South Florida and the venue became outdoor pools, I was a very happy camper. Trust and guided support allowed my adult students to relax and discover the joy of moving in a pool. Buoyancy and resistance are a marvelous combination.

There is nothing better that witnessing 60+ year-old women overcome their fear of the water and float for the first time in their lives, smiling ear-to-ear like happy kids. And when adults progresses from being unable to put their heads under water to swimming the freestyle across the pool, there’s no stopping that kind of confidence.

You may also know how important the water has been to my survival and recovery from a near-fatal illness last year.

Today, I want to share another person’s story. It combines my father’s chosen career and swimming. I came upon this delightful anecdote in Bonnie Tsui’s new book, Why We Swim. I am a complete fan.

Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world’s most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won’t regret diving in.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times science columnist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Bonnie Tsui writes about Joseph “Jay” Taylor, an American diplomat in Baghdad who received an award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 for teaching his fellow Green Zone colleagues to swim. The Green Zone was where the international community lived, and where the American Embassy was housed in Saddam Hussein’s royal palace, which included a luxurious pool.

… adorned with eight-foot fountains and lighted with standing chandeliers for nighttime swimming. Jay couldn’t believe that he got to swim in it, even if on more than one occasion he had to jump out of the deep end at the scream of an air-raid siren and, still dripping, clamber hastily into a concrete bunker as the boom boom of exploding mortars vibrated around him.

Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim

The swim lessons began when Jay offered to teach a colleague from Madagascar who thrashing about the pool without much success. Soon, he was teaching two classes a week.

Cooks, drivers, translators, peacekeeping troops, helicopter pilots: People from all over the world, from all kinds of places and backgrounds, wanted Jay to be their swim coach … Honduras … India … Ukraine … Lebanon … Mexico. It was a miniature United Nations, a global diaspora of people who had never learned to swim.

Bonnie Tsui, Why We Swim

They called themselves the Baghdad Swim Team. They formed a community, forging bonds and finding solace in a common pursuit. I get that. Some of my most intimate friendships have begun in a pool. More importantly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Jay Taylor’s efforts with an award for teaching those wartime swimming lessons. For building community.

My Dad could have been one of Jay’s students. He almost drowned as a kid in rural South Dakota and was never comfortable in water, making this memory so much sweeter. It was the only road trip I ever had with just my father. We drove from the East Coast to Iowa for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It was hot summer, and the small outdoor pool at the Illinois motel where we stopped for the night was perfect temperature for after-dinner relaxation. We bobbed in that pool for about a half-hour. It was probably the longest Dad was ever in a pool, and I got to be there.

Snooky, Elaine, Bob, Terry, and Jeanie

Dad built community with music, a habit learned on the South Dakota prairie. From hootenannies with expats in Rome, to música folklórica in Bogotá, to flamenco guitar sessions in Madrid, Dad loved nothing more than an informal gathering of music-makers. He celebrated his 80th birthday with his siblings the way they grew up — harmonizing!

Goodbye, Homeland. Hello, Sandblast.

A book destined to become a best-seller has just come out. It’s by a friend of mine, Al Pessin, and here’s today’s review by Sharon Geltner in the Palm Beach Arts Paper

By Sharon Geltner

Goodbye, Homeland.

Hello, Sandblast.

Showtime’s hit series Homeland ends in May. But covert ops fans can now turn to Sandblast, the first book in an action, adventure and suspense trilogy by Al Pessin, a local author who has covered the world’s hot spots from Afghanistan to Washington, D.C.

The plot: after terrorists blow up a plane carrying the secretary of defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency creates Operation: Sandblast. The top secret asset is California-raised, Afghan-American Lt. Faraz Abdallah. His heritage and military training make him the perfect undercover agent, but can he fool the Taliban? Then can he uncover its terror plots and assassinate the leaders?

The president is on board. “We’re facing our toughest threat since 9-11, and if we don’t handle it right, we could end up living in a very different world, a much more hostile one.” 

Besides the intrepid Lt. Abdallah, the other hero is military and security expert Dr. Bridget Davenport, in a role similar to Carrie Mathison. “She would tell herself they were key players in their generation’s great battle of Good vs. Evil…” 

The book moves fast and the complex plot makes sense. Pessin is most persuasive describing how tough it is for Faraz to maintain two identities at once. He has to fit in, quote the Koran, remember his emergency extraction code, avoid recruitment as a suicide bomber and not be subsumed by the Taliban. 

