Revisiting Stories Grandma Never Told

Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmdOnce upon a time there was a journalist with long curly hair, big glasses, and a penchant for blazers with padded shoulders who traveled around California interviewing Portuguese women. She carried a steno pad, a micro-cassette recorder, and a heavy Minolta Camera with extra lenses and a detachable flash. She used Tri-X black and white film. The women wondered why she might find them interesting, but they welcomed her into their kitchens, living rooms and shops. The result was a book, Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books in 1998.

The day the book came out was the day this young journalist felt like a real author. It was released at the annual Dia de Portugal festival held at the San Jose Historical Museum. As Portuguese music played, young queens in white paraded, and crowds feasted on Azorean pastries and linguica, she sold book after book after book. Women bought them for their mothers, sisters and daughters. People featured in the book came to have their pictures taken with the famous author. Her whole family was there. It was heaven.

That was my third book but the first one that was my idea, my words, my pictures, me on the page. I had gotten the idea while writing The Iberian Americans, an overview of Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants. Very little had been written about Portuguese women. I could see how I was a direct product of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and beyond. I had never asked for their stories, but now I dove in, starting with everything “Portuguese” listed in the telephone book. It was a long process, and I had a hard time finding a publisher. I was about to give up when Malcolm Margolin at Heyday offered me a contract.

Sue interviewing MarieBalshorThe book came out 21 years ago. Heyday did a great job producing and promoting it, but they decided after eight years and three printings to let it go. I republished it under my own Blue Hydrangea imprint. Decades later, it’s still selling better than my other books. To increase distribution, I am republishing it this month with Ingram, the company that supplies most bookstores. This means that if you request this book at any bookstore, they should be able to order it for you. Amazon.com will not be the only place to get it.

To bring “Grandma” up to date, I have been looking up the women I interviewed. A lot has changed. Many of the older women I interviewed have died. I’m grateful that I was able to capture their stories. Otherwise, they’d be gone. Some of them documented their lives for their children and grandchildren, but others never thought it was important and the kids didn’t ask, just as I didn’t until I started working on my book.

Finding people is a lot easier these days. I didn’t have Google or Facebook back in the 1990s. I collected my interviewees by word of mouth—“you should interview so-and-so”—by showing up at events, and by many hours taking notes by hand in various libraries.

So many of these women became friends. They felt like family. We exchanged letters, Christmas cards, and phone calls. We met every year at the Dia de Portugal, where they’d wear their Azorean costumes with full skirts and white blouses as they peddled food or marched in the parade. It’s hard to lose them. I already knew about many of them, including my Aunt Nellie, Aunt Edna, my mother, and my college mentor Dolores Spurgeon. I mourned the loss of my buddy Marie Gambrel. Now I know that Virginia Silveira, Edith Mattos Walter, Bea Costa, Pauline Correia Stonehill, Doris Machado Van Scoy, Maree Simas Schlenker are also gone.

But I also know that former student Krista Harper is now a college professor, that Katherine Vaz got married and lives in New York, and that former Sacramento news anchor Cristina Mendonsa now broadcasts across the United States. It has been a long time, but many of the younger women are still celebrating their heritage the way they used to.

Books on Portuguese Americans occupy a lot more shelf space than they used to as a younger generation of immigrants go all-out to tell their stories. Portuguese Heritage Publications of California and the University of Massachusetts Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture have both put out numerous books about the Portuguese. But Stories Grandma Never Told was one of the first.

I’m proud of that young curly-headed woman who pushed through her natural shyness to make the phone calls, take the trips, and ask the questions that resulted in Stories Grandma Never Told and of the stubborn older woman I am today who refuses to let those stories disappear.

The new Ingram edition, with a return to my favorite cover, will be out on my birthday, March 9. You can still buy Stories Grandma Never Told in print or as an ebook at Amazon.com, too. That version will soon be updated, too.

God bless my Portuguese ladies.

New novel coming, buy it, pass the word

PD is coming.

What? No, not the police department. PD is what the protagonist in my new novel Up Beaver Creek is calling herself these days. It’s her initials, and she’s not saying what they stand for. Back in Missoula, people called her Cissy, her nickname, but she does not want to be Cissy anymore. Widowed at 42, she is determined to start over with a new name, a new look, and a new home on the Oregon coast, where she will pursue her career as a musician–if things ever stop going wrong.

Eight wonderful, brilliant, generous beta readers have given the book a careful going-over, finding numerous typos and a few discrepancies I need to clean up. Next steps: Finalizing the cover and formatting the inside pages. I’m starting to get nervous. I want everyone to buy the book. I want to do readings here, there, and everywhere. I want everyone to say they love my book. I want to show the IRS and my father that I do actually write and sell books.

I want . . . what every writer wants.

For Oprah to love it.

Why am I telling you all this? Because these days, whether you’re published by one of the big New York publishers, a small indie press, or doing it yourself, authors are required to build “buzz.” We need to become salespeople drumming up interest and doing everything possible to make sure everybody knows about their books and can’t wait to read them.

