Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Friday, November 17, 2017

When the Work Gets Suffocated

Living outside the country for three years freed me up creatively. I completed my novel, Afraid of Everything, started and finished the self-help memoir, Slim Within, and wrote first drafts of another novel and a travel memoir. A very productive time for the writing!

Once I came back, it stopped. We've been in the States a year now, and I haven't worked on any of my manuscript drafts. They're stashed away, waiting.

This past year has been a whirlwind of catching up with family and doing all the things we missed out on while away, like being with our kids and our grandchildren. Earning money. Getting to the doctors and specialists and dentists.

And even then, there doesn't seem to be enough time for anything. Especially for being with my family, since I know we'll leave again before too long.

Not that I'm complaining because I'm not. I'm okay with setting aside my creative work for awhile. I don't know why that doesn't bother me like it seems to bother many other writers. Do I not care enough? Am I not committed enough?

Living a full and balanced life is what matters the most. And sometimes that doesn't include writing the next book. Besides, I'm pretty sure I'll get back to it...I always do!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Review of FAREWELL, ALEPPO by Claudette E. Sutton

Paperback:   180 Pages
Genre:  Memoir
Publisher:   Terra Nova Books (October 1, 2014)
ISBN-10:   1938288408
ISBN-13:  978-1938288401
Amazon Link: click here

The Jews of Aleppo, Syria, had been part of the city’s fabric for more than two thousand years, in good times and bad, through conquerors and kings. But in the middle years of the twentieth century, all that changed.

To Selim Sutton, a merchant with centuries of roots in the Syrian soil, the dangers of rising anti-Semitism made clear that his family must find a new home. With several young children and no prospect of securing visas to the United States, he devised a savvy plan for getting his family out: “exporting” his sons. In December 1940, he told the two oldest, Meïr and Saleh, that arrangements had been made for their transit to Shanghai, where they would work in an uncle’s export business. China, he hoped, would provide a short-term safe harbor and a steppingstone to America.

But the world intervened for the young men, now renamed Mike and Sal by their Uncle Joe. Sal became ill with tuberculosis soon after arriving and was sent back to Aleppo alone. And the war that soon would engulf every inhabited land loomed closer each day. Joe, Syrian-born but a naturalized American citizen, barely escaped on the last ship to sail for the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Japanese seized Shanghai. Mike was alone, a teen-ager in an occupied city, across the world from his family, with only his mettle to rely on as he strived to survive personally and economically in the face of increasing deprivation.

Farewell, Aleppo is the story—told by his daughter—of the journey that would ultimately take him from the insular Jewish community of Aleppo to the solitary task of building a new life in America. It is both her father’s tale that journalist Claudette Sutton describes and also the harrowing experiences of the family members he left behind in Syria, forced to smuggle themselves out of the country after it closed its borders to Jewish emigration.

The picture Sutton paints is both a poignant narrative of individual lives and the broader canvas of a people’s survival over millennia, in their native land and far away, through the strength of their faith and their communities. Multiple threads come richly together as she observes their world from inside and outside the fold, shares an important and nearly forgotten epoch of Jewish history, and explores universal questions of identity, family, and culture.


I was pretty excited to read this book and participate in its Women on Writing blog tour. The cover is compelling, with the photo of this handsome, dark-haired young man (the author's father) looking a bit lost yet brave and tough all at once.

 And the idea of Jews having lived and thrived in Syria for thousands of years-- who knew? Where did they all go? Why did they leave? Well, that last question seems obvious, considering what's been going on in the Middle East in recent times, and especially in Syria.

Not to be disappointed, I learned a great deal about the handsome man on the cover, and about the Syrian Jews. Sutton's book is part family history, part Jewish/Middle East history, and yet somehow she manages to tie all the various threads together into a cohesive whole.

At the same time, it is much like the story of many others who have come to America because of terrible conditions in their own countries.  And where, in the end, do they really belong? Reflecting on my own grandmother, the child of Norwegian immigrants in the late 19th century, she taught me that it wasn't so much their own futures they worked and sacrificed for, but for their children and grandchildren.

Sutton states in the book: "Our identification as Syrian Jews seemed defined not so much by place as by the culture they took with them."

Farewell, Aleppo is a thorough yet personal account of the author's father and his circuitous journey from Syria to China and, finally, to America. I learned so  much from it! Well worth a read, especially to history buffs and those interested in the Middle East.

About the Author:  
It’s no coincidence that family is the central focus of both Farewell, Aleppo and the work that has been the driving force of its author’s professional life.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the close-knit community of Syrian Jews all were part of Claudette Sutton’s childhood in suburban Maryland, along with her parents and siblings. Years later, as a young mother in Santa Fe, it seemed only natural to think of creating a similar kind of close support for families in her new hometown by means of her journalism training and experience.

