Author Interview: How one mother created a tribute to her son

Pat Stone’s life changed in 2006. That’s when her son, Alex, took his own life at just nineteen years old. In the wake of questions and grief, Pat discovered that he’d left behind a trunk of writings, poetry and drawings that revealed his inner thoughts.

Now, more than 10 years later, Pat has compiled selections from Alex’s volume of work in This Is Me: The Life and Writings of a Young Poet. It is a thoughtful gallery of photographs, school assignments, notes and poetry that retraces his steps from age seven to the night he died. In it, friends and family reminisce about the profound impact of a much-loved son, brother, nephew, uncle, friend, and—above all—free spirit.    

Pat sat down with us on what would have been Alex’s 30th birthday to share what it was like to create a tribute to her son.       

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It’s been more than 10 years since Alex died. Why did you decide to tackle this project this year?

My motivation for this project was part mystical and part guilt.

The mystical part happened when I was spending a week in the mountains of New Mexico. I felt pulled to the fact that I was the only one who would dig through the trunk of Alex’s writings. I asked myself, “Are these writings and drawings just things that a mother will read?”

The guilty part came from knowing that it was up to me to compile Alex’s work, even if only for his family and friends.

Alex left a trunk full of journals of his writings and drawings. How did you decide what to include in the manuscript?

The first cut was made by Mark Dossert, an editor for a Houston writing center called Writespace. Mark edited a three-ring binder full of typed poems down to a version that was readable by someone other than Alex’s mother. He gave me confidence in knowing that many of Alex’s writings are useful to a wider audience than just his family and friends.

Then my publisher, Ella Ritchie, went through the edits and pulled some of them to the book. We decided to include Alex’s early years, so I was happy to include one piece of writing in particular. It’s framed in his room and says, “My dog has onle three legis.” I like this one because when Alex was born, we had two Weimaraners and two cats. So it was no surprise that his first composition would include our Weimaraner, Lucy.

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Ella and Pat sift through Alex’s work in a collaboration session.

We see Alex’s work mature over time, from his elementary years to college years. We laughed at his young, 7-year-old threat to give a “nukkle sam winch” to anyone who messes with his mom. And we appreciated many of his later, darker pieces, especially “The Black Sky” and “Rest.” Do you have a favorite piece?

My favorite piece is “Be More Aware.” In it, he says, “Practice on strangers. How to be more compassionate to people we don’t know. . . . Think outside yourself.”

It hangs in the bathroom where it gets seen frequently.  It shows the innate goodness and compassion he had for people who are easy to judge and discount.

You did more than compile Alex’s work. You also took the time to round up reflections from family and friends. Why was this important to you?

The reflections from Alex’s friends and teachers add to my understanding of my son. I’m not the only one that feels this way. . . . When one of his friends read Alex’s manuscript, she commented that it explained some things about Alex that she didn’t know.

I have to admit that the timing of asking for reflections couldn’t have been worse. I asked during the holiday season. I cajoled and set deadlines to try to publish his book by Alex’s 30th birthday.

But I wasn’t thinking of the emotions that I was asking them to relive. It was my project at that time. I finally realized how selfish that was and extended the deadlines to “whenever and whatever.” After the printing deadline passed his 30th birthday, I relaxed. I decided to wait even longer to gather reflections from more people.

I’m so glad I waited. Their reflections have become the heart of Alex’s book. To me, gaining understanding may be the bigger purpose of This Is Me.

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The content isn’t the only thing that is meaningful. Tell us about the book cover.

Every element represents Alex. The title is a line from one of his poems. It’s bold and direct, like he was. Then we narrowed the cover image to several that we liked, and we went with one in which his face is half-hidden, like Alex was. He was private. The geometric design in the background is from one of his drawings.

The title is fitting for his work. In fact, much of Alex’s writings are dark, which made this project an emotional undertaking for everyone involved, especially for you. How did you cope?

Yes, there were many days that frustration and emotion took over.

I felt frustration over trying to make sense out of random writings and the timing of writings . . . and the never far-away emotions of what I could have done differently. The obvious pain he shows in the writings from 1997 to 2000 were the hardest to read, especially the apology note he wrote the night he died. It was also difficult to look at the photograph of him smoking a cigarette.

Even though 10 years have passed, these things bring back some old feelings like anger and disappointment. But I put them in the book because I wanted to be accurate. This was the real Alex.

Ultimately, I just kept going back to the last note Alex wrote to me: “Mom, I love you. Your son, Alex. Please be strong.”

It does take strength to publish, particularly a project like yours. Do you have any advice for others who are considering publishing a tribute to a family member or friend?

