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Hello everyone, it's me, Wes Oleszewski, writing about myself in the first person rather than the third person... for a change.
Yep- I'm the guy with the real long Polak name who has written two dozen books, is a former airline captain and corporate jet pilot, Emmy nominated, devil-may-care dude from the wrong side of the Saginaw River. (English teachers- you may now red-pen that line).
I'm often asked how it is that I came to author all of these books. It is a good question, especially when it comes from folks who want to become authors. My answer, quite frankly is somewhat metaphorical. Normally I just shrug and say; "Hand of God," because there is really no other way to explain the chain of ultra-unlikely events that led me here. Thus, I'll detail here just how it all came about (plus some other fun stuff) and let you see for yourself.
When I was in the second grade, my teacher gave some startling news to my parents; "Wes can't read." It was recommended that I be taken to the schoolboard headquarters and see the "reading specialist." Now, in 1964 having to go someplace to see a "specialist" of any sort was a potentially disgraceful event- neighbors would gossip about it and relatives would whisper about "that kid." So, my parents took me "downtown" and the lady reading specialist kindly greeted me and escorted me into a big room where I was told to wait. The room was filled with books of all sorts, stacked and scattered everyplace and on one wall there was a large mirror. What I did not know was that standing on the other side were my parents and the "specialist." I was probably in there about 90 seconds and I was bored, so I picked up a book on the Boeing 707 and started to read it. The specialist told my folks, "See, he's reading at a sixth grade level. He can read- he just doesn't like Dick and Jane." It was then that they learned the difference between "Can't read" and "Won't read" I still would refused to read aloud in school and because of that I was in the "low reading group" all through elementary school- I even flunked the third grade based, in part, on the fact that I refused to read (to this day, I refuse to read aloud my own work- so don't ask). Surely, I was headed for illiteracy- thought the teachers at Nelle Haley Elementary School. In fact, to this day I have one aunt who tells everyone that I'm totally illiterate and I "...faked my way..." through the best aviation school on the planet as well as through all of the FAA testing required to become an airline captain, plus the authoring of two dozen books. No kidding folks.
When I graduated from high school, I could read and write, but my grammar and especially spelling skills were simply awful. I spelled most words the way they sounded and punctuation... who needed it? People who got letters from me must have thought I was a dolt.On August 2nd, 1977, I purchased my first book about Great Lakes shipwrecks, "Ships and Men of the Great Lakes" by Dwight Boyer, at the Novi Mall. I never dreamed that I would one day write my own book. Still, I'd always had a passing interest in lake freighters and after hearing Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on the radio for more than a year, I wanted to know more about these lakeboats. The first chapter that I read was "Stranger on a Liferaft," the story of Dennis Hale surviving the wreck of the DANIEL J. MORRELL. I was fascinated by the story. Of course I also never imagined that I would one day meet Dennis Hale and I would never have dreamed that he would become my close friend, yet both later came to pass. Prior to his passing away it just knocked me out on the occasions when my phone would ring and it was Denny calling just to say "What's goin' on?" Just a few weeks after I bought that book, I left for college in Florida and a career in the aviation industry. Although I would be steeped in the science of aviation, I took Boyer's book with me.
Once at college at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, two things rapidly became clear- first, I would have to spend a lot of years working my way to pay for my education and second, my lack of spelling and grammar skills were not going to cut it at the university level. My greatest aid was the cartoon strip that I started in the student newspaper, the Avion, it helped a lot. The entire campus was reading what I was writing every week- I needed to work hard to correct my grammar and spelling ills. The strip was a hit and did well in preparing me for the later attention that I would receive as an author. Folks were always coming up and saying "Yer' great," "I love this!" and so on. The key was not to let it go to my head- they liked my product, my little cartoon character, not necessarily me personally. I learned quickly to simply smile and nicely say "Thank you, I appreciate that," and then go and write the next cartoon. The old adage "If you think you're special, stick your finger into a glass of water. When you pull it out, if there is still a hole left there... you're special, otherwise, you're just like everyone else." always kept me humble. The cartoon strip ran for the entire ten years that it took for me to work my way through college, even though I was out of school working to get back in 60% of the time.