Thus began what is now Tumbleweeds, an award-winning local publication that for over twenty years has been expanding its role in serving the city’s families. As the quarterly newspaper has grown, so have its scope and community contributions, mixing news, commentary, personal writing, advice, and activity guides—all reflecting Claudette’s vision of a community resource to help her neighbors face the challenges of parenting.

Claudette’s eloquent writing, the other great strength she combines with the paper’s wide-ranging utility, has been a door to the world for her since she was a teen-ager. As a reporter, she realized early, “You can learn about everything”—a much more appealing option after high school than the enforced specialization of college.

After three years writing for the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland, Claudette moved to New York, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research. Living in proximity to another side of her extensive family, she built a deeper understanding of the Jewish exodus from Syria that has formed the backdrop for the story she tells so movingly in Farewell, Aleppo.

The narrative chronicles her father’s youth, his odyssey across oceans and continents, and the new life he made in America. But as Claudette talked with him and researched more deeply, she saw also the essential elements of the larger tale. What began as one man’s story grew into a portrait of the history that made his journey necessary, and of how a vibrant people have preserved their community and culture through the thousands of years from biblical times to today.

Find Claudette Online:
IMPORTANT, please embed YouTube Book Trailer where possible:

"A multi-faceted biography of her father and his long-ago journey from ancient Aleppo to skyscraper America, the story of the vanished Syrian-Jewish culture in Aleppo, now a battleground in Syria's civil war, [and] a look at how that culture still survives. A treasure of a book."
-Bernard Kalb, former correspondent for the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News, moderator of CNN's Reliable Sources and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

"Sutton merges the best of family biography with relevant and fascinating historical, social, and religious knowledge. Incorporating elements of history, religious struggles, pursuit of dreams, and the strength of kinship to create a stirring tribute to the foresight of her grandfather and the strength and perseverance of his offspring, Sutton craftily weaves interesting story lines into an encouraging and intriguing narrative."
-Foreword Reviews

Claudette Sutton takes the reader on a courageous journey as she tells the story of her father, whose world changed with the winds of World War II.Farewell, Aleppo is a story of how people are shaped by their past. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to explore this rich culture that many people do not know very much about.
- Elise Cooper, Jewish Book Council

An engaging, evocative, deeply touching book that is part memoir, part history and part a personal journey....virtually a love-story of a daughter to a father.

– James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer, and Eyes on the Struggle

This book is a jewel box, and Sutton's father's shimmering memories of growing up Jewish in Aleppo, Turkey, and Shanghai are the precious jewels. I could taste the food, feel the anxiety after the founding of Israel, experience the highs and lows of life in Shanghai during the Second World War. The specificity of the Mizrahi lifestyle––which continues in America to this day–– will be of great interest to readers.

- Judith Fein, author of The Spoon From Minkowitz and Life is A Trip

Sutton manages to walk that fine, fine line of making the personal universal and the universal personal. [She] interviewed her dad over a period of nearly twenty years and did a tremendous amount of research for this book, but the sprawling story of “China Mike” is somehow concise, a tidy 155 pages in a pleasing design with photos, maps, and enough historical context to complete the reader’s understanding. We are indebted to her for this outstanding book.

- Barbara Gerber, author of "Love and Death in a Perfect World"

Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home offers the reader a graceful blend of “China Mike's” biography and a history of the Jewish people of Aleppo. When I finished Claudette Sutton's tribute, I felt I'd traveled many miles and gotten to know Miro, Son of Selim Sutton.  A true father-daughter story, Farewell, Aleppo is loving, informative and unforgettable.

-Elaine Pinkerton Coleman, author of From Calcutta with Love and The Goodbye Baby

There certainly must have been something unique about the Jews of Aleppo to have allowed them to survive there for thousands of years and preserve a sense of tradition and community in America for the last 100 years. A remarkable tale of the power of family, tradition, culture and history. Makes the current devastation of Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War all the more tragic.

- Ellen Zieselman, retired Curator of Education, New Mexico Mexico Museum of Art; Youth Director, Temple Beth Shalom

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Voice of the Writer in Memoir

This past year, ever since we came back to the States, I've been all wrapped up in work for WiDo Publishing. It's our ten-year anniversary and we are very close to having our 100th book published.

We also started a new imprint, E.L. Marker, a hybrid company that offers traditional publishing services to self-publishing authors.

It's been a crazy busy year. The only writing I've done is journaling (my personal psychotherapy) and writing emails to authors whose work I'm editing and/or preparing for publication. So many emails.

I've edited a number of memoirs this year for both WiDo and E.L. Marker, and it's got me thinking about the writer's voice. In any kind of writing, voice will attract or repel readers. But in memoir it's especially important. If you dislike the voice of the narrator, you won't keep reading, since the memoir is about the narrator.

