Local author Brenda Miller muses on writing
in a rainy climate
photo by Isaac Bonnell
It’s a packed night at Village Books. Nearly 80 people fill row upon row of seats that span from the business books to the gardening section. Everyone is here to see one person — she isn’t an artist or a musician or a politician.
Brenda Miller is a writer.
By local standards she is almost a celebrity. She teaches creative nonfiction at Western Washington University, she recently published her third book called “Blessing of the Animals” and she regularly draws a crowd at readings and book signings all over the Pacific Northwest.
On this particular night in early March, Miller is reading the title essay from her new collection of personal essays. The story takes place in Bellingham and the crowd seems to relish the familiar setting. Miller recites a passage where she is at a church event called the “blessing of the animals”:
“There are many familiar faces here: A former student waves to me from the back row, her dog sitting docilely at her feet. A colleague sits a few rows over, pictures of her cats clutched in her hand. Others look familiar but I can’t place them precisely; it’s a Bellingham phenomenon, where nearly everyone looks dimly familiar because you’ve seen them so often at the co-op, or at the independent movie theater, or walking in the waterfront park. For a while last year I garnered the energy to take some classes, mainly to meet new people, and wound up seeing the same five women wherever I went. At first I found it depressing, but now there’s something a little reassuring about it — this small community of the known world.”
In a way, this scene is being reenacted during the book reading. Most of the audience members already know Miller and already know each other. Copies of the new book are passed around with hellos and hugs as six degrees of separation are quickly reduced to zero.
“That’s why it was so much fun,” Miller said in an interview a few days later. “Every time I looked up there was someone from each part of my life — my yoga teacher, people from my writing group and even people I only knew on Facebook.”
Writing is a trade that can be taken anywhere, but writers are sometimes overlooked as a distinct group of working people, perhaps because they are often the solitary and soft-spoken type. But writers need a supportive community too.
In announcing Miller the night of the book reading, a Village Books employee remarked that at these types of events, “We not only get to see local authors, but we get to see the community that supports these authors.”
For Miller and for other local writers, Bellingham is that community.
The writing climate
Bellingham may not be the Hollywood of the publishing world, but it does offer an inspiring landscape for writers, Miller said.
“It’s a good climate for writing: very rainy and there are a lot of coffee shops,” she said. “I do a lot of writing in coffee shops because it’s nice to be out in the world but not forced to socialize — it’s a strange little world. And being at home can be distracting, there’s so many other things to do. I could spend all day doing errands. It’s so hard to put writing first.”
Miller said she turns to writing groups to help keep her on task. These groups often meet, no surprise, in coffee shops and activities range from talking about writing to all writing, no talking.
“It’s inspiring to know that others are writing around you,” Miller said.
Writing about life in Bellingham and meeting people at the co-op certainly appeals to local residents, but does it work for a national audience? Yes, Miller said. Bellingham is not alone in its small-town feel and readers can related to personal experiences no matter the setting or location.
“The goal for any story writer is to have a universal appeal so it makes sense anywhere,” she said.
In the process of telling a story, Miller often reveals personal details about her life: her family history, her thoughts on religion, her struggles.
“It’s interesting for me because when I’m writing I don’t think about that at all,” she said. “And then I realize that other people are going to read this. For me, I get so caught up in the crafting of the essay and the form that I forget that I’m telling people personal information.”
The right community
Village Books has been a venue for sharing those personal moments ever since it first opened in 1980. In fact, the first author event took place just three weeks after the bookstore opened, said owner Chuck Robinson.
These days, the bookstore hosts about 250 such events every year, showcasing the works of authors both local and national, Robinson said. The events range from intimate readings at the bookstore, to a packed auditorium at Western waiting to see Garrison Keillor.
Often, local authors create just as much of a stir as those on the national best sellers list.
“We see people asking for local books all the time,” Robinson said. “People are interested in other people’s stories and more interested if it’s someone they know or have a connection with, especially if its someone local.”
Author case study: Telling Joe’s story of World War II
In late 1945, just months after being rescued from his German captors by Allied forces, Joseph Moser, who grew up in Ferndale, spoke to his hometown Lions Club about his experience in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. After being shot down just 25 miles outside of Paris, Moser was captured by the Germans and spent nine months enduring the horrors of Hitler’s SS. The club members were among the first to hear Moser’s story, but as he walked out of the building he heard something that made him keep his story to himself for nearly four decades.
“I was walking out behind several men who didn’t know I was there,” Moser said. “There was one that said, ‘I don’t believe a word he said.’ So I decided that if people wouldn’t believe me, I wouldn’t talk about it.”
Moser said he had gained 50 pounds while recuperating on a military ship for two months after his rescue, so even his own mother had a hard time believing his 5-foot-6 frame had been reduced to nothing but skin and bones from starvation. Not even his wife knew the details of his captivity until 1981 when an article was written about him in The Lynden Tribune. After that he was willing to speak to a few groups, including elementary and high schools, about his experience. But it wasn’t until January 2009 the whole story was finally printed for all to read.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” said Gerald Baron, ghostwriter of “A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald.”
In September 2006 Moser’s cousin, a friend of Baron’s, convinced them to write the book. From then until December 2008, Baron, owner of Baron and Company and founder and CEO of PIER Systems Inc. in Bellingham, would get together with Moser whenever he could to interview him about his experience. The result was a 205-page book published in January by Edens Veil Media, which has been difficult to keep on the shelves of Village Books. Since its release, 226 copies have been sold, including 69 in the first half of March alone.
Baron said he wrote the book mostly for Moser and his family, but also to keep the story alive so future generations don’t forget the atrocities that were committed under Hitler’s rule. The process lasted longer than Baron expected, due to other business projects he was involved in. It hit some rough spots, too, he said.
“The challenge was that he wouldn’t initiate much so I had to pull things from him,” Baron said.
Other tough points during the process involved dealing with the sheer weight of Moser’s experience. In researching Buchenwald and listening to Moser’s stories of the inhumanity he witnessed and experienced, Baron said it was difficult for him to stomach some of the things he learned. When he read “The Buchenwald Report,” a book which provided first-hand accounts of the camp, he said he literally became sick. There were points when he had to choose what details to put in the story and which to leave out for the sake of the reader.
Baron sees the final product as more than just another World War II story. It’s a testimony to the cost of freedom and a way for him and others to express their appreciation, he said. But mostly, the importance is that Moser is finally able to share his story.
“This is very meaningful to him,” Baron said. “Joe is worth it.”