While working as a hangar rat, moping floors and emptying trash cans at MBS Airport's Hangar #6 in the autumn of 1979, I was in the break-room talking with Gary Dice, one of Dow Corning's corporate pilots. He was saying that work had been slow for him- a week and a half had gone by since he'd last flown a trip. I asked "So, what do you do when you're not flyin'? Do you you have to come in and work in an office or somethin'?" He looked at me and frowned, "Office?" he half snarled, "Shit no. I'm at home playin' with my trains." Then he thoughtfully asked what I did when I was away from the airport. I replied that I had some model planes and books about aviation as well as my aviation cartoons that I drew. He then gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard. He said, "Considering the path you're on, you'd better find an interest away from aviation or you're gonna burn out..” It was a tip that I followed and it led me into Great Lakes maritime history.
From that 1979 autumn onward, I attempted to get every book I could find that concerned the big boats of the lakes and accumulate a library of that material. To add to that I started reading the microfilms of old newspapers at the libraries in Saginaw and Bay City and burning off copies of interesting articles. Soon I had every book written by Boyer, Bowen, Ratigan, John Greenwood and one of my favorite authors- Fred Stonehouse. Then in the summer of 1986 I was preparing to go back to college and working two jobs; one as a fill-in delivery driver for Fox Photo and the other as an evening sales clerk at a nautical gift shop in Saginaw. One slow evening in the nautical shop I was looking at their book rack and I noticed that I had every title in their rack. No one was producing anything new. It struck me that, if no one was going to come out with something new… why don’t I do it? The following day, I took my Great Lakes files, a big yellow legal pad and a pencil with me on my Fox Photo route and during my lunch hour I began writing my first book.
Writing that first book was a bit like the scene from the old Gilligan’s Island TV show- where Gilligan makes a set of wings out of feathers and jumps off a hut flapping them and hovering in the air. The Skipper than comes out and shouts “Gilligan! You can’t fly!!” Gilligan responds “I can’t?” and the Skipper shouts “NO!” Gilligan then replies “Oh,” and crashes to earth. Well, there was no Skipper to tell me I couldn’t write a book… so I just started it. As fall came, I returned to college and spent my free time writing my stories with pad and pencil. It so happened that during that same time I met and got engaged to my wife Teresa. By the following summer I was very busy finishing college, but Teresa had the summer off. To keep busy she took my long-hand text and transcribed it into computer text in the student newspaper office. I had two of the English professors read it over and by late summer of 1987 I had a real manuscript. I printed off two copies and then mailed one to, who I considered to be the dean of Great Lakes publishing at the time, John Greenwood. My manuscript was promptly rejected and returned with a hand-written note saying that it “requires extensive editing and a large quantity of photos…” all of which I was expected to provide. I was fairly crushed and placed the second copy of the manuscript on a closet shelf- I felt like the Skipper had shouted “No!” up at me. For the next three years that manuscript would rest- meanwhile events far away from it and me would take place that would shape the future.
In the summer of 1990 I was working on getting my flight instructor’s certificate and one day, on a lark, I came across my manuscript. I considered that perhaps someone other than Greenwood may consider it. Looking in the back of one of Stonehouse’s books I saw the address for his publisher, Avery Color Studios in Au Train, Michigan. I picked up the phone and called “information” and got Avery’s phone number. Calling them I asked the lady who answered the phone if they accepted manuscripts from un-published authors. She said that they did. I mailed it off. Now, what I did not know then, and in fact would not know until several years later when Fred Stonehouse filled me in on “the back story,” was that my “whim” had been perfectly timed. You see, Ron Avery had gone out of business and Fred Stonehouse, their primary author, had left the company. Ron’s daughter Anita, however, decided that she was going to take Avery and make a go of it. There was just one major problem… her major author, Fred Stonehouse, was gone. That was when I made my phone call “on a whim.” When my envelope with the manuscript arrived in the mail, Anita thought she was getting a bunch of legal pads written in pencil (which was how it started out), but instead what she got was a complete book- ready to go; exactly what the company needed at that moment in time.
I waited for my rejection letter from Avery for a couple of weeks. I had not mentioned to my wife or anyone else that I had sent in the manuscript. Finally, one day I just decided to get it over with and call Avery and get my rejection over the phone. Anita answered, I told her who was calling and she said, “It’s amazing that you should call right now. I have a contract for you in the typewriter… how does $1,500 sound?” I said “Just fine.” And she filled me in on the process ahead and later asked when I could have the next book to her? I told her that it was already fully composed and it would be in the computer as soon as I bought one with the money they were paying me. I’d been working on it for the past two years on legal pad. When we finished talking I hung up the phone and then let out a “WAHOO!” so loud and sharp that it scared the crap out of our cat.