The Afghan village scenes are plausible. “It does not matter if you die, or if I die, of if we all die, or if our families live in poverty for one hundred generations. What matters is that we work to do Allah’s will.” 

Pessin offers many authentic details at the Pentagon. An outdoor snack bar in the giant, center courtyard is “…nicknamed the Doomsday Café and said to be ground zero for Russian nuclear missiles.” Meanwhile, a “secure conference room” is called “The Tank.” Bridget’s windowless office in “the second basement … is bigger than a cubicle with room for a small table and four chairs.”

Despite her drab office, the Pentagon has its compensations. Bridget is “… an attractive woman in a building where twenty-five thousand men worked.”
Better odds than The Bachelorette! Very promising.

For three months, Bridget has been seeing a handsome man in uniform. But when the two debate whether to call each other sugar pie or sweet cakes, the book hits its only false note. 

Al Pessin. (Courtesy Kensington Books)

Otherwise, Sandblast reads like the real deal, because Pessin did a tremendous amount of research and because his background resembles that of spy novelist and Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius. (In person, Pessin calls to mind CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer in appearance and manner; they’ve been everywhere, know everyone and have a dry sense of humor. And despite highly successful media careers, both give the impression they know lots more than they let on.) 

Pessin was a journalist at Voice of America for 39 years; 15 of them overseas. His first foreign assignment was Hong Kong in 1984. He’s also worked in Pakistan, Guantanamo Bay, Ukraine (in flak jacket and helmet), Jerusalem, London and New York. He enjoyed his first six-month tour in Islamabad so much, he offered to stay longer. 

One of Pessin’s proudest moments came in 1989, when China expelled him for covering the Tiananmen Square massacre. He also reported from the White House and the Pentagon, traveling with two defense secretaries to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“[Years later], when I returned for a visit to Islamabad, I went to the old market and it was tense. All eyes were on me. I was the only foreigner there.” 

Pessin speaks some French, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese. “I wanted to know if the side conversation was discussing lunch or about kidnapping me and selling me to Hamas,” he said. 

He said in Gaza and the West Bank, “Being Jewish was never an issue. No one asked. I felt they didn’t know.”

Pessin was inspired to write Sandblast during his six years at the Pentagon, when he came across an outdoor naturalization ceremony for people who joined the military as legal residents and were then being sworn in as citizens. Their happy and proud families were dressed in colorful dress from their home countries.

“I thought about what sort of unique capabilities they bring to our military. They are our generation’s new Navajo code talkers [from World War II.]” 

Pessin retired in 2015 and moved to Delray Beach. He credits the Writers’ Colony at Old School Square and the Palm Beach Community Educator program for teaching him creative writing. “Non-fiction addresses facts. But fiction can uncover the truth.” He also hired two editors to inspect his manuscript. 

Pessin’s editor at Kensington Press, Michaela Hamilton, likens him to bestselling novelists Nelson DeMille and Daniel Silva.

“I consider ‘Sandblast’ a real find with a fresh perspective and exciting characters. Al is a very multi-talented guy and he has made a lot of smart decisions,” Hamilton said. “He’s ready to break into the big leagues.” 


Guest Blogger: Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick “On Memoir-Writing”

Many thanks to Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez for the invitation to contribute a few thoughts on memoir-writing to her blog. Kelly and I met for the first time at the annual conference of the Florida Writers Association. It wasn’t long before I realized she has lived a rare and fascinating life, a memoir-worthy life.

Catherine with NYPD 9-12-01

Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick interviewing a NYC policewoman on 9/11, Twin Towers smoke rising. 