There a few tricks of the trade in editing a memoir to make the voice more appealing. Strangely enough, one of them is to tone it down. You might think, "But why? It's about this person so why not put as much personality in there as you can? So the reader can feel like they know them?"

A good question. The entire book is about the individual, in first person, their story, but it's also about other people they've included in their story. And those other people are part of what makes the memoir whole and balanced.

Putting in too much of the writer's personality, in the form of little asides or sarcasm or other types of humor, can quickly turn the reader off. It tends to make the narrator come across as self-absorbed and thus unlikable--the last thing we want to see happen in a memoir.

If you'd like to take a look at WiDo's selection of memoirs, click on this link to our bookstore and see the tab for Memoir.

Memoir is currently my favorite genre. I can't get enough of them, which I guess is why I've chosen to edit so many lately, rather than passing them along to other WiDo editors.

How do you feel about memoir, either writing or reading them?

Friday, September 29, 2017

What Part Does Luck Play in Success?

Today I'm hosting Eric Trant as part of his WOW blog tour for his new novel, Risen. First, a little bit about this intriguing book, and then a really thoughtful and inspiring post as Eric guest blogs today on Coming Down the Mountain.

RISEN by Eric Trant

Haunted by visions of a demonic angel and sold into servitude by his father, young Alberto battles to survive the horrors of a nineteenth century Sicilian sulfur mine.

Suffering merciless brutality, Alberto must save not only himself but his deformed older brother, both pawns in their father’s mad plan to overthrow a group of wealthy landowners.

Bound by a death-debt to his hunchback master, Alberto discovers a door the miners call Porta dell’Inferno, the Door to Hell, deep within the sulfur mines. When he learns the demon-angel of his dreams stalks the caverns beyond the door, Alberto realizes a strange fate has lured him and his brother to the gates leading to the underworld.

Now Alberto must face the creature from his visions and rise to become the man his father demands him to be, or remain forever trapped in a hellish world where none escape.

Print Length: 182 Pages
Genre: Historical Supernatural Fiction
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (August 15, 2017)

Risen is available in print on

What Part Does Luck Play in Success?

Prepare for lightning

When it comes to success in any discipline, we discuss things such education, talent and experience, but something we only mention tangentially is the element of ~luck~.

Opportunity knocks softly. Fifteen minutes of fame. Every dog has its day.

And so on. We sense luck in our success and in our opportunities, but we do not openly discuss and prepare for it.

For instance, let's say you meet a well-known author-agent in a coffee shop. It is a chance meeting, and by equal chance they are open to discussing your books (they will usually trip you and run), and by monumental chance they represent books in your genre, and by God's grace they are seeking a new author for an open slot in their release schedule next year.

Would you be ready for that stroke of luck? Are you prepared for lightning to strike?

Do not break the big break

See, success requires a great deal of luck. Every successful story begins first with vision, then with hard work crafting that vision into reality, and concludes with a ~big break~ that changes everything. Whether it is building a company or publishing a book, I challenge you to find a success story that does not follow this well-grooved arc.

So, you chat with the agent. Her name is Rebecca. She is insanely pretty and kind of intimidating because she smells like the mall, is sharply dressed and well-kempt, and totes a purse that is probably more expensive than your Hyundai, and large enough to bag it.

Not really. She is an author-agent. She is wearing a workout shirt and yoga pants, no makeup, hair in a ponytail, and she has two black labs tied up outside named Joker and Puddin. She is short and a little pudgy, insanely pretty because of her eyes (avid readers have amazing eyes), and her name really is Rebecca. Call her Becki, with an 'i'. She is drinking a seventeen-syllable iced-something, and she wants to go outside to sit, so she can water the pups.

It is summer and muggy, but you follow her outside. You sit. This is your big break.

You spill your coffee on her dogs.

After the strike

But you were prepared for Becki, with an 'i'. She laughs and says it is no big deal, they love to get wet, and you thank God Almighty you ordered iced mocha instead of your usual scalding-hot Americana, another stroke of luck. A barista appears with a towel, helps you with the dogs, takes the empty cup and says she will bring you another drink, what was it you ordered?

Just a mocha, iced.

Neither of you brought your computer, and you do not carry your books around, so what do you say to her?

Well, you tell her about your books. You ~do~ have more than one book, don't you? Of course you do. You wrote several, along with some short stories, and penned at least a dozen total, not all of them published. You forget how many short stories. A bunch.

Do you have a blog? Absolutely. What about a fan page on Facebook? Not really, but you belong to some online groups, and collected a fair number of followers.

What are your sales like? Ouch. Still, you confess your sins, and she purses her bottom lip, but then says, I might be able to fix that. Tell me what you are working on next.

You pull out your elevator pitch, the one you began practicing the instant you selected a working title for your WiP.

It is tentatively called WISH. It's about a family implosion following the loss of a toddler, and focuses on the five-year-old daughter, who meets a silly little man sitting on a spring-fed well, and makes a wish she wishes she hadn't.

