Today I’m welcoming to the Fired-Up Friday blog author Don Phelan. Don and I have known each other since elementary school, and it’s exciting to have him here as a guest. His recently released novel, The Beech Tree, is one I found to be both bittersweet and memorable. Don, tell us a little bit about yourself, your novel, and how you started writing.
The first creative writing I did was a poem I wrote at about the age of 12. "On the beach with golden sands," it started. It was about two lovers walking the Lake Michigan shoreline. When I showed it to my mother, she was ... maybe not surprisingly ... less than enthusiastic about my subject matter at age 12! I was a bit embarrassed and never put pen to paper again for many years. Surprisingly, I discovered 30 years later that she had saved the poem.
She never saw writing as a career choice. That said, my mother was a wonderful writer. In college, I would often come home to my apartment to discover my roommate had ripped open another letter from Mom. He always left the $20 bill she had sent folded into the envelope on the table and he would sit in a chair, laughing hysterically, reading the letter my mom had sent along with the letter. I know her writing influenced mine.
In college, I took a Humanities class and the Prof encouraged us to look at common objects and see them differently and write about them. I didn't grasp the importance of this lesson until years later.
When I was in my late 20's and after rather boring careers as a salesperson and stockbroker, I knew I wanted to pursue a job in advertising. After knocking on literally hundreds of doors, I landed a job and, over the course of the next ten years, I had the opportunity to work with some incredible talent -- one who is now an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, another was a brilliant creative director who specialized in funny radio commercials and even James Patterson (we called him Jim back then, when he was Creative Director for J. Walter Thompson USA.) I watched in awe as they created brilliant work.
One such talent was my friend, Hutch, who had won numerous Clio Awards (the advertising business' Oscar) and I asked how he wrote such amazing stuff. In his Texas drawl, he replied, "They's just word pictures. I just write what I see inside my head." It was a great bit of insight.
I wrote ads for hamburgers, beer, cars, trade journals, magazine articles and public relations. After I left the advertising business, I wrote a series of poems for my young daughters from their tooth fairies, Mary and Penny. One of these days, I will find an illustrator for them and publish them!
As with most writers, the idea of writing the Great American Novel pinged around in my head but I never felt I had a great concept. Or even a good one.
Then, one day, I was on a bicycle ride along the Lake Michigan shoreline between Grand Haven and Holland. I went looking for the cottage of a high school buddy's family where our group of friends hung out. We would walk down the road to what was popularly known as The Beech Tree, the place where tourists and townspeople alike visited to share their lives, their loves, hopes and dreams, and, to carve their initials into the tree. We weren't quite as "environmentally aware" back then as we are today!
Sadly, I discovered the tree had fallen years earlier. Some say it was destroyed -- as was the cottage -- during a freak storm in the spring of 1998.
I just sat there in the spot where the magnificent tree once stood. I felt so sad. I thought about those who had carved their initials into the tree. Whatever became of them? What were their lives like? I wondered, too, if I had ever, unknowingly, met any of them and felt a don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere? moment. Our only thing in common was the big tree which stood on the first dune in from the shore.
I spent the next day on Oval Beach in Saugatuck, watching the sun worshippers, a colorful mix of Illinois tourists, aging hippies and gay men. With my ever-present Spiral steno pad in hand -- and a pencil! -- I scribbled a chapter about Mason McDonald, a once-aspiring young man, drafted into the Army during Vietnam, and left a brain-damaged, pot-smoking beach bum who, 30 years later, hangs out on Oval Beach at the end of the beach "where the queers hang out," as he describes it. Mason seldom panders to political correctness ... or so one might believe. During 1967's Summer of Love, he and Debby had carved their initials and pledged to meet back at the tree in two years when his tour was over. Neither of them showed up. They both have their reasons. Good ones.
That was the first chapter -- which eventually became the fifth chapter -- but it set the stage for the other characters and events.
You write with such clarity about several of the small towns that dot the Lake Michigan shoreline. Did you spend a lot of time visiting them while growing up?
