The Motherly Muse
Three First-Time Authors Share the Inspiration Behind Their Stories
by Donna Ayres, Kim Cammarata and Sandra Martin
Guiding muses Melpomene, muse of tragic drama, and Calliope, muse of epic poetry, flank Virgil, author of the Aeneid.
How is a book born?
The conception of their first book is a moment every author seems to remember.
Sometimes the stories are conceived in an instant, perhaps to preserve a fleeting, magical moment. That's how the children's book Where Did all the Water Go came to Carolyn Stearns. Sometimes conception is a brilliant moment of pure, irresistable logic: Here is a gap that needs to be filled, a story crying out to be told. That's how Marianne Taylor determined to write the history of the Magothy River.
Other stories have been decades in gestation. Leo Bretholz, now 78, was 17 when he leapt into the darkness that descended upon Europe as the Third Reich advanced across the continent. Bretholz and Sun columnist Michael Olesker published their Leap into Darkness only this year.
Always, there's not only a moment but also a muse. Calliope may have inspired mythological writers, but the real books of real writers are inspired by real people. It's not the creative vision these real-life muses seem to inspire but rather the creative power - a combination of belief in the idea and in one's self - to give that vision life.
Surprisingly often, that person is a mother - or a child.
Carolyn Stearns' muse was her 36-year-old daughter, Rebecca Coles. Struck by the magical moment she records in her book, Stearns shared it with her daughter. Coles gave back an inspiration. "Why don't you make it into a short story," she said.
Where Did All the Water Go, Stearns' first children's book and first book accepted by a major publisher, is dedicated in turn to her granddaughter, Emily. That's because, "changes are made through children," Stearns says.
The book's illustrator, David Aiken, makes his dedication "To the Chesapeake's children."
Marianne Taylor's muse was watching her four daughters' joy in growing up on the banks of the Magothy River. Her daughters no longer live on the river of their childhood, but they are still drawn to its shores.
"After being gone for a few weeks, they'll call me up and say, 'Mom, I miss you guys, and I miss the river. I've got to come back.' They're compelled to come back. It's in their blood," says Taylor.
My River Speaks: The History and Lore of the Magothy River, Taylor's first book, is dedicated to "all my daughters, Lauren, Kimberly, Deborah and Rachel, children of the river" along with her husband, Robert, "who brought me to the river."
Leo Bretholz's muse was his mother, Dora, who twice gave him life. Bretholz was 17 on the eve of the Holocaust. Hitler's armies had moved into Bretholz's native city, Vienna.
"Overnight," Bretholz recalls a lifetime later, "from Friday, March 11 to Saturday, March 12, life descened into chaos and pain. Atrocities were executed with ferocious abandon." Men and boys were the first victims.
"When they were taken to the camps, within two weeks, their ashes came back in boxes and you had to sign for them at the post office.
"My mother urged me to leave. She wanted me to live."
Thus began Bretholz's seven years on the run in wartime Europe. He never saw his mother again. But, he told NBT in a hushed, awestruck whisper after a booksigning last week at Border Books in Bowie, "four pair of eyes stay with me all my life. One is my mother's. When I feel guilt that I have survived, I remember that she wanted me to live."
To Dora Bretholz's memory, her living son Leo dedicates Leap into Darkness .
On Mother's Day, this story of another kind of creation celebrates the life-giving bond between mother and child.
For Carolyn Stearns, Beginner's Luck
On a cold wintry morning in December, 1996, Carolyn Stearns walked onto her deck and first viewed a phenomenon known to longtime Bay residents.
But on this cold morning I wake up and something is wrong - really wrong. At first I'm too sleepy to figure out what it is. But then I do.
The water is gone. I don't see the water anywhere.
Twenty-one months later, in September of 1998, Stearns celebrated the publishing of Where Did All the Water Go? This first venture by Stearns into the world of children's book publishing had been smooth and swift.
Carolyn Stearns moved to the Mason's Beach area of Deale in September of 1996, having been introduced to the beauty of the Chesapeake area by a friend. Places of natural beauty have inspired Stearns and offered her refuge. She has always been an artist, in one way or another. For many years, Stearns was a dancer and a teacher of dance. Her artist spirit then took the forms of massage therapist and meditation coach.
