Local authors talk about life after writing a book

by Larry Chabot

Well, your book is finally in print. You’re holding the first copy in your hands, hardly believing you actually wrote it, and your own name is on the cover. You set forth on your selling venture with cases of books, settle down for a two- or three-day marathon at a craft show, spread your books and homemade bookmarks on a table with a cash box at your feet, and wait. You will need to sell lots of books just to cover the entry fee.

People walking by glance at your display and continue on, until one comes over and says, “This looks interesting. I’ll take one.” You could never predict what happens next.    

Tyler Tichelaar, author of My Marquette and several novels set in Upper Michigan, has been through the process many times.

“No one can ever predict the results of a book,” he said. “Too many people equate success with sales. The truth is that a book’s influence is far-reaching and never fully known to the author.”

Like all writers, Tichelaar never knows how many people read his works and are influenced by them.

Another well-known area writer, meteorologist Karl Bohnak of WLUC-TV, authored the highly successful So Cold A Sky, a fascinating history of U.P. weather. “When the book was released,” he said, “I was so appreciative of the response. It was a very exciting time, with book signings and appearances from one end of the U.P. to the other. I met so many great people who gave me such positive reaction to the book.”

Jackie Winkowski of Snowy Plains Kennel is the author of popular children’s books (Promise of the White Dog and the Miki series). She feels the “blessing and curse that comes with writing and publishing books is the work, time and expense involved in promoting them. Some of my noteworthy experiences involve children who say, ‘I have all your books. When will the next one be out?’ This is motivating.”    

Authors say connections between readers and their books are often hard to predict, but enriching for both. (Courtesy Mike McKinney)

Authors say connections between readers and their books are often hard to predict, but enriching for both. (Courtesy Mike McKinney)

In my own experience, almost all outings were positive. A show in Iron Mountain sponsored by the local newspaper was especially uplifting. During the six-hour event, more than 3,000 people provided a continuous, colorful stream of motion and excitement. One author told me he covered all of his expenses before the show even opened by selling to other vendors.

For Tichelaar, who also heads the U.P. Publishers and Authors Association, “The best part is the feedback you receive. Most rewarding are the readers who tell me how much they’ve learned from my books, how they see Marquette in a new way. I have been surprised by people with questions such as ‘In which house did the Henning family live?’ I have to explain that they didn’t live in an actual house because they are characters in a book, but I see that as the highest praise because the characters feel like real people to them, which helps readers to connect to them and the region’s past.”

Perhaps the most prolific area author is Jerry Harju, whose eleven books include humorous reminiscences of his Ishpeming boyhood. He’s also published five books by other authors under his North Harbor label.

“My books are about my personal experiences growing up in Ishpeming, and I run into many people who lived there then, people who remember the same events. They say to me, ‘I was there, I remember that.’ The books get them to thinking and trigger their own stories of those times. We have traded stories, like attending the old Central School and having our knuckles rapped by teachers. When I used a fictitious name for a local person, they try to get me to reveal who they were.”

Runner-up in the prolific category has to be Bob Dobson, with his ten history books about Ishpeming and Negaunee. He also produced CDs of area history, and put his massive notes from the Negaunee Iron Herald onto CDs and DVDs.

“My books mostly relate to men, as several are about mines, roads and railroads,” he explained. “Some have followed my footsteps in the woods and discovered for themselves the history of over a hundred years ago, and sometimes before the Civil War. There are women who enjoy hiking and searching in the woods and are excited to tell [my wife] Ethel and me about their finds. Many are interested in the books on Ishpeming and Negaunee. Two women convinced their husbands to read their copies, and the men are now avid historians and enjoy  reading history.”

Winkowski recalls a father who asked about buying another copy of Miki’s  Challenge for his six-year old daughter. “The one they’d bought for her at age one and read to her nightly had become dog-eared,” she said. “The father said it was her favorite book. He didn’t know of our dog sledding adventures business. The family soon visited our place, where their child not only met Miki, the main character, but joyfully went on a dog sled ride as Miki led the team. The experience melted my heart!”

My own two history books, published by North Harbor, covered the two central events of the twentieth century: the Great Depression and World War II. After the first book, The U.P. Goes to War, became known, there came a flood of phone calls, letters, clippings, photos, emails, and other reactions from veterans and families of veterans.

We met old friends, welcomed new ones, and were stunned by some of the stories we heard from readers who hoped for a sequel. A few accounts were so personal they can’t be repeated.

The book listed 1,467 U.P. fatalities from World War II (the list has since grown to 1,485). Among the thousands of facts about this event, mistakes did sneak in.

The most startling involved the fatality listing of an Ironwood bomber pilot shot down over Berlin near the end of the war, with no further trace of him ever found in my research. The publisher called one day to say he’d just heard from the “fatality” who was alive and well in Oregon. We later had phone and e-mail contact, and I was able to feature him in my book Saving Our Sons, about the Civilian Conservation Corps.

One highly emotional reaction came from a woman who saw my war book in an Ann Arbor store and wondered whether her uncle (a native of Ontonagon) was mentioned. She opened the book to page one and there was his picture and story: the first U.P. soldier killed in the war. She could hardly contain herself.

The book cited three U.P. men who, in World War II, were awarded the rare Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor: Oscar Johnson of Foster City, Owen Hammerberg  of Daggett, and Joseph McCarthy, a part-time Ironwood resident. Upon reading this, Denver Leinonen of Covington forwarded me stories of three other U.P. men who received this highest honor: Joseph Kemp of Sault Ste. Marie in the Civil War, Robert Robinson of St. Ignace in World War I, and Albert Smith of Calumet in 1921.

A cousin who fought in the Philippines during the war told of a great irony in his life. Because his battle wounds prevented him from writing letters, a nurse volunteered to write to his parents, and even offered to deliver the missive when she returned to the States shortly. His parents never got the letter. Years later, my cousin and his wife were paying a courtesy call on their son’s future inlaws when the girl’s mother excused herself and returned with the letter my cousin had written all those years ago. They were flabbergasted when she said, “I was that nurse.” She had never delivered the letter.

As Tichelaar pointed out, authors seldom know the reach of their work. Many books have a life of their own, passed on to friends and relatives, donated to libraries, or found at garage sales. Dobson said, “Many people share their books with others, or buy a second copy as they don’t know where the first one is anymore. We answer a lot of questions about former residents of earlier times from the 1,300 pages of my notes, and answer mail from out-of-towners who read one of the books.”

Bohnak, who cowrote a second book, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Almanac, said, “Writing a book on a subject—for me, history and weather—elevates you to a position of authority on the subject. For me, this brought an opportunity to be an ‘expert’ commentator on a TV show aired on the Weather Channel.”

Winkowski reported a book-related incident when she had a booth at FinnFest last summer, where she met a man who knew her father.

“He recalled that my dad delivered Copper Country Dairy bottled milk to his home in the 1950s. Daddy, who passed away in 1990, would have turned 101 years old this past October. It was as heartwarming as it was uncommon to meet someone who knew my dad back then.”

Many books go into second and third printings, allowing authors to do some tweaking. Dobson believes “a book is never completed, and new items are found continuously, even as a book is being printed.”

Tichelaar said, “Some readers like to point out mistakes with glee, but most just want to add extra information or share their own experiences. The second edition of My Marquette [was] updated or corrected with several small details people pointed out, and I continue to collect more for a third edition.”

The storytellers mentioned here produced three dozen books. You will find their works in bookstores, libraries and private homes, adding to the fascinating fabric of U.P. literature.

– Larry Chabot

Editor’s Note: Larry Chabot’s books are The U.P. Goes To War and Saving Our Sons.

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