I don’t feel like I have any expertise to share. The universe just aligned for me.  I had the good fortune to reconnect with Elizabeth White-Olson, the founder of WriteSpace, who opened her heart and home to me when I arrived with a 3” binder full of typed pages. She introduced me to Mark Dossert, an editor at Writespace. And then when I asked what the next step was, she showed me the Stellar Communications Houston website and said, “This one is not the least expensive route to take, but you and Alex would be in good hands.” It’s like I fell into a vat of chocolate.

Was anything about the book publishing process surprising to you?

The most surprising thing about this process has been the details. I now appreciate little things like front matter and back matter, the size of a book, the font design, and whether or not to indent text. All of these details make an enormous difference in how a book looks and how appealing it is to read.

What has been the most difficult thing and the most rewarding thing about the process of publishing Alex’s work?

The only difficult part was when I realized I had deleted the first table of contents, which was organized chronologically. The editor suggested that we rearrange the manuscript so that the tone of the work flows from light to dark. But later we reconsidered the organization and decided to return to a chronological arrangement, so I had to recreate the timeline.

The most rewarding part has been my relationship with Ella. She made me feel like Alex’s book was her only project. She was always calm, promptly responding to every question and making a point of letting me talk first. She also asked for my feedback, pointing out things that were options or personal choices with a sense that she truly valued what I thought. She understood the feelings that accompany each piece of writing as only a mother could. I’ll miss our emails and visits on the phone.

What do you hope readers will take away from This Is Me?

I hope readers who didn’t know Alex will find a kinship with some of his work. Some of his ideas are universal, and some of the topics he wrote about 10 to 12 years ago are relevant today. I hope for a greater understanding of kids labeled “troubled” or “lazy” and try to see the possibility of goodness they may be hiding.

For Alex’s family and friends, I hope This Is Me will expand their understanding of him by seeing different perspectives shown by the other reflections. His work was not widely known by even his closest friends and family. He’s grown in some people’s minds from being thought of as a “smart aleck” to “smart Alex.” For that shift in perspective, this book has served its purpose.

Thank you, Pat, for your dedication and candor throughout this interview and the entire publishing process. You’ve created quite a tribute to Alex!

We invite family, friends, and readers to purchase the book here.

Pat and EllaElla Ritchie (left) is the founder of Stellar Communications Houston, a business communications and book publishing team that brings clarity, quality, and integrity to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook, or check out the website for more information.

Pat Stone (right) is the compiler of This Is Me: The Life and Writings of a Young Poet, on behalf of her son, Alex Ware. Contact her at patstone87@gmail.com.

 

 

Author interview: Bill Herrington pens a tribute to city leaders

contraflow-cover-mockup-frontEleven years ago today, Bill Herrington’s world turned upside down. That was the day that Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic storms in U.S. history, whirled into New Orleans, Louisiana. The tropical storm breached the protective levee system that surrounded the city, flooding 80% of the city and killing about 1,400 people.

In his new release, Contraflow, corporate banker and first-time author Bill Herrington tells about the lives, businesses, and entire cities that were temporarily reversed and permanently altered by the storm – and of the unforgettable humanitarian response that emerged in Houston, Texas. The book is packed with 70 photos and several endorsements from former mayors, senators, and other leaders who have rallied around his story. It is the winner of the 2017 IPPY bronze for Best Regional Nonfiction (South U.S.).

On this 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Bill tells us why and how he wrote the book.

Q: Bill, several books have been written about Hurricane Katrina. Why did you want to tell your particular story?

Yes, there are worthy books out there about Hurricane Katrina. But I knew that I had witnessed extraordinary leadership on a scale that most people will never see. I couldn’t get it out of my head – I kept mentioning to others that a book should be written about it. As I thought about my unique experience, I realized that I wanted to write the book myself.

Mostly, I felt strongly about paying tribute to people in both Louisiana and Texas who went far beyond any reasonable expectation of helping total strangers in need, people like Father Dan Lahart of Strake Jesuit and former mayor Bill White in Houston. I don’t want their efforts to be forgotten.

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Bill (left) and his son, Chris (right), pose with Father Dan Lahart (middle) at Strake Jesuit in Houston, Texas.

In the Preface of the book, I go into more detail about the other reasons I wrote the book. One was telling about the impact of the storm on the entire community. Rich, poor, young, old, all skin colors, ethnicities, and religions – every economic and social sector of the community were all suddenly thrust into a new, non-exclusive class of people who were vulnerable in ways we had never even imagined.

