Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In Chicago for Book fo the Year Awards

In Chicago with Jennifer Szunko of ForeWord Reviews

For a writer, there are few things more thrilling and satisfying that having your work recognized. We work alone in dark rooms, muttering and moaning over our keyboards, while everyone else is outside having fun. 

It is that bad, really. Think about it. Poor us. And you are never sure whether or not what you are banging out on the blank screen will make any sense to anyone but yourself. You self-confidence all depends on your mood and how all that coffee is hitting your blood stream and if that nightmare you had last night that lingers in the air around your head is a good muse or just a terrorist.

So, when I got word that my novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, had been selected as a Finalist in a Book of the Year competition, and that the final awards would be announced in Chicago at the annual convention of the American Library Association, I was determine to be there. A couple of thousand dollars and a few terrifying airline flights later, I was.

This very nice person, Jennifer Szunko, who is with ForeWord Reviews, sponsors of the awards, found a Finalist sticker in a box under the table in her booth and let me put it on my book. Thanks, Jennifer. I've order a couple thousand more.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Brothers of the Fire Star: 2012 Book of the Year Finalist

I had just gotten back home to Virginia in early May after completing a 1,250-mile voyage from Guam to the Philippines in a forty-two foot sailboat when I got the news that my novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, had been selected by ForeWord Reviews as a finalist in their 2012 Book of the Year awards.The winners will be announced in Chicago on June 28th at the annual convention of the American Library Association. I plan on being there.

This recognition was both ironic and wonderful because during night watches on that twelve-day voyage, I spent a great deal of time staring up at the stars and in particular at the star called Antares--the heart of the constellation Scorpio, which is the "fire star" in the book. As we made our way across the great blue Pacific, steering by a modern GPS that constantly provided our position with an accuracy of a few feet, I was always aware of the mind-bending skill of the indigenous Pacific island seafarers who, since ancient times, have navigated across hundreds of miles of ocean without so much as a compass.

The novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, tells the tale of two boys, teenagers of different cultures and races, who must learn to live together and respect each other while mastering the secrets of the ancient navigators if they are to survive World War II in the islands. And it is immensely gratifying for me to think that word about the book is spreading among readers in the very islands where the book is set.

Before setting sail for the Philippines, I was on Guam for a month where I was the keynote speaker at a meeting of the International Reading Association and in the weeks following, I visited middle schools and high schools and talked to students about this rich heritage of theirs and how I came to write such a novel. It was a wonderful experience.

During the process of writing Brothers of the Fire Star, I flew back to Guam and interviewed my friend and mentor, Manny Sikau, a 7th generation master navigator or pwo from the atoll of Polowat. Here we are sitting in a canoe house or utt where proas are built and stored, and where men meet to talk about the business of navigating. Manny passed away in February, 2103, just a couple of weeks before I returned for my book tour.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Brothers of the Fire Star: The Genesis of a Novel

How do you write a novel? Slowly and with passion.

In 1997 my wife and I had been teaching in Europe for fourteen years and, although we loved life on the Continent, we had started casting about for a new adventure, preferably one that included our passion for sailing. As luck would have it, a new school system was being opened on the island of Guahan (Guam), America's outpost in the far Pacific, and we were offered jobs.

I had been writing for many years and some of my short stories had recently been published in Europe and in literary magazines in the United States, two of them winning international prizes. I had also written several novels that I had tucked away in a drawer somewhere until I could get up the courage to submit them to publishers.

As for the sailing, we had been doing that for many years. We'd sailed in different boats in the Caribbean, the Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Keys, the coast of Yugoslavia, and the Greek islands and one of our goals was to own our own boat and to live aboard. When we arrived on Guahan, we were presented with the perfect opportunity: There was a Hans Christian 33 for sale--the perfect boat in the perfect place. We bought her and moved aboard.

We named her Vatna, Icelandic for "water."

We were soon sailing her on the big, blue Pacific, learning much as we went, and having amazing adventures. It was about this time that I discovered an organization dedicated to keeping alive the skills of the ancient Pacific navigators. Traditions About Seafaring Island (T.A.S.I.) was a small group a dedicated men and women who were determined to bring those skills back to Guahan where the ancient secrets of following the "star paths" across the sea had been lost after five hundred years of colonization.

