Tell me about LETTERS FOR EMILY. What is the story about?
The story opens in the final stages of Harry Whitney's life. Not only is he dying, he's losing his mind. Harry has Alzheimer's disease and he knows his "good" time is short, so he decides to compile a book of his own poems as a final gift for Emily, his favorite granddaughter. When the family discovers his book, it's quickly dismissed as the ramblings of a senile old man—that is, until secrets are discovered hidden in each poem. Through his writings, Harry's past is slowly uncovered—how he courted, won, and then lost his great love, Katherine; the years he spent struggling to raise two children as a single father; and the lessons and wisdom he gathered throughout his life. Ultimately, it's not what the family discovers about Harry that's most important, but what they learn about themselves. In short, it's a story that celebrates goodness, hope, love and life.
I understand the story was inspired by the life of your own grandfather, also named Harry. Is the book based on true events?
Yes and no. Like Harry Whitney in the book, my grandfather wrote poems to his family his entire life. After his death, it was the hidden wisdom in his poems that inspired the story behind Letters for Emily. While the two Harrys are certainly similar, the book is still a work of fiction. A writing instructor, speaking of her own work, once said, “It’s not true, but it’s truthful,” meaning it’s fiction, but into that fiction one weaves real events and real people. It teaches truth, even though the story as a whole is a novel.
It sounds like your grandfather played an important role in your life. What do you remember most about the man?
He was colorful. He loved life. For example, he was the grandfather who learned to water-ski for the first time at age sixty-five. He was always looking for joy in life, even if in mischievous ways. Once, when I was about eight, he took me and my brother to a restaurant. The waitress who served us that day was rude and had a huge scowl across her face. Grandpa, rather than get angry with her, waited for her to leave the table. With a sly grin, he then bet us a dollar that he could make her smile. From the look of her, it was a safe bet. When she came back to the table with our order, my grandfather stood and put his arm around her. In a sincere tone, he told her that she was the best waitress he’d ever had. He thanked her profusely for her wonderful service and then he handed her a ten dollar bill. She forced a slight smile and the grandkids lost the bet. For years I never understood why he’d spent ten dollars to win a one dollar bet. It wasn’t until after his death that I began to realize the satisfaction he gained by bringing joy to others.
Growing up we spent almost every weekend with grandpa, usually on some new adventure, such as hiking, fishing or exploring ghost towns. In all sincerity, he was the best grandfather a child could have imagined.
Has the response to the book been positive?
Absolutely overwhelming. Many readers have contacted me via letters and email to tell me the book offered them hope and made them feel better about life. Hearing from appreciative readers who have been touched by the story is certainly one of the greatest rewards of writing.
What was the catalyst that prompted you to start writing in the first place?
Mid-life crisis. Writing a book seemed more productive than getting a new wife and a red sports car. Seriously, I was approaching forty, I’d just sold my business, and I was wandering, trying to figure out in which direction to go in my professional life. Then, one day, an idea for a book struck me so powerfully that I drove straight home and began to write.
How were you able to get the book published?
Shortly after completing the manuscript, I ran into a friend who had worked in the publishing industry locally. He read the book and went crazy over it. With his partnership, we self-published and promoted the book regionally. This was a true lesson in entrepreneurship as I was an author, designer, publicist and salesman rolled into one. My business partner and I would get in the car with books filling up the trunk and drive to every bookstore in a 100 mile radius of Salt Lake City—just so I could shake hands with the salespeople and give them books. Employees in the stores were mostly polite, but it wasn't until after they read the book that they got excited; we started getting calls and email asking me to come do books signings and readings and it all just snowballed from there. The book sold well enough that, with an established track record, I was able to garner the interest of a New York agent. Soon, North American rights were auctioned to Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.
Did you have a specific message that you wanted the readers to take away with them after they read ‘Letters for Emily’?
There are many. Harry’s letters are full of advice and all of it is applicable to our lives. Among other things, Harry teaches Emily how to create joy from the seemingly ordinary moments in life, how to cherish those moments. He teaches her that out of the ingredients of life we are given, we are just as capable of making a magnificent chocolate soufflé as ordinary chocolate pudding. The parting message of the book is that there comes a time in our lives when we have to forgive our parents for being human.
In addition to the lessons Harry imparts in the book, I hoped the book would inspire readers to take the time to write their own thoughts, lessons, and stories for their children and grandchildren. It was through my grandfather’s book of poems that I was able to rekindle memories of the true man, the man who loved life and cherished family. I seriously doubt that my grandfather understood the impact that his writings would have on many members of the family. It’s the same with everyone. Our children, grandchildren and generations to come will crave knowledge about us, what we were like, what made us laugh, what made us cry, what made us real. Whatever form it takes—letters, a journal, a scrapbook—I think it’s so valuable to put one’s thoughts, stories, and wisdom down on paper. I learned first hand how much a few simple words can mean to later generations.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers like yourself?
In the early stages of my writing, while I was struggling with the direction I should take, Amanda Dickson of KSL Radio gave me some advice that really hit home. She said simply, “passion finds a way.” It’s very true. If one is passionate about the things they do, life has a funny way of working out for the best. Other advice: never quit trying, never quit learning. New books are discovered by publishers every day—why not yours?