I was a Great Lakes shipwreck author!
The following spring, a box of “author’s copies” arrived. Avery had titled the book “Stormy Seas” which I hated… still do, in fact. It sounds like a book of fruity poetry. Of course there in is demonstrated one of the basic rules of authordom – your title is just temporary, the publisher knows better. I had thought that my original title was just dynamite, it was “Lakeboats!” but "Stormy Seas" actually sold. I also hated the cover, it showed a crashing sea with the ghostly etching of a shipwreck and the life-savers. My name was in black and hardly visible… but all of that aside, it was MY name on a Great Lakes shipwreck book. I nabbed the first copy out of the box and ran to my library shelf and slid it in among my other books. I told my wife, “Look… Bowen, Stonehouse, Boyer and Me,” it was a sweet moment.
Just how that all came together... well, as I said earlier... my best answer is, hand of God. After all, I am the little second grader who couldn't read.
Of course it was my first effort and it really showed. In the text the vessel names were all underlined and, although grammatically correct, that was really annoying. Then in a conversation with Anita at Avery one afternoon, she casually mentioned that Fred Stonehouse had read the book and had some “criticisms.” What?! My favorite author and the dean of Great Lakes shipwreck authors has criticisms! I was hurt, then I was pissed- “give me his number, I’m gonna call him!” I demanded. Anita gave me Fred’s number and I called him. Every single thing that he told me was constructive- how to cite sources better, where to get better photos and so on. Then we talked for a long time about who-is-really-who in this tiny circle of Great Lakes authors and research historians. Who to avoid and who to go to, to consult- everything that Fred had to say made my next book and all of those that came after it better. More than 20 years later, I still call Fred when I need the straight poop- he is a no bullshit guy.
Titling the next book was no problem- just like the Ron Harris character in the old Barney Miller show who turned in a manuscript titled “Precinct Diary” and had it come from the publisher as “Blood on the Badge” I knew that the important thing was that my name was on the cover and on the check that they sent me. So, my second book went in titled “The Congress, Teddy Kennedy and What the Parrot Saw” It came out titled “Sounds of Disaster.” Anita never mentioned the original title that I had submitted. Looking closely at that second book you can actually see the changes that were made because of my consultation with Fred. I took a great deal more care in citing my sources as well as the use thereof. The cover for the book sported a new layout that Avery would continue to use for nearly two decades- the background was dark blue with two inlaid pictures, one small foreground shot of a wooden lakeboat, an artwork cap at the top of the ship's wheel, and a large, centered, photo of wooden steamer towing two barges. The title of the book was at the top in large gold letters, the subtitle was in the middle and my name was in glowing white letters, easily read, at the bottom. Physically, the book was a good deal smaller than "Stormy Seas" but that didn't seem to matter to Avery. The company now had two books to widely market and by the time "Sounds of Disaster" hit the bookstores and gift shops around the Great Lakes I had already completed the third book.
I was later told that when the second book came out, the "insiders" of the Great Lakes shipwreck crowd started asking "Who the hell is this guy?" and when the third book came out they were really knocked out. In the summer of 1993 my wife, my brother, his girl friend and I all went up to Mackinaw, the Soo and Marquette on a vacation. Along the way I stopped at every gift shop, walked in, told them I wrote those books and they had me autograph them. On about our 10th stop, my brother said it was so easy he was just going to walk in, pick some author's book, say he was that person and start autographing. Hey, it's the Great Lakes area... people trust one another.
A strange thing happens when you get your name out couple of books. Suddenly, you can go into a Museum or historical society and introduce yourself and you get access to areas that other people are normally not allowed to enter. Areas such as the "stacks" of files and information that are stored "in the back." I discovered that such was the case when I was working on my third book. Now I can walk into a historical society or research library and be directed back into the archives to sit and quietly work. Research divers, who are some of the most paranoid individuals on the planet, will open up and talk to you when bribed with a free book- autographed of course. Similarly that small group of people known as "collectors" who are far more paranoid than even the divers, will also tend to open up. Of course, you can't bribe a collector with just one book- you have to feed them every single book you write- forever. My third book, in my opinion, was one of the best I had ever written. It was one of few where my working title became the actual title. I called the book "Ice Water Museum" and that was the title that Avery used. Prior to the writing of this book, Anita sold Avery Color Studios to a company in Marquette, Lake Superior Press. They retained the Avery name and merged the book product line into their own. Additionally, they saw the return of Fred Stonehouse to Avery. With me, they had retained an author who had just produced three books in three years. Now, we had to get to know each other.