For the past 17 years, however, writing has been Stearns' passion. Her bookshelves contain numerous unpublished manuscripts, many of them stories for children. And now, also on her shelf, is Where Did all the Water Go?
"I'm the kid." With her eyes sparkling and with a proud smile on her face, Carolyn Stearns acknowledged that it was her experience that led to the publication of her first children's book. She was so startled by the phenomenon that she called her adult daughter to share her excitement. "I was talking to my daughter on the phone and I was saying, 'What do you suppose happened to the water? Do you think the people over on the Eastern Shore are drowning?' And we were kind of giggling along and she said 'Well, why don't you make this into a short story?'"
First, Stearns had to find out exactly what she had seen. She knew just how to get the information. She went to her neighbor Bruce Bauer, an ex-Navy man and a sailor. According to Stearns, Bauer "knows everything" about the Bay, the winds and the tides.
Armed with a reliable explanation of what she saw, Stearns sat down and wrote her story. The author recalled that "It sort of wrote itself while I was talking to my daughter on the telephone." Stearns knows how to speak to children; she'd written so many stories and told so many stories to her grandchildren. She knows the language of the child.
Next, Stearns had to get her story in print. She immediately sent a copy of her tale to New Bay Times, which published it in the issue of January 2, 1997. That encouraged Stearns to go further: publish Where Did All the Water Go? as a book. She decided to send her manuscript to Tidewater Publishers in Centreville, Md. Tidewater is an imprint of Cornell Maritime Press, Inc., a well-known publisher of books on the maritime arts and sciences.
According to Stearns, "The whole secret for publishing is making a good match with the publisher."
To find the right publisher, she went to the library. "I looked up books on the Chesapeake Bay and of course, where else would you go after you found Tidewater. They're the best. They really do cover the waterfront."
Stearns slipped her manuscript in the mail to Tidewater. The publisher replied almost immediately. They wanted her story.
"It was unique," says Charlotte Kurst, managing editor of Tidewater. "Carolyn's story talked about a scientific phenomenon from a child's perspective. It was a clever and charming little story." The gender-free tone of the story also appealed to Kurst.
As Stearns anxiously awaited the publication of her first children's book, Tidewater and its editors fine-tuned the book and managed its production. Very little of Stearns' text was changed. The only revisions were those suggested by scientists who were engaged by Tidewater to check the facts about life and natural forces on the Bay.
Most importantly for the publishing process of a children's book, an illustrator had to be found. Tidewater chose three possible artists and forwarded Stearns samples of their work.
Stearns had two of her own conditions regarding the illustrations. "One was to keep the animals and birds looking like animals and birds, rather than caricatures. The other thing that was important to me was that I wanted it non-gendered." In the story illustrations, the narrator could be either a girl or a boy. Stearns was hoping "that if a girl read it, she could fantasize doing it and if a boy read it, could fantasize a boy doing it."
Stearns chose David Aiken. She remembers that "I chose one that I was really excited about." And Aiken met both of her conditions. The birds are birds, the animals are animals and the narrator's gender is what the reader wants it to be.
The words and pictures perfected, Where Did All the Water Go? was presented to the public in September of 1998, a beautiful addition to Tidewater's children's collection.
What advice might she give to hopeful writers?
"Write the book in order to find out what you want to say," Stearns said. She believes that it is not until we've written that we really know what we have to say.
What Stearns achieved by publishing her book wasn't necessarily fame and fortune, although she thinks those would be "lovely." Her main purpose is more altruistic. "I do have a goal. I very strongly believe that if we're going to make any changes, that it's through the children. We've got to reach the children. That is the driving force in all my work."
The world of children's book publishing is a tough one. Tidewater publishes only three or four children's books each year. Stearns, however, believes it is important to form certain ideas concerning our world in the minds of children. "When I read to my grandchildren," she says, "they are just open to life, the truth; you can't lie to them. We do that through books."