That’s Up Beaver Creek, coming in June from Blue Hydrangea Productions.

This sales business is tough for writers who prefer to sit quietly at their computers and get lost in the worlds they’re creating. We prefer art over commerce, readers over buyers. Once upon a time, publishers did all the marketing while urging writers to hurry up and write the next book. Not anymore. Promote, tour, build that audience high and wide.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Our Willamette Writers Coast Chapter meeting yesterday was all about building buzz. Jennie Komp of Myth Machine talked about building one’s “fandom.” Cultivate one loyal fan who loves everything you write, and that fan will attract others who attract more. Pretty soon you’ll have thousands. At least that’s the plan.

It can work. I got an email on Saturday from a writer who has a new book coming out. I ordered it immediately. I haven’t read a word of it, haven’t seen the cover, and I don’t usually pay that much for a book, but with this author, I’m buying it. I buy everything he writes. I’m part of his fandom.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June, read an excerpt here.

Komp used J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as an example of maximum merchandising. Fans don’t just buy the books and see the movies; they buy the tee shirts, the little cauldrons, the round glasses, and all the other swag. The books have turned into an industry.

We can look at our own books for things we can promote: songs that appear in the book and might be used in the movie, merchandise that could be sold in conjunction with the book, real-life locations to which we can direct our readers, articles we can write that will direct people to our books, outtakes we could sell, and quotes we can combine with images to create “memes” that we post on social media several times a day. We can create YouTube videos about something in the book, invite our fans to post testimonials, and set up “meet-ups” for our fans to get together. In other words, sell everything you can from the world you have created for your book.

I thought I was doing well to write blogs and list my books in my email signature. I feel old and slightly nauseated. Would Mark Twain have done this? When does a body have time to write? Of course, we can hire Myth Machine or another publicity company to do it all for us.

Up Beaver Creek, coming in June. Meet PD and her friends. Did I mention the tsunami?

Buzz, buzz, buzz

The Hydrangea Nearly Won

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Last week I was whining about the dead hydrangea bush I was having a hard time removing. Actually “hard time” is putting it too mildly. I dug and chopped and pulled at that thing for weeks. I kept coming back to it like a dog trying to get at a rat under the house, digging and pushing and bending, nicking up my piano-playing hands. It was thoroughly dead, its branches turned to bamboo. I blame the freeze of 2014, plus the blackberries that grew up around it and choked it to death. I had given it two whole seasons to recover, but it didn’t.

IMG_20160412_110723903[1].jpgTwo weeks ago, I saw that this job was getting too big for me and contacted a gardener. After a week, he had not responded, and it was bugging me, so I dug and chopped and tugged some more as my good shoes got crusted with mud. The branches that were too thick to cut kept scratching me. I went at it with a hatchet. The branches laughed. I tried to cut it with my loppers. Nyah, nyah, they said.  I gave up for a while, but I’m not one to quit on things. I did a search on YouTube and watched a guy named Bob demonstrate the proper technique. Okay, I can do this, I thought. I didn’t own the fancy spade that he had, but I did own a spade.

It was working. Then I got down to the last mega roots, thick as parsnips. I chopped with my hatchet. I dug with my spade. I grabbed and pulled with all my might. I could hear roots popping. Progress. But then with one of those mighty heave-hos, I heard my back popping, too, and thought, uh-oh. Time out.

I threw myself on the grass in a sweaty savasana and let it go. It was hard. I knew I was close. I also knew I didn’t want to end up in the hospital.

The gardeners finally contacted me on Monday. They would charge $40 to get the plant out. Fine. Late Wednesday afternoon, they came. Three guys, two speaking mostly Spanish. One of them grabbed my rusty spade that was still leaning up against the wall. He shoved it down into the ground hard about three times, pulled on the plant and it came out, roots and all. Just like that. He carried the corpse to the truck. They smoothed the dirt, and they were done.

I was so close! I almost had it. Just a little more upper body strength and it would have been my victory. It should have been. After all, I am the founder and CEO of Blue Hydrangea Productions. That was my glorious standard for my company. I loved it when it was blooming and I should have been the one to perform the final rites. But no. Because I’m a freaking girl. I thought they would bring fancy equipment to dig and cut. Wrong. They used my rusty old spade that I found in the shed after I watched the YouTube video. Not fair!

Two minutes! They should have paid me for doing all the prep work. I should have had Annie help me. If that dog can bite through an allegedly indestructible Kong or a log from the woodpile, why can’t she take down a dead hydrangea?

Everybody says I should have called them in the first place. They also say I need to hire a gardener. Mowing the lawns kills me. My lawn is like a golf course. Huge. But there’s wonderful satisfaction in watching that lawn get neater with each row I cut. So, not yet.

Any day now, I’ll be planting a new blue hydrangea, all by myself. And I took down a dying rosebush yesterday in five minutes. Thank you, YouTube.