Being a career aviator it is in my nature to approach the investigation of of a shipwreck in a similar manner to that used by the NTSB in an aircraft accident. A friend of mine who is an NTSB investigator once told me that if you want to learn about the accident, learn about the people and that will take you where you want to go. I've found that this same method often works well with shipwrecks. In other cases it can be applied to the loss of a single person rather than an entire vessel, or it can be applied to both. In the case of the loss of the schooner-barge DOLPHIN on Lake Huron in 1887, for example, I wondered why a given crewman had gone back out on that "awful boat" as his mother put it. Just to get a feel for him, I went the location of his home, and walked from his front yard down to the place where he last boarded the boat. I also looked into his work background and found some good clues there. His story is in my book(s) "Keepers of Valor" later re-published as "Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Lighthouses." Although knowing every detail about someone lost more than a century ago can be almost impossible, it is the detective work that is really fun.
By 1994 I had transitioned from my flight instructor's career to that of a full-fledged airline pilot. Yet, I was still going full speed ahead on my fourth book. I had no idea what the new owners of Avery would do in titling the book, but I did want to make a good suggestion in the hope that they may just use it. Most of all I wanted to avoid something like "Stormy Seas" or worse yet "Stormy Disasters." At the time I was based in Hibbing Minnesota and on a day off I was strolling around the local mall. I wandered into a bookstore and was poking about trying to get some idea for a title. Then out of the blue it struck me. There was a young lady upon the ladder working with some top shelf books- I stopped at the base of the latter, "Excuse me," I said up toward her, "how does Ghost Ships Gales and Forgotten Tales sound for a book title to you?" She smiled and said "That sounds great!" So it was that I submitted that title and for the second time Avery used it. I also submitted a very unique cover photo that I had come across to while digging in the stacks at the Canal Park Museum in Duluth. The photo was of the whaleback steamer Thomas Wilson breaking through the ice on her fit out voyage. A crowd of bowler hat wearing dignitaries can be seen on each of her decks.
A fun thing happened while I was on that visit to Duluth’s Canal Park Museum. I was sitting in the office of Pat Labadie, a Great Lakes historian of tremendous notoriety and the greatest of modesty, when his phone rang. It was the switchboard telling Pat that he had an incoming call. Knowing full well the story of how John Greenwood had rejected my original manuscript, Pat paused for a moment before answering the call and said to me, "Guess who is on the phone?" I shook my head that I had no idea and Pat said, with a large grin, "it's John Greenwood." He answered the call and I sat there grinning like the cat who just ate the canary, and then he said, "John, guess who's sitting here in my office?" There was a bit of pause, then Pat said, "Wes Oleszewski’s here.” It was easy to tell the silence on the other end of the phone was deafening. Poor John, the publisher who had rejected the person who was now the hottest author on the Great Lakes. It was yet another sweet moment. The best revenge is simply doing well.
As book number four was rolling off the presses Avery began to reevaluate where they were going with me and my ability to produce books. I told them that I could have the fifth book within a year. They responded that they, "… May have to slow you down a bit." Such was fine with me, I'd just keep working along researching and writing. After all it's the detective work of shipwrecks and the events that is the real fun part. So Avery could proceed at whatever pace they wanted and it wouldn't matter to me one bit. What they had seen in their statistics and sales figures was that book number three "Ice Water Museum" with seriously lagging in sales. This probably the result of both my title suggestion, which simply did not attract the average public or the average tourist plus Avery's choice of cover photographs- showing an ice encrusted lighthouse and an ice encrusted shipwreck. Thus, they were looking to slow their own production and see what the sales figures did. Then, only a short time later Ghost Ships Gales and Forgotten Tales hit the shelves in the bookstores. It began selling quite well and just a few months after Avery had suggested that they were going to slow me down, they were pestering me for the next book. They were also urging me to go onto a royalties payment schedule-a move that I grudgingly yet wisely agreed to.