For Marianne Taylor, Love's Labor
At the water's edge we experience a source of life, primal and complex, even mysterious.
Cozily ensconced in her home's spacious, light-filled solarium with the Magothy River shimmering beyond three walls of glass, author Marianne Taylor describes how this river has enriched her life.
"The Magothy River is always a part of what I do. It's not just a background; it's a calming and spiritual energy."
The river has been a source of inspiration and recreation for Taylor, husband Robert and their four daughters for over 30 years. Taylor's favorite river activities these days include walking the beaches of North Ferry Point and canoeing into the quiet coves and creeks on the river to watch the wildlife from her craft.
So strong is the Magothy's presence in her life that Taylor wanted to share its magic with the world. She has done so movingly in her meticulously researched book My River Speaks: The History and Lore of the Magothy River.
"I started writing the book because I was compelled to bring out the unique history of the Magothy River for the people of the Chesapeake Bay. I thought that my children would like to know this too. And their children," explains Taylor. "Midstream through writing the book, I became interested in what draws people to rivers. My audience stretched to people who settle on rivers or who love rivers and water. Therefore, it became a book about rivers, about water, about the value of water in our lives."
The book's title reflects Taylor's deep reverence for the river. "I always felt that this river was crying out to speak. It has to speak or it's going to die," says Taylor. "I wondered if it was selfish to call it my river. I don't own the river. But then I realized that unless each person takes responsibility for the ownership of the river and the land around it, then we have no river. So it is my river. It's everybody's river."
River enters our souls, joins our families and friends, and provides work and play.
The Taylors first discovered the wonders of the Magothy when they settled in the Whitehurst waterfront community on the south side of the river in 1968. Taylor, having spent her childhood frolicking in and around Lake Erie, was thrilled to watch her own children grow up enjoying the pleasures of sailing on the river, swimming in the water and jumping off the dock.
Taylor knows that the river enhanced her children's lives in deeper ways than simply providing fun and games. "I always felt the river could somehow save their lives in the sense that they would learn the values of nature and the freedom to enjoy simple things," she says.
After a few years, the Taylors moved across the river to their current home at North Ferry Point on Cape Sable peninsula. Soon, Taylor's riverside neighbors began sharing bits of local history and folklore about her new property.
"There were rumors floating around like 'Your cabin used to be a slaves' quarters' or 'It has been said that the bricks on your point were old ferry bricks.' It had been said, but nobody could prove it," recalls Taylor. "I began to be very drawn and curious as to how other people lived on this river."
With her natural curiosity and love of history propelling her, Taylor decided then to find out more about where she lived. With her four young daughters in tow, she searched Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore for any documentation about the Magothy River. She didn't discover much in this initial, tentative effort. But the seed of her future book was planted. It would reach full bloom almost 30 years later.
Quickly vanishing along with its quiet waters and sheltered coves are river-remembrances, haunting its creeks and marshes, whispering myriad stories and tales.
Taylor remembers the exact moment when, in a flash of inspiration, she decided to write a book about the Magothy River. At a party in Annapolis that included several people from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Magothy River Association, Taylor overheard one of them wonder why the Magothy River had not been written about much.
"Right at that moment I decided that the river deserved a book. I wanted to do a book right from the start," she recalls.
Taylor's experience teaching literature and writing to high school and college students for 22 years proved invaluable in her quest to help her river speak. Her background, she says, kept her from being intimidated by the amount and type of research she was about to undertake.
Information on the Magothy River was difficult to find, so she used a creative approach to the research. "I had to go to myriad original sources such as land plats, the register of wills, early molinographies [studies of mills], original historic maps," says Taylor.
She relied on personal diaries and letters given to her with pride by long-time river families. She collected oral histories from over 150 residents on the river. In all, Taylor devoted almost nine years to research and recount the history and lore of the river she loved. Through it all, she says, intense interest in the project by "river people" urged her on, and her supportive family helped her to persevere.
The book's illustrator and designer, Joan Machinchick, also injected some fresh enthusiasm into the project when she came on board. Taylor met her through a mutual friend after admiring Machinchick's work at a calligraphy show. Photographer Michael Dulisse heard about Taylor's upcoming book at a Magothy River land trust meeting. His excitement for the project led him to offer his professional talents to Taylor.