Another reason was to recognize the social and educational institutions that served as temporary pillars in our life. I now realize the importance of educational resources in times of crisis, especially for disadvantaged youth.

In a way, I almost felt a sense of obligation to write the book.

Q: Our graphic designer, Jamie, collaborated with you to produce a beautiful cover. Tell us about the significance of your design.

I chose the title because readers who are familiar with the term “contraflow” will understand that it’s about a hurricane, and readers who are unfamiliar may be curious enough to find out more. I also included the map of New Orleans and Houston with Interstate 10 to immediately convey the important connections between the two cities.

Q: Your book touches on historical, social, and economic dynamics of New Orleans and Houston, but you also tell about the personal experiences of your family. Some of them are meaningful and intimate, like the first glance of your flooded home. And some are quite amusing, like the morning your wife insisted on driving back to New Orleans with you despite your protests. How does she and your family feel about the book?

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Bill and his wife, Frances

I’m glad to hear that you think parts of it were amusing. Frances and our children are happy that I recorded these events for history and for our family. We’re also relieved that it’s finished! Frances and I are very private people, and the book exposes us in ways that make us uncomfortable. But I wanted the reader to make a personal connection to our family and other real people who endured the storm so that the significance of the leadership witnessed was obvious and memorable. So even though the storm was such a catastrophic event, the book isn’t only about tragic loss. I tell the uplifting stories, the absurd circumstances, and yes, even the humorous events that occurred.

Q: How did you determine what to include and what not to include in the book?

When I started, I actually did not intend to write a complete book. I only wanted to record, as precisely as possible, certain key events. So, in terms of what I included, I initially only wanted to record several events for my family so that I wouldn’t forget them later in my life. But in writing the story, I realized that the only way I could convey the importance of these key events was to provide the history, timeline and context leading up to them.  So, the book is a collection of significant pre- and post-storm stories and the context around them that makes the sections relevant.

In terms of what I didn’t include, a number of tales did not make it into the final version because they were either too sad, or too controversial, or even risqué. In fact, Frances and I had a couple of disagreements in that regard.  In the end, though, I think we came to the right conclusions about the content.

Q: One of the most compelling parts for us was the “Lost Children of Katrina.” The difficult experiences of these children really impacted us. Why was it important for you to tell about them?

It’s hard to convey just how difficult this period was for families impacted by the storm.  As I explain in the book, even families with resources, like mine, experienced extreme difficulties. To this day, I’m still haunted by the memories and stories of other families who were not as fortunate as we were, especially in terms of avoiding a disruption in their children’s education. For this reason, Frances and I intend to dedicate more of our time, money and energy toward this cause, including any proceeds that may be generated from this book.

Q: How do you hope to make an impact with the book?List of institutions framed

I’d like Houstonians to have a sense of pride in what they accomplished . . . not a sense of regret that they got involved with helping after Katrina, which I sometimes hear.  And I’d be very happy if I generate some goodwill for some of the institutions that helped New Orleanians in their hour of need. I included a list of them on the last page of the book if readers want to contribute in some way.

Q: As a first-time author, what would you say has been the most surprising part of the writing and publishing process?

I had suppressed many painful memories from the storm. I learned that writing can be a very therapeutic exercise, however difficult it may be. I also learned that writing a book is a challenging undertaking, and I now have a much greater respect for authors.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about writing a book?Back cover

If you have a passion for a particular topic, pick up your pen and start writing. You will likely get discouraged along the way and maybe put down your pen for a while. But if you are thoughtful and patient, the end result is very satisfying.  Of course, a good editor is a critical piece as well!

Bill, we appreciate your hard work in paying tribute to some amazing leaders and institutions.

To find out more about Bill and his book, please check out the following:

Purchase the book

Share the press release

View photos from the book signing

Read the LinkedIn article

Ella7_croppedElla Ritchie is the founder/owner of Stellar Communications Houston, a business communications and book publishing team that delivers quality, integrity, and reliability to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook, or check out the website for more information.

David Ivester

David Ivester of Author Guide handles all media inquires for Contraflow. David is our author advocate, publicist, and marketing consultant.

The truth behind Mary A. Pérez’s autobiography

You may know Mary A. Pérez as the author of Running in Heels: A Memoir of Grit and Grace, her incredible true story of survival and forgiveness against all odds.

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The author chatting with a new fan at a Kroger book signing

If you don’t, then let us fill in you in. Somewhere between stealing cold cuts from stray cats and watching a stranger leave her mother’s bed after breaking in through their bedroom window, Mary figured out that her family was dirt poor. Worse than her empty stomach, she was hungry for acceptance and love in the shadows of her mother’s choices and on through an abusive marriage.

