Where Book Ideas Come From

I’m currently engaging in that ritual of publishing, filling out the “Author Questionnaire” my publisher’s marketing department seeks for my upcoming book The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived — an essentially hopeful act imagining all the vast audiences who theoretically will run on book stores and internet retail sites to purchase multiple copies, and all the media who will devote yards of type and gigabytes of content to cover it. Here I’ll share just  one of the 53 items on the questionnaire (I live to spell this word) and my response to it:

  1.  31. Please write a paragraph or two on how you came to write this book — including any interesting or newsworthy anecdotes about researching it, writing it, or getting it published.

Until two years ago, I had spent my entire life dismissing, ignoring, or denying my mother’s attempts to impress on me the significance of her father. His many books on my bookshelf went unread. The boxes and boxes of photos and letters my mother kept for decades were felt only as dead weight. When my mother died, if it hadn’t been for my sister’s stubborn insistence, they all would have been headed to the incinerator. For 17 years, I have lived within 25 miles of a repository of 50,000 items consisting of many hundreds of thousands of pages documenting every aspect of my grandfather’s life in shockingly intimate detail, and yet it never occurred to me it might be interesting to look into those 148 boxes sitting in federal storage space in the Library of Congress. As I neared the age of 60, with old age and death peeking ominously over the horizon, I began to wonder increasingly about my grandfather, and his influence on my life and career. Again and again questions formed in my mind, only to butt up against the reality that all those who could have so easily answered them were gone, and that the knowledge itself was vanishing from the face of the earth. I knew that many, if not most people face that same sad irony at some point in their lives. And then the bulb lit in my mind: I had a unique advantage, the mountain of material that would answer all my questions, and many more I never could have imagined.

Ironically, after two years of intensive research and reading in the world’s greatest library, of going through all those boxes my sister had clung to after our mother’s death, just as I was finishing the manuscript for the book, I made one final discovery that would shine a unique light on all that I had learned – in the unlit far corner of my own basement closet.


  1. I have had access to so much history of my family. I regularly rifled through my maternal grandfather’s trunk full of WWI Canadian Army Uniforms, gas mask, large 8×10 photographs of men dead in trenches, a stack of political post cards, a gun and bayonette (sp?) from a soldier he killed. In 1968, before my Pappa (grandpa) died, I stood up in my sixth grade class sharing all of this as visual aids with the view to teach the other kids about the world war to end wars. My hope in standing there was that one or some kids might become Jehovah’s Witnesses and be saved from Armagedon to live forever on earth in Paradise. In the back of my mind I worried. My papa was the only one not a Witness. Now, due to moves, losses, family break-ups (due to internal world wars) I no longer have any of that material. But just the other day, I found an article about that same Papa, returning from WWI, building a plane in his back yard to fly in an air show. Pics too. I was able to find more via Google books. The same is true for my maternal grandmother’s side, as well as recently deceased Dad’s mother and father. I want to put these pieces together, but also need to make money. Fallen into severe poverty in recent years, I am struggling to keep an apartment shared wtih my daughter and grandaughter. My story is not one of rags to riches, but riches to rags. And I’ve got somethin to say. I also enjoy playing with words, which is the more important reason to write. Or is it?

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