With the book nearing completion, Taylor began considering how to get it published. Having been an avid reader her entire life, she had a feel for what presses published histories. She started by writing to some of the major publishing houses.
"I got raving rejection notices," she remembers with a smile. "The process of getting a book published is a difficult one, there is no doubt about it. You have to simply believe in yourself and what you're doing."
Taylor briefly considered publishing the book on her own but soon decided that route was too complicated. Her next step was to attempt to find a local publisher. She wrote to several historical societies with no success.
Taylor first became aware of Bay Media when she saw the company listed as publisher of another local history book. Founded in 1989, Bay Media, Inc. in Arnold provides support services for individuals and organizations who wish to self-publish, according to president Patricia Troy. For the most part, Bay Media helps non-profit organizations with various publications. The company also aids in the publication of local histories.
"Pat Troy had the vision to believe in me and my book. All of a sudden a door opened," remarks Taylor. "It was a co-publishing effort. She did her part; I did my part." For My River Speaks, Bay Media handled marketing and printing while Taylor and Machinchick worked out the book's design.
Troy remembers what attracted her to My River Speaks. "We have an ongoing interest in local history. Nothing much had been written about the Magothy River prior to this. I thought it would be a good idea to have a publication about the river. Living on Dividing Creek, I have a personal interest as well."
Released last fall, My River Speaks' first printing of 2,000 copies is "virtually sold out," according to Troy. A second printing is upcoming and will be available in local book stores.
Taylor's greatest reward in her endeavor was to realize that her labor of love became important to her larger community. "These people loved the river so much that they've taken a keen interest in buying the book. It has far exceeded my expectations as far as interest goes. That is wonderful," she says.
For Leo Bretholz and Michael Olesker, A Blessed Collaboration
Leo Bretholz's seven years on the run soared with adventures and plunged with disasters. He began his run by swimming fully clothed, in November, across a cold, fast river. Hiding in a monastery, he found himself rooming with a young Nazi.
He crossed forbidden borders, often to be turned back or arrested. He survived bombing raids, forced labor, forced idleness and prison. He perpetrated as many escapes as Houdini. By squeezing out a window and leaping from a moving train, Transport 42, he defied death's odds, living into his 70s among the one percent of the 80,000 who survived the death trains running from Drancy, outside Paris, to Auschwitz. All the while, he was crippled with a hernia.
A sketch of the dramatic values of those years would look like a mountain range.
But to speak would be to bring back to life "the most horrifying event in recorded history": the Holocaust. So from his deliverance - when World War II's end finally allowed his American aunt to bring him to Baltimore - until the 1960s, Leo Bretholz kept silent.
"Once I started talking," says the tanned, gracious man whose vitality belies his years, "I didn't stop." His voice is light with laughter as he draws his rapt listeners at Borders Books in Bowie into his tale. It's a job he does with skill - stepping forward, he shares as easily as he listens, drawing out others, encouraging them to speak, comforting and counseling - as well as with obvious pleasure.
"I am glad to be here," he says, adding new depths of meaning to the phrase.
Speaking out, telling his story of surviving Hitler's annihilating wrath, brought Bretholz "unanticipated relief, unburdening and emptying the soul."
"I labored under a lot of guilt for many, many years until I started talking about it," Bretholz says.
Speech honors the victims, he concluded, "for we do not forget." It might even - and this is his fondest hope - draw "value from this tragedy by connecting the past to the future so the young will learn."
"Perhaps even " he says, searching always for the unanswerable why, "I was supposed to be here to tell the story. When the young men tried to talk us out of [jumping from the train] and that woman on crutches said 'May God watch over you. You go because you will tell the story,' that was constantly in my mind."
Hearing Leo Bretholz's story, lots of people said he ought to write a book. He laughed it off until Michael Olesker, the provocative Sun columnist, agreed to write the book with him.
"Leo said, 'I'll do it if you help me,'" Olesker remembers.