One setting, of course, is our home town, Lake Michigan port cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan. Although I knew the area, the era which I wrote about in St. Joe and Benton Harbor are mostly in the 1920's and '30's. I found myself doing a lot of research for accuracy and discovered some interesting facts I never knew ... which, of course, found their way into the book.
Today, I have adopted Grand Haven as my lakeshore home and did even more research on the city to maintain historical accuracy. One day, I was writing at the Kirby Grill and the manager came over. "I hear you are writing a novel," he said. "Do you know about our ghost?" "Your ghost?" I asked. "The Blue Man. He's been a guest here at the hotel for decades." With that, I did more research and, well, you need to buy the book!
I spent a good amount of writing time in Saugatuck, too. Each of the towns has their own personalities. And they are all wonderful places to visit!
The characters in The Beech Tree are so true to life. Did you base any of them on real people you knew?
Johnny, the first one to carve his and his Margo's initials in the tree in 1918 before he ships out to fight in The Great War, is one character based on a real person. My grandfather -- my mother's dad -- had bright red hair, bright blue eyes and talent with a baseball glove. When I started writing the character, his personality just came out, in his humor, his ruggedness, his shyness yet certainty about doing what was right, even though he sometimes failed to do the right thing himself. Yes, that character has a lot of my grandfather in him.
The character, Marie, has many of the personality traits of my step-grandmother.
The time span of the book covers nearly the entire 20th century and is very detailed in descriptions of those turbulent years. Can you talk about how you did the research?
Lots and lots of research. Google is a wonderful tool for writers; you can get a lot of information. Sometimes, though, you must get out of your chair and walk in their footsteps, literally. It gives you a feel that researching via the internet can't give you.
For example, an Episcopal church described in the book: I walked in, sat down in the pew and just "felt" the place. It seemed like a good place for a private conversation.
In one of the chapters, I describe the Freedom Ride event. Walter Bergman, a then-young man, was paralyzed during the violence. Mr. Bergman was a neighbor of mine in the mid-1970's and I had talked with him then about what he experienced. It was a defining moment in my life and some 40 years later, it found its way into the book. A couple years back, I was traveling past Birmingham, Alabama. I took the exit, drove to the bus station where it happened and just stood there, imagining what horror happened in that spot on that fateful day.
Are you working on another book? (I hope!)
Yes, the working title is The God Particle: Annihilation.
A drastic departure from a summer beach read, it is based on Stephen Hawking's theory that Earth could be swallowed up by a black hole from a distant, much larger galaxy. Since his theory proposes such an event -- improbable as it is -- would happen at faster-than-light speed. We would never see it coming. Which makes for a pretty short, dismal novel, right?
So a bit of literary and scientific license will be necessary.
Strange events are happening and scientists of the world believe this event is actually beginning to take place. Of course, if the world's population hears of it, there will be mass hysteria. So scientists and world leaders agree to a pact of silence.
Except for one PhD in Cosmology Research Assistant, who defies all stereotypes of science geeks. She believes she might have discovered the real answer. Now all she needs to do is find her mentor/professor, who has escaped into hiding and into his bottle of Bourbon, to verify her findings.
That is, if she finds him before those who want them both dead don't find them first.
In what formats is The Beech Tree available and where can we purchase it?
The Beech Tree is available in paperback, all e-books formats and even PDF for reading on a desktop computer.
Paperback: Available directly from the publisher, CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/4944249
or Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Beech-Tree-Don-Phelan/dp/1519423888/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
E-book: Available from Kindle Direct https://www.amazon.com/Beech-Tree-Don-Phelan-ebook/dp/B01F9NMR4Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
or Smashwords https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/632404
E-book edition also available online at Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other bookseller sites.
Follow @donphelan on Twitter and "Like" my Facebook page, A Little Light Reading" at https://www.facebook.com/writingsbydon/
Thank you for being my guest here today, Don. Best of luck with your writing. We’ll be looking forward to the next release!