Readers sometimes ask what method I use to select stories- do I hunt down individual events? My answer is, when I set out to write the first book I set up one primary rule- I would not write about events that everyone else (Bowen, Boyer, Ratigan, etc.) had written about; the Great Storm of 1913, the CARL D. BRADLEY, the FITZ. etc. Instead I went for the obscure, the tiny and the forgotten events. Oddly, when researching those tiny, tiny facts that make up those forgotten events, I often stumble across other "leads" in other events. I file each of those and go back later to put the pieces together in that one- while doing that I'll always stumble across several others and so on. Thus, my method is actually one of stumbling rather than hunting.
Following Ghost Ships Gales and Forgotten Tales, I produced "Mysteries and Histories: Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes." This was my fifth book in just five years. I guess I'm good at writing- of course I can't do algebra, can't dance and cannot play any sort of musical instrument, additionally I'm totally inept with any sort of construction tool. In fact we have a saying around our house "If you wanna see someone get hurt, give Wes a tool, if you wanna see Wes get hurt, give him a power tool"... so it all evens out.
The books were still rolling out pretty swiftly, in fact so swiftly that Avery went to press with "Mysteries and Histories" but had forgotten to send me a contract! When Tom from Avery called me to give me the "It's gone to the printer" word I said "That's terrific, but there's just one problem... you haven't sent me a contract for it yet." Silence. As he realized that I had them by the proverbial short-hails, I added, "This time I want more." Tom quietly asked "How much more?" I replied, "I want what you paid me in the last contract AND..." I paused silently on the phone for a protracted period, "...One of those EDMUND FITZGERALD sweatshirts that you guys are selling." He gleefully agreed. The contract and the sweatshirt arrived the next day by FedEx.
Not all crowds are happy to come and hear ya' speak, especially when you are the guy who has published five books on Great Lakes maritime history in just five years. There are lots and lots of old-timers out there looking for the chance to smack down the young up-start. After all, they were into this stuff long before you was born! Such was the case when I did a speaking gig at a Lake Michigan coast museum in 1996. I was all ready to go out there when the lady running the show took me aside and said, "There are a bunch of local old duffers out there who are looking to show you up, so be warned." She pulled the curtain aside a bit and I saw a half dozen gray haired duffers sitting in the front row, a few of them had big yellow envelopes stuffed with all sorts of papers. Of course the kid was quicker than they expected. I told her "No problem," and I went out. At the podium I said. "First of all, I'd just like to say that I am not any sort of a maritime expert- in fact I'm sure that some of you in this audience have forgotten more about the Great Lakes than I know. What I am is a scribe. I'm a guy who researches and then takes what I find and I put it into story form. I could never do my job without the guys who came along before I was born and preserved the facts that I need to gather." One by one I saw all of the guys with the envelopes casually slide them under their seats... the lecture went on without a hitch after that. Of course I also took the time afterward to go to each guy with an envelope and say- "Tell me about what you've got there." I learned a ton that night.
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In 1997 I was between pilot's jobs and working on another book of Great Lakes shipwrecks and true ventures. But, when the folks at Avery got wind of my newfound free time they came up with a project that would help me earn a little extra money. It was a "list" book detailing lighthouses. I agreed to the task, they sent me a box of research material, and I went to work. The damned book made me crazy. I could only do five or six of these monotonous lighthouse listings before I would begin to lose my mind and I'd switch over to writing in my shipwreck book. Then it got to the point where I couldn't even stand to look at a lighthouse. Finally one evening my wife took pity upon me. "You need to get away from this stuff," she said dragging me out of the house. She took me to the mall and as we walked around she would spot a lighthouse in a store window and pointed out to me- I'd groan. She'd point out a person wearing a sweatshirt covered with lighthouses- it was like someone scratching a blackboard to me. Over and over and over this went on, finally I was nearing the end of my sanity when she stopped me and said, "Don't you get it? Lighthouses are everywhere… Because they SELL!” DING! The bell went off! We went straight home and I finished the book of lighthouse lists in less than two weeks. Avery advance sold more than a pallet of these books- "Great Lakes Lighthouses American and Canadian" became my first best-seller.
Sometimes readers will come up to me and ask very specific questions about one of my stories. Something such as "...on page 77 you said such and such about so and so, why is that?" I have really bad news for ya' folks, I generally wipe a story from my brain as soon as the manuscript goes out the door. And often the story that the person is talking about is in a book that I composed years and years ago. One guy asked about a detail in a story that I had written 12 years earlier! By the time my newest book hits the stores I am already several months into the next book. So, if ever you have a detailed question- bring the book with you so I can reference it.