"I had never intended to have a role," the writer continued. "I had lots of misgivings."
But Olesker gave the older man, his friend for 20 years, the Holocaust survivor, an assignment: to write the most dramatic scene, the escape from the deportation train bound for Auschwitz:
There was barely room to stand or sit or squat. I took a deep breath, and then another. Children cried fearfully. Some of the men wore suits and ties, clinging to some false sense of stature, reaching for fading elegance. Many of the women wore lipstick and fashionable dresses. When we arrived at our next destination, they would show that they'd come from homes with civilized people, and surely this stature would count for something.
When Bretholz returned eight handwritten pages - "in block letters, so Michael could read it" - Olesker handed back 135 questions - on that scene alone.
Bretholz continues the story: "I called Michael after a couple of days. I said, 'Michael, I'm just at question 11.' He said, 'I'm not rushing you.'
"'I have to think,' I said, 'to dig deeper to remember more details. Who was near me, what did that person say, what did that person look like. It's a real labor.'"
"'That's what it is,' Michael said."
"A couple weeks later I called back and said, 'Michael, I'm just at question 28.' He said same thing: 'I don't rush you.'
"It took me three months. But afterward, he called me up and said, 'Leo, I don't have to ask you any more questions. All I have to do is work on it.'"
Meanwhile, Olesker's former editor at Johns Hopkins University Press, Gregg Wilhelm, had persuaded the owners of Baltimore's Bibelot Booksellers chain to create a publishing house for books of local interest [see NBT Vol. VI, No. 3]. Wilhelm, who had asked Olesker for ideas, liked the project and gave the two authors the go-ahead.
With collaborator and publisher, Bretholz dredged up memories week after week. Sometimes remembering was so hard that he despaired. Always, his American-born wife, Flo, urged him on. Every couple of weeks, Olesker picked up a new pile of pages.
The collaboration satisfied both men. Bretholz wrote the chronology. Olesker organized the narrative and worked the language, "trying to make it sing." He did not change a fact.
"My narrative was left 100 percent intact," explained Bretholz. "Michael did not take out; he even added some in. When I wrote of listening to the radio, for example, which was illegal, what did Michael do? He searched the books for what Radio London said at the time. He edited in the narrative of other things that happened while I was in France on the run."
At Woodholme House Publishers, Wilhelm edited actively, even to deleting scenes. Otherwise, says Bretholz, "this book would have been 350 pages."
Both authors regret the losses - "I don't know why he took this out," Bretholz quotes Olesker as saying - without feeling the book was compromised. "As it is, it's still fascinating. People who do not know what was taken out don't miss it," Bretholz says.
Bretholz's assessment is right on the money. He and Michael Olesker have produced a fascinating, satisfying and very readable story. If its horror stretches the imagination, so does its humanity. Thousands of readers have agreed - and many thousands more will soon get their chance.
After two Woodholme House printings running to 6,000 copies, paperback rights have been sold to Doubleday, and Leap into Darkness will spread its drama and its message of remembrance from Baltimore, beyond Chesapeake Country, throughout the nation. International rights have also been sold, with a hardback and then paperback to be released in Europe and England through Constable Press.
As well as the good news of commercial success, both authors are celebrating something bigger. In Olesker's words: "I didn't know if this was going to make a dime and that's not the point. I felt like I was doing something good with my life by doing this book. This is something we want to pass onto our children and generations to come."
Both men are also looking back. Olesker to the family lost to the Holocaust in Poland. Bretholz, well, "I knew I had done something I owed," he concludes - making his point with one more story:
"Of the four pair of eyes I will never forget, one was my mother's. Her eyes were always there with me as she said good-bye, saying 'run, leave'."
"My mother wanted me to live." That is the refrain of the son who outspanned his mother's life by four decades.
"I believe when my mother sent me away," Bretholz reflects, "it was Godsent. It was meant to be. If my mother were to come back and say one sentence, she would say 'Leo, I wanted you to be safe.' I would say, Mama, wherever you are, I'm safe. I did what you wanted."
| Issue 18 |
Volume VII Number 18
May 6-12, 1999
New Bay Times
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