I’ve had my share of unusual experiences. As a feature writer, I once sipped champagne with Ralph Lauren in a walled garden at twilight; tottered on a rain-swept rooftop alongside Jimmy Carter; saved Uma Thurman from calamity; royally ticked off Lauren Bacall; and earned words of praise from Gloria Steinem. I have audited the prayer of a Death Row inmate and whispered in the ear of a prince.  On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Manhattan to cover New York Fashion Week for Wisconsin’s largest newspaper. At first word of the terrorist attacks, I rushed to Ground Zero and filed award-winning eyewitness reports. A front page of a newspaper containing one of my 9/11 dispatches is among those displayed in Washington D.C.’s Newseum. A personal account of my harrowing experiences that week has been accessioned into the archives of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

But we all have stories to tell: it’s just a matter of finding them, transforming an ordinary life into an interesting read. According to best-selling author Kate Morton: “We are all unique, just never in the ways we imagine.” GON cover high res

I have written two autobiographical novels (Going On Nine and A Matter of Happenstance) and two memoirs.

Happ cover

But here’s the thing: some of the liveliest passages in my memoirs sprang from commonplace events. In Journey: A Memoir of Love, War and Ever After:

  • A chapter about a life-and-death rescue begins with two bored children sitting on a harbor dock. A girl about my age asked if I’d like to take a sail with her on her family’s Sunfish. “Don’t worry, I know how to handle it,” she said. In minutes we were bobbing in the main channel of the chief river of the largest drainage system in North America. We did not bother with life vests.
  • A chapter about the passing of a beloved elderly aunt takes an unexpectedly 41ki-WKTodL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_humorous twist. The morning of the funeral dawned clear and crisp, a perfect day for bird hunting. At breakfast, Dad peered over the top of the sports section. “I think we’ll take the Jeep to the service for Lillybelle.” Mom cut him a look. The Jeep was muddy and reeked of pipe smoke, and it resembled a paddy wagon because Dad had installed a metal grate behind the back seat to keep Patsy, his English pointer, at bay during trips to all the places a man with a Jeep takes his dog.
  • And this excerpt, about a typical family Thanksgiving dinner that devolves into a fiasco. Dad sawed. He sawed like a musician sawing through the fiendish first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Goose meat fell away in tattered shards. My grandfather’s face settled into an astringent mask.One by one, we forked bits of roast goose into our mouths, stashed the occasional buckshot pellet between cheek and gum, and extruded it into the folds of our napkins. Inevitably, one of my brothers smirked. Another brother snorted. And then somebody spat a ball of buckshot so energetically that it whizzed across the table and landed with a ping on his sister’s salad fork. The sister, naturally, returned fire. And with that, it was open season.

In my memoirs, I wrote about events particular to my life as well as events many of us experience, or once did. Swiping raspberries from the Vegetable Man’s truck. The schoolyard fallout after a bad haircut. The late spring aroma of a fresh-cut lawn. The clandestine ways six kids devised to avoid eating fried chicken livers. I wrote about building forts down by a creek, popping tar bubbles in a summer street, flipping baseball cards with a friend, my father’s sweet advice on the morning of my wedding.

CU FitzpatrickCommonplace events add color to a memoir because they are part of the universal experience. When we read about a child’s first day at summer camp, a teen-ager’s first kiss, a shopping trip that lands the perfect wedding gown, we remember how it was for us. We relate. This is how stories about seemingly “ordinary lives” become extraordinary memoirs.

So, take a moment and remember your first day of kindergarten, your first prom, first major league baseball game, first train trip. Remember a time you felt real fear, or the time you conquered it. Write about a time when you lost hope, or how you found it again. Dig deep, and call up a time when you failed spectacularly, and then went on to success. Identify a handful of universal experiences that are particular to you, and then write about them. Use all of your senses in the writing — note the sounds, the smells, the tastes or textures of things. Most importantly, include what you thought and felt at the time.

“A human being is a single being,” author Eileen Caddy once wrote, “unique and unrepeatable.”

So, go ahead. Get started on your life story. Nobody has lived it quite like you have, and no one can tell it quite as wonderfully as you. And, if you get to the West Coast this winter,  I will be teaching a memoir writing class at the Alliance for the Arts in Ft. Myers.

 Catherine Underhill Fitzpatrick graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and went on to feature writing positions at daily newspapers in Hannibal, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. In addition to her books, Catherine’s articles, stories, and essays have appeared in newspapers, literary reviews, magazines, and anthologies. Catherine is a member of the Florida Writers Association, the Chicago Writers Association, and TallGrass Writers Guild. She and her husband, Dennis, live in Bonita Springs, FL.