Running in Heels: A Memoir of Grit and Grace is Mary’s promise of hope for anyone who was abandoned as a child, for anyone who woke up hungry and went to bed hungrier every day, and for every wife who has loved a husband who leftFront cover bruises on her heart and on her body.

We’ve just released her 412-page second edition, which is updated with more information and packed with discussion questions for book clubs. In this author interview, Mary Ann tells us what happened when she kicked open her past for the world to read – and what her family really thinks about the book.

Q: Mary Ann, the dedication page to your mother is one of the best we’ve read:

To Mama

In wanting to be better, do better, and become wiser, I realized that I had a lot to learn and am not without my own share of flaws. You did the best you knew to do. It can’t be all bad—just look at me now. I love you then, I love you now. Forever your little girl.

It’s even more meaningful after reading your book. How does your mother feel about your book today? And how did you decide how much to reveal about her and the other important people in your life?

My mother loves the book. She’s very proud of me.

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A proud evening for Mary’s mother (middle seated) after a book reading with residents at her apartment complex

 

But when my mother first found out that I’d be writing my autobiography, she asked, “Will you blame me for everything?”

I told her, “No. No I will not.”

You see, this was never about airing our dirty laundry. I have no vendetta. There’s no value in bitterness.

When I began writing, I had already reached a point of healing and forgiveness. It took work, but that’s the only reason I was able to put my raw memories to paper – especially those memories that had me sobbing. I couldn’t have written them without inner healing.

The reason I reveal certain details is so that my readers can understand my mother’s frame of mind. She was child-like, both mentally and emotionally. Our roles have always been reversed.

But the writing process was humbling. It was easy to write about my mother during the years that I was a child. However, the writing became harder as I wrote about my teenage years. That’s when I started making my own choices – and my own mistakes.

I don’t have the answers to it all. But I do know this: My mother loved me in her own way. And I love her.

Q: How has your autobiography affected other people?

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Enjoying a fun moment after a presentation for the Cinco Ranch Ladies Book Club

My children couldn’t wait to finally get the book and read it. They loved it. And they loved actually being able to hear our family’s voices across the pages.

The more surprising thing is the reaction of strangers. When I wrote my story, I hoped that the hardships I’d experienced counted for something, but I wasn’t certain. I’m discovering that people are so receptive. They tell me that they are touched and inspired.

Their reaction touches me. Once upon a time, I felt ashamed. I felt that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t worthy. But today I have a voice. I am better and stronger.

Q: What is your message today?

I want people to know that no matter what life dictates, you don’t have to be a product of your environment. You can do better, be better.

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Lenda Crawford shares how Mary’s autobiography touched her

 

Yes, you may face hard knocks, but you don’t have to drown in them. Don’t blame your lack of education or lack of money. Don’t allow bitterness into your heart. You can overcome these things.

Surround yourself with people who lift you up. I was blessed to meet a man who did not see my failures. He saw me as a strong, independent woman. And that’s who I’ve become today.

Q: What advice do you have for others who are considering writing about their own lives?

I have three pieces of advice.

back coverFirst, jot down your memories – whatever comes to mind. You can analyze them and add details later. Just get them down first.

Second, know that you will eventually need proofreading and editing.

Third, be true to yourself. Don’t let others try to change your story to make it more sensational. Everyone has a voice, and your story is enough.

Thank you for your honesty and  insight, Mary Ann! To find out more about Mary Ann and her book, we invite you to:

Purchase the book

Share the press release

Visit Mary’s website

Ella and Mary

Ella Ritchie (pictured left) is the founder/owner of Stellar Communications Houston, a business communications and book publishing team that delivers quality, integrity, and reliability to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook, or check out the website for more information.

Mary A. Pérez (pictured right) is a first-time author of Running in Heels: A Memoir of Grit and Grace. She was born in the Bronx, raised in Miami, and now resides in Texas. Of Puerto Rican descent, she is blessed to be the mother of four grown children, “Mimi” to two gorgeous grandchildren, and wife (the second time around) to a phenomenal man for more than twenty years. Contact Mary to book a speaking event, book club presentation, or book signing.

Author Interview: Don Cyphers

 

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I Must, $13 (Stellar Communications Houston, May 2016).

Don Cyphers recently returned from the 2016 Word Conference in San Francisco, one stop along his book tour for I Must. The 70-page teaching tool provides pastors, ministers, and teachers of the Word with practical observations and lessons from I Kings 13 to fulfill their purpose. We caught up with the author and pastor this week to talk to him about what it’s really like to write a book, work with an editor, and fulfill a purpose in life.