While making the lighthouse list book I had found a number of true adventure stories involving lighthouses that I thought would be a great addition to that book. So I place those stories in between each chapter of lighthouse lists. When I told Avery about that, they immediately said, "No, that's not what we want, take them out." So I did, and then I compiled those stories into a book of true lighthouse adventures. Just before the list book went to print, Avery asked to have the adventure stories put back in. This time it was my turn to say, "No." Those adventure stories would be in a book of their own and Avery would get to pay me for that too. They happily agreed and titled the book simply, "Lighthouse Adventures."
In late 1997, as the lighthouse series of my books were rolling off the presses, my pilots career finally took a turn for the better. Having worked my way through college and worked as a clerk in the parts department of a Falcon Jet Service Center, and later as a "Hanger rat" at that same service center, and then finally as a Falcon Jet mechanic (working under the shop certificate) my dream seat had always been in the cockpit of a Falcon Jet. I was hired as a corporate pilot flying Falcon Jets. This new job placed me in one single situation where I found myself to be terribly uncomfortable as the author of some seven books. My new boss’ wife was a writer and she was also a member of a local “writer’s club” that met monthly at a local bar /restaurant. My boss thought it would be a good idea for him to take me to one of these meetings… ooookay. Here’s the poop- there are a bazillion “writers” out there, and very few “authors.” Many of those writers are dreaming, struggling, wishing and trying very hard to get ANYTHING published, anyplace. Very few are as lucky as I have been, and that never really soaked in until I went to that “club” meeting. They were all milling about with drinks in hand chatting as friends do, when someone rang the attention bell and made a “big announcement.” As the room went quiet, the lady said “I want everyone to know that Bob was published this week in the Sunday magazine!” there was a cheer and Bob proudly boasted “Yep, three full paragraphs!” There followed applause and a good deal of back-slapping for Bob. I began to feel pretty uncomfortable… then my boss introduced me as a published author. The room went silent. “How many books is that you have out now Wes?” Every eye was on me… my only thought was “I have to get to a cave- RIGHT NOW!” I mumbled, “Seven.” And then tried to recover by adding “but, they’re all just regional stuff.” That didn’t help very much. No one in the “club” approached me or even spoke to me thereafter. Finally, after a very awkward half hour I managed to slip out and go home… my weirdness meter was pegged.
In the wake of the lighthouse series of books I wanted to do something to document the United States Life-Saving Service and so my 8th book, “Keepers of Valor” was heavy with acts of heroism around the lakes. It was also my second failed attempt at titling my own book. Avery went with my title, but the public did not. Avery kept getting calls asking what Keepers of VELOUR meant? Apparently many folks do not know the difference between courage and the fabric used in the uniform shirts from the original Star Trek- so the sales were slow. Finally in 2004, Avery re-titled and re-covered the book while having me adjust the text somewhat and then they re-released the book as “Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Lighthouses.”
Doing book signings at little shops is one of my favorite thing, doing them at a mall, however is similar to watching paint dry. I call it "doing the lonely card table." One trick I learned is to take a friend or relative along with you and have them just stand there and talk to ya'. People passing by will tend to stop and talk too. I also tell the owner that I'll only be there for one hour- that way if it's dead I can split, but if I have readers, I can just stay longer. On one occasion I arrived at a small shop in the thumb and found an 11 year-old girl waiting. Her mom said she was one of my biggest readers, and she was holding a stack of every book that I had out at the time. I sat down and signed them all. Then I asked for a second chair- I told her, "You're special, and you and I are gonna do this book signing together." Between signings we talked about reading, researching, writing and publishing. It was one of my best book signings.
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My pilot’s career came to an end in early 2000. I was furloughed from my corporate job when they lost several customers who took their jets with them. As a former airline captain, it’s pretty hard to interview with companies and play the answer stupid questions and pretend that you don’t really mind starting at the bottom… again, game. Finally after one interview I decided to just be a writer. I came home, dropped my flightbag and said to my wife, “That’s it- I’m baggin’ it.” To which she answered, “Well, it’s about time!” Her career was going gangbusters and I had eight books in publication, so there was no reason for me to keep poking holes in the sky and being away nearly every day. I went to work straight away on my next book “True Tales of Ghosts and Gales.” I also took gigs speaking around the lakes and as an enrichment speaker aboard the cruise ship C. COLUMBUS on the lakes. I loved working the COLUMBUS, but I gained almost 20 pounds from the food they served I rode the exercycle in their spa from one end of the lakes to another- and still gained weight... I was such a piggy. For the cover of “True Tales” I had come up with the idea of having folks in the Great Lakes community submit photos and images- it worked out great.