I joined T.A.S.I. and set to work learning what I could about "traditional" navigation at the feet of Manny Sikau, a seventh-generation pwo, or master navigator, from the atoll of Puluwat. I learned the parts of the proa, or outrigger canoes used by the Puluwatese, and memorized the stars that had been used by island seafarers for thousands of years to find their way across the vast Pacific. I learned about how to steer across the great Pacific swells and to understand how sea birds and marine life can help you find your way.  On one unforgettable adventure, we sailed in our own boat to the uninhabited island of Pagan, in the norther Marianas, practicing navigation as we went. I listened, I asked questions, I learned.

I review the manuscript of Brothers of the Fire Star with Manny Sikau, a Master Navigator from Puluwat atoll.

Some writers believe that it is necessary to distance yourself from a place before you can write about it. This seems to have been true with this book. In 2008, after eleven years on Guahan, we left the island, me to retire, Terry to take on a new job. We moved to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a lovely, rural place squeezed in between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. We bought a house and moved ashore, but we also bought another sailboat and a small powerboat, too. Being on the water had become necessary for a happy life.

It was then that I discovered why it is necessary to have some time and some space between a book and the books subject: Nostalgia. Once away from the tropical Pacific with its magnificent blue water, star-filled skies,  beautiful, friendly people--including many close friends--and seemingly endless opportunities for adventure, I began to get homesick and to daydream about the life we had left behind. The writer John Updike wrote that the heart of writing fiction is daydreaming and with me being nostalgic, a hopeless day dreamer, and a compulsive writer, it followed naturally that I would begin to think about beginning a novel.

Crossquarter Publishing Group of Santa Fe had published a series of fantasy novels I had written while living aboard Vatna, but now I wanted to do something different. I wanted to write a book that would pay tribute to what I considered the inconceivable skill and courage of the men who navigated across the Pacific in fragile outrigger canoes using only the stars and the sea to find their way.

I began to write, to weave my nostalgia driven daydreams into prose. What emerged is a story about two boys, Joseph, a white boy from Massachusetts who is sent to Guahan to live with his uncle after his parents die, and Napu, an island boy, also orphaned but smart in the ways of sailing and island survival. When the Imperial army of Japan invades Guahan at the outset of World War II, they escape from Guahan in a small sailboat, but now they must learn to overcome their differences and learn the secrets of the ancient navigators if they are to survive. Here is the opening paragraph of Brothers of the Fire Star when attacking Japanese war planes catch Joseph alone, out exploring in the jungle:

The boy was deep in the jungle when he heard the planes and then the distant thunder of bombs.  The earth shuddered beneath his feet and the quiet, moist air seemed to bend and stretch and then split open with the power of the concussions. For the first time in his life he felt the sharp, searing pain of fear. The war is here, he thought, it has started. It has been everywhere else in the world and now it has found us even on this tiny island in the middle of the great blue ocean.

And so the book begins: Joseph is nearly killed, shot at by a soldier as he leaps off a cliff into the jungle. At the mouth of small river, he meets Napu for the first time. Napu is preparing his small sailboat to his escape and now he resents having to take Joseph, a white boy who knows nothing about sailing or fishing, with him--but he knows he must. And so they leave at night, making their way through the gauntlet of Japanese patrol boats to a dangerous freedom on the open sea. 

At sea in our sailboat. That's Manny on the right, me on the left.

It took me nearly three years to finish it. A first draft followed by endless re-writes, a trip back to Guahan to review the manuscript with Manny and with Dr. Larry Cunningham, a noted island writer and historian, and then more re-writing and professional editing. Now, finally, on October 4, 2012, Brothers of the Fire Star was officially released by Crossquarter Publishing Group.

In Praise of Brothers of the Fire Star:

Touching, beautifully articulated.....Arvidson's prose is matter of fact, letting the story shine through relatively simple words.....The Recorder, Greenfield, MA, Dec. 15, 2012

....One of the best books I have ever read and sure to be one of the most memorable...I'll be thinking about that ending for some time before I move on....L.R., Virginia

This is a wonderful book, full of magic and majesty...His descriptions border on the lyrical, studded with gems of memorable observations. The story is so strong that I wonder at my audacity in offering my humble suggestions.  Linda Morehouse, Editor, We Build Books.com

I just can't put it down....just opened it to browse, but find I'm on page 30 already...this is fantastic....S.Y., Guam

A proa sails among the islands. It was in canoes like this that mariners, ancient and modern,  used the stars to navigate the wide Pacific.

Brothers of the Fire Star was released on October 4, 2012.