Q: Don, we loved your real-life stories in helping us understand your lessons, especially the unfortunate story about cutting a lawn for barely any pay! How is this memory significant for you?

Oh, yes. That was a long time ago, but I remember it well. A friend of mine had offered me $30 to cut his yard. I trusted him, so I drove to his address. But when I got there, I saw that he owned about two acres! I thought, Wait a minute! I can’t cut all that with my regular push mower!

But he reminded me of my promise to cut his yard. So, I started.

As I was pushing, it got hotter and became rough. I tried to look at it as exercise. After a couple of hours, I took a break and went to a Dairy Queen. I wondered, How in the world can I do this? I wanted to leave.

But the Lord said, No, you finish that job. So, I went back. In all, it took me four hours to cut that yard.

When I finally got back home, my wife met me at the door with our baby in her arms. She told me we had run out of diapers and milk. I was hot and exhausted, and then this. Talk about frustrating!

But I’m glad I went back to cut that yard. You see, as I stood there, looking at my wife and my baby, I realized something. All I had was $30 in my pocket, but it was just enough to go to the store and get exactly what we needed.

I finished the job, and it allowed me to take care of my family that day. Forty years later, that’s still my consolation.

I Must is all about finishing what we start. Jesus said in Luke 2:49: “I must be about my father’s business.” He created man to stand up in the starting and in the finishing, no matter how big or small. You, me, society – everything is better when we stick to our promises. The devil will say, You’re a liar. You won’t make it. But that’s why God sent himself – to start the walk of salvation and finish it, for mankind’s sake.

What was the most unexpected part of writing your book?Back cover blog ramed

Time.

Yep. Unless you’re a genius and can do fast work, it can’t be done overnight. Especially when you’re dealing with God. It’s meticulous, precise, grinding. And then you have to work with the people who read it. I thank God for my editor, Bradley.

Q: Ah, we’re fans of W. Bradley Wright with The Neuvale Group. What was it like to work with an editor?

Bradley added things here and there, came up with suggestions, and took it to others to look at. He was the one to steer and say, I think we need to go this way or that way. Besides those basics, there were two main things we dealt with.

The first was our age difference: I’ll be 60 years old this year; Brad is 28 years old. I’d put words on paper that he couldn’t relate to because of this difference. For example, I say, “Icebox.” He says, “Fridge.” He helped me relate to a younger generation.

The second was our differences in Biblical understanding. We wrestled with some things so that we could make it all come together for the book. What was so amazing was that he was going through a spiritual change during this process. He was living what he was reading, and God was showing him things spiritually, giving him understanding. And for me, I thought I’d studied, but the more I dug, the more I learned.

For both of these reasons, we really worked well together and balanced each other out. We were like Martin and Lewis. Freak and Frack. When you get a combination like this, you run with it.

Q: Our formatter and graphic designer, Elena Reznikova, laid out your custom cover art, which was created by artist Robert Jones. Tell us about its significance.

A while back, a friend bought me a picture of golden gates. I fell in love with it and have it hanging behind my pulpit. So when the time came to come up with a cover design, I contacted the artist, Robert, who lives near me in the Austin/San Marcos area.

I explained to Robert that the book is about trying to reach the end of a mission. The road is good but troubled and winding, like a snake, and the Devil will try to stop us from getting there. Robert painted this design for the book, and he even gave me a small drawing of it to frame.

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Author and Pastor Don Cyphers

Q: What is your best piece of advice for someone who is thinking about writing a book?

I have two pieces of advice.

First, you have to make a commitment. Many people talk about writing a book, but few actually see it to the end. Some people are shocked when they find out my book is published.

Second, don’t have so much pride that you won’t ask someone for help or suggestions.

Q: That’s great advice! What’s next for you?

I hope to travel the world, if it’s God’s will. Traveling is educational – it stretches the mind. I want to reach more people through my book. I’ve had people tell me, “I’ve preached I Kings 13, and I’ve talked about I Kings 13, but I’ve never seen it the way you put it to paper.”

It was an absolute pleasure to work with Don and Bradley in publishing I Must. We welcome you to contact Don if you’d like to order a copy of his book, to schedule a speaking engagement or book signing, or to visit his church, Strait Gate Fellowship Baptist Church in Elgin, Texas.

Don Cyphers

Email: preacher_cyp@yahoo.com

Phone: 512-281-9410

Ella7_croppedElla Hearrean Ritchie is the owner of Stellar Communications Houston, a business communications and book publishing team that delivers quality, integrity, and reliability to nonfiction authors, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and federal government agencies.  Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out the website for more information.