The eventual life of a good story

DSC_0619Frank O Smith

By Timothy Gillis

Frank O Smith has come full circle. The Maine writer and ghostwriter has been crafting stories (his own and other people’s) for nearly 30 years, and one of the stories that started it all is finally out in book form. “Dream Singer,” Smith’s first novel, tells the story of Elijah McCloud, a Modoc Indian with the one-time gift of “dream singing,” or seeing the future through dreams, and Jackie Logan, a young runaway from Seattle. When the book was in manuscript form in 2000, it was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, an award inspired and financed by Barbara Kingsolver that goes to socially responsible literature.

“I didn’t win, but it’s been this constant sustaining wind behind me, saying you do know how to write, something I had been unable to embrace,” Smith said. He appears at Longfellow Book on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. to read from the book and discuss its long creation.

It began back in 1982, when Smith was writing a magazine story about riding freight trains, called “In Search of the American Hobo.” Smith hopped the freight cars along with the tramps, hobos, and bums (not synonymous). While on his train travels, he met Lonesome Walt, a Modoc Indian, and the inspiration for Elijah McCloud.

“I’ve been everywhere in this book, multiple times,” Smith said of his real-life travels, including a solo retreat to Glacier National Park in Montana where he camped for five days before Red Crow Mountain. During this trip, he confronted one of his fears by making him a character in the story.

“I was terrified of grizzlies, so he became this natural character,” Smith said of Ol’ Icy Eye, a portentous bear that McCloud encounters early on in the novel.

Smith moved to Maine in 1986, just after he started focusing on his fiction. “I had a couple of other books with agents, then I went back to ‘Dream Singer.’ I did a total rewrite for Thomas Dunne books (an imprint of Macmillan). The editor was disappointed with the rewrites. He wanted me to steer more towards the romance.” Unwilling to make the changes, Smith took his book and looked elsewhere.

“I wasn’t getting any response from publishers when I was trying to pitch the book two years ago,” he said. “Some friends came to me, saying ‘you need a break: what book do you want to publish?’ I said I wanted to start a small press for other writers who also needed a break.”

With their help, Smith founded Artisan Island Press, and “Dream Singer” is its first imprint. Smith’s son, Gaelen, who has had art gallery shows in San Francisco, New York, and Berlin, Germany, designed the cover of the book.

The author decided Frank Smith, as a writer’s name, was too plain. So he added the middle initial O, which stands for Orrin, although he doesn’t use a period. “People don’t know if I’m Irish or Hispanic,” he said, “if it’s Frank O’Smith or Franco Smith.”

Either way, the book speaks its own powers with a quest narrative similar in mood and imagery to Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” One follows the chase as McCloud and Logan try to find a killer before he finds them. It’s a novel that reads like a fine wine, the fuller the flavor for having been written, edited, and rewritten over so many years. He credits his wife, Dale Stephenson, for her unending support through all that time.

“She has blossomed into this absolute life companion that has backed me,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without her. My writing craft grew out of this book, my love of language. I’m very pleased.”

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Tragedies on two different levels

Charles Graeber_tsunami_credit Giulio DiSturcoGraeber in post-tsunami Japan

By Timothy Gillis

New York Times bestselling author Charles Graeber will be at The Portland Club on Wednesday evening, Nov. 12, to talk about “death and destruction on two different levels,” he said. He was in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and earthquakes and wrote about the experience for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Graeber also spent ten years investigating the crimes of Charles Cullen, a nurse responsible for the deaths of perhaps as many as 400 patients while in his care.

“After the Tsunami: Nothing to Do But Start Again” (published in April 2011) and “The Good Nurse” (a non-fiction work from 2013) are two completely different tragedies, occurring in different parts of the world with different antagonists (nature and a homicidal nurse, respectively), but each work finds in Graeber a storyteller who immerses himself in his subjects.

In spring of 2011, Graeber spent time in the ruined city of Kamaishi, chronicling life and death in the tsunami zone of northern Japan. His reportage of one family’s survival became a cover story. At his Portland Club talk, he will present photos and short digital films of life in the tsunami zone. Graeber earned the Overseas Press Club of America Ed Cunningham Award for Best International Press Coverage of 2012 for his tsunami writings.

“I was asked by my Bloomberg editor to go to Japan after the tsunami, and I thought, ‘Hell, no!’ It still seemed like a dangerous place, still with earthquakes, but I bought camping supplies and a Geiger counter,” he said. “I couldn’t help it, but it reminded me of Godzilla.”

In “The Good Nurse,” Graeber encountered a different kind of monster. Cullen was a ICU nurse who kept losing jobs for erratic behavior and mistakes filling prescriptions, but somehow he kept finding new work in a medical system in need of those willing to cover nights and weekends and blind to a pattern of bad behavior.

In his research, Graeber discovered that the institutional blindness was self-inflicted. The book is a thrilling account of a madman’s perverse methods, coupled with the heroic work of a couple of cops who set out to catch him and soon found themselves fighting against a medical community intent on protecting itself from liability.

In a book about an uber-villain, the reader’s rage is assuaged to find heroes in the form of Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin, the cops who caught Cullen, and Amy Loughren, his friend and co-worker who realized his ghastly crimes and helped catch him.

Graeber said his investigation into the story started when he saw a small item in the paper about “The Angel of Death” who was attempting to donate a kidney from jail.

“It seemed like a simple story, a weird story of a rogue nurse, a misguided mercy killer,” Graeber said. “I’d finished a story for New York magazine and didn’t think I wanted to do another. I knew Cullen wasn’t talking to anybody, families of the victims or the press. I wrote him a letter, worked on it for a long time. I was interested in this seemingly paradoxical situation where this killer was going to donate a kidney that was going to save a life. He wrote back. I was really surprised. We started a correspondence, and then I began meeting with him in secret (from other press). I quickly discovered that the simple story was more complicated, about a system that moved him along.”

Mary Lund, the risk manager at Somerset Medical Center, lied to police about their records on patient history, according to the book. She still works in the field and has been promoted, Graeber said.

Two key breaks in the police case against Cullen came when it was discovered that the Poison Control Center had concerns about Cullen and had recorded their conversations with Somerset Medical Center, in which the center said they’d investigated internally but refused to report the suspicious deaths of at least four patients to police. And another big turn took place when Loughren agreed to work with police to catch Cullen.

“Amy was my big break, too,” Graeber said. “Nobody knew she existed. Her perspective as a civilian, on the ground, was closer to my point of view and to the readers’. The detectives were used to death, as day-to-day stuff. Even though she was a nurse, she was not used to homicide.”

Graeber is looking forward to his talk at The Portland Club, where he is a now a member. He spends a lot of time in Maine, visiting friends. His girlfriend lives in Harpswell. He had hoped that, for his next writing project, he could avoid the night shift in New Jersey and write about a hero, “but I have to admit I’m going back into the dark side.”

Graeber, a former Nantucket Beacon journalist, is a five-time Best American Writing-anthologized and National Magazine Award nominated National Geographic Adventure and Wired Contributing Editor and contributor to publications such as Outside, The New Yorker, GQ, and The New York Times. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.theportlandclub.com.