(That is my next piece, actually. This is what I would say to Becki.)

Go on...

Go on, Becki says.

You tell her more about WISH, describe your current release, RISEN, from WiDo Publishing, how you amped up your marketing and have now built a bit of a backlog you can leverage for plus-one sales.

Nice, she says.

Your respawned iced mocha shows up. There is a pause as the barista asks if you need anything else.

Afterward, you sip and chat, and turn the discussion away from writing and toward personal things. She has a husband who is an engineer like yourself. He is tall, though, and played basketball in college. She had to throw that in, you suppose, because you are not tall, and let's admit it, most engineers are short folks who are good at math and bad at sports. He really is an exception.

At some point, numbers and emails are exchanged, and she makes a full-request read for your upcoming WISH novel, when you finish.

Give me a month, you say.

No rush, she says. I won't be able to look at it for another fifteen weeks. I'll queue it up, though, so mark the date and don't forget me.

Luck is sudden and rare. Stay ready.

Otherwise, without all your preparation, a wet dog might be all luck remembers of you.
She says that last part over her shoulder as she leashes her pups, and how could you possibly forget her? This moment is scalded into your memory bank.

You rappel from your cloud as she walks away with her dogs, stunned that luck slapped you during your afternoon commute, thankful you stopped here and not the pub (honoring your wife's firm request), and amazed that something like this actually happened to someone like you.

Above all, though, you are thankful you were prepared when luck tapped your shoulder.

About the Author:

Eric resides in Dallas, TX with his wife and children, where he writes and manages his own business. His writing combines literary characterization with supernatural elements, all the while engaging the reader's senses with constant movement and vivid settings. His books are designed to be one-sitters, meaning they can and should be read in one (or a few) sittings, owing to the fast-paced nature of the writing.

You can visit Eric at, or see his blog at

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On Having Too Much Stuff and Getting Rid of It

There's a link going around Facebook to an online article titled: "Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents' Stuff."  Since I've been through it, both on the daughter/ daughter-in-law side as well as the mother/homeowner side, I could totally relate.

My mother and my mother-in-law were worlds apart regarding stuff and how to deal with it. Both were widows, and that's where the resemblance ended. My mother chose to downsize as much as she could, while my mother-in-law bought a larger house with more room for her possessions.

Being my mother's daughter and admiring simplicity, I am still fascinated with how my mother-in-law collected, stored, added on until it seemed she was buried under her stuff. Not that she was a junkaholic or hoarder. Her things were nice, often expensive, and usually well-organized. She had an entire room of her house for fabric, arranged like a retail fabric store. Another similar room for crafts and the supplies related to whatever crafts she'd done or planned to do. Another room for storage of food and household supplies. Two freezers held hundreds of pounds of cheese, butter, nuts and other deliciousness that would take two families a lifetime to consume.

On the contrary, my mother had as her goal to live in such a way that her daughters (the four of us) would not have to agonize over her possessions when she passed. The more she could get rid of, the happier she was. When she died, my sisters, nieces and nephews who lived nearby were able to completely empty Mom's two bedroom apartment in less than a week. My mom would have been pleased by that.

When my mother-in-law died, she had a 4000 sq foot house filled with furniture, family history documents and photos, and of course the many years worth of food storage. It took my sister-in-law a decade to completely go through everything and dispose of it one way or another.

I'm not saying one way is better than another. I think in a way my sister-in-law enjoyed her task, as she was able to spend this time going through all these things related to her mom's life and that of her family going back generations. And getting all the butter, cheese and nuts would have been nice.

But as for me, I'm more like my mom, taking pleasure in simplicity and knowing my kids won't be burdened with having to deal with piles of stuff when I'm gone. I've already done that job for them.

My husband and I currently live a very downsized existence. We got rid of nearly everything so we could leave the country three years ago. Now that we're back, neither of us want to start collecting again. Our goal is to stay free and unattached so we can pack up and go again when we feel like it.

This is our living room, a spare space furnished at very low cost. The most expensive thing we bought was the couch for $25.

I have a couple of antique wall hangings I plan on getting framed for those two bare walls. I know once we leave, my daughter will be happy to take them for her home. She's already told me where she would hang them.

We did buy the TV cabinet. My husband needed a place to keep office supplies so we got it for $15 at Restore. It's one of those brown things that nobody really wants anymore. And if they did, they'd paint it. Since painting stresses me out, I'm okay leaving it as is, although I admit it's too dark for my taste.

I paid $3.00 for the basil plant on the table. It's going to get repotted and put on the patio. And basil isn't permanent, except in beautiful Guatemala where it grows up into a year round tree of abundance. In Utah, it dies with the frost.

This was a pretty long blog post to talk about living simply. Clearly I have more words than I have stuff, which is exactly the way I like it.