Judging by their book release party, the collaborators are proud of their first-time novel, the memorably named The Dung Beetles of Liberia.
Pride did not much show in the pair; self-control is a quality prized by people used to making recommendations on which lives ride. Both writer Dan Meier and life subject Leslie ‘Spike’ Vipond are pilots and retired Federal Aviation Administration air safety inspectors. Vipond was also an African bush pilot, and on that the story rides.
Their party was more demonstrative as it overflowed onto Pirates Cove’s deck. Potential readers ate, drank and danced. Red balloons floated, tote bags accompanied each book sale and sticky felt dung beetles adorned many a lapel.
“Dan wrote pretty constantly in his 20, 30s and 40s. Then he worked all those years at FAA before he started writing again. Seeing this book published and in Barnes and Noble was the dream of a lifetime,” said Teeja Meier, the author’s wife.
The memoir as novel is not about the dung beetles that give the book its title. But in a collection of stories united by the young Vipond’s adventuresome eight-year first job, they play a prominent role. You meet the bugs, who make their living off dung, in the first chapter, one of the most remarkable I’ve read in a literary lifetime.
“There were many stories to choose from, but we wanted to start with the most dramatic,” Eastportorican Vipond told me.
“I kinda think a novel should catch your interest right away,” said Meier, of Owings in Calvert County.
Just as Vipond had caught Meier’s interest.
“For a long time, Les had been telling me about his adverture in Africa,” Meier told me. Finally he said, “Les, you really ought to write this down. Once you go to that great airport in the sky, your experiences will be lost forever.”
But the storyteller was not a writer, so Meier — whose experience includes technical writing and an earlier novel — took on the job.
Meier had not only that first chapter but all of Vipond’s life in his hands. Vipond trusted his old colleague with over 30 hours of stories.
Vipond chose what to tell, but his ghostwriter decided how to structure the narrative, what to include and what to omit.
In what may be the biggest decision, he chose to make his friend’s life story not a memoir but a novel.
“Memory is patchy,” Meier said. “In a novel, you’re permitted to lie.
“All the stories really happened,” Vipond explained. “Dan changed things to make the story work.”
Some Meier changed to give his character “a more dimensional emotional life, others to add romance.”
Meier also shaped the story to a purpose beyond Vipond’s imagining when “he was a young man only interested in saving his life.”
Here, Meier said, that “greater truth is how a society ruled by an entrenched oligarchy for 150 years develops into a tyranny.”
But most of all, Meier hopes you’ll read it because it’s a good story.
“I think I did,” he said, “create in novel form the energy that was in his stories.”