Avery came to me with a special request in early 2002. They wanted a book of ghost stories- something that was good to read around a campfire. I told them that ghost stories were almost impossible to research and usually doing so usually just debunks the story. They said they didn’t want the research- just the fun story. Not really my trademark, but I had been told a lot of ghost stories over the years and had found several in my normal research. I had even accidentally taken a photo of one a year before… so I had the material. Thus, although “Great Lakes Ghost Stories” was not pure fiction, it was largely hear-say. It also had a cover the likes of which reminded me of a kid’s book… but it sells, so I’m happy with it.
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Somewhere around this point in my career I was contacted by a fellow by the name of Paul Newton- who was a producer for WNEM TV5 News. He was about to shoot a segment to be aired a few months later during Halloween. It was about ghosts and Great Lakes maritime. Of course I thought it would be fun and I drove to Saginaw to be a part of it. The crew consisted of myself, Paul the producer and a camera man- we all gathered at boneyard for pleasure craft near Bay City. The place was filled with abandon and wrecked boats all looking like the MINNOW from "Gilligan's Island." My role consisted mostly of sitting on a stool with the boats in the background and telling little tales that could act as soundbites. Our nemesis that day was a smoke generator that the cameraman had brought along. He thought that an eerie fog-like layer hanging around may make a good effect. Since it was a calm, late summer day; it should have worked. Unfortunately, we discovered that no matter where he placed the machine, the smoke had a mind of its own. Sometimes right in the middle of the shot, the cloud would drift over and cut my head off, or it would roll in and swallow the camera. Of course as he became frustrated and moved the machine, I started to have fun. In one take the smoke made a solid wall between me and the camera. I just kept talking, but got off the stool and went and hid behind one of the boats. When the smoke cleared I'd just vanished! Another time I went running through the cloud shouting, "Gilligan!" Eventually we did without the smoke and finished the shoot.
It aired on Halloween and my mom saw it and said it was really good. The following January I got an e-mail from Paul saying that the piece had been nominated for an Emmy. Wow. I congratulated him and said, "I hope you win." He wrote back saying that if he won we ALL won. All three of us had been included in the nomination.
Well, that jinxed Paul right there... because I never win any awards. Thus, we didn't win, but some folks seem to think that just being nominated for an Emmy is really special. I've been urged to add that to my resume... okay... I guess.
As I was finishing up the ghost book, I got some news that would change everything for the next nine years. It was the direct result of my no longer flying and thus being home every night… I was going to become a daddy!
When the news of the coming baby arrived, I called Avery and told them not to expect an manuscript from me for the next three years- I was going to be a stay-at-home dad raising our child. Of course they had no choice other than saying “Okay.” That’s the up-side of being an author, you can take that sort of time off and the royalties keep coming. Of course Avery would not just sit still- they had already taken Stormy Seas and Sounds of Disaster and combined the texts into a new book called (you guessed it) “Stormy Disasters.” Now they set about converting “Keepers of Valor” into its “new” version “Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Lighthouses” Of course as soon as my three years were up- Avery was ready for the next book. I’d cheated, however, and started working on the text long before.
Often I meet folks who tell me they've read all of my books... over the summer. Then they want to know when the next book is coming. I try and tell them that it takes a few years to write and publish a book and they look really disappointed. For me it's like spending a month making a great pie, and then having someone eat it in one bite! Still, I love meeting my readers. Oddly, I get my head down into this stuff and I tend to forget that people are actually out there reading it. The detective work and the reconstruction of the events are so consuming that I often have to pop my head up and remember I'm in modern times and not 1883! During the writing of my first ten books, my wife would go away on business and I'd be left at home writing. On more than one occasion I'd get up in the morning and get to working on the story and the next thing I knew it would be one or two in the morning and I'd realize I had not eaten and I was still in my P.J.s! That stuff happened more often than I like to admit.
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By 2006 I was working on my first new book in several years. One thing that had been bothering me was how much of my work had gone out of print. “Ice Water Museum” had contained some of my best work and it was now out of print. I gave it a lot of thought and figured that as long as I told the readers, up front, that the chapter had appeared in a previous book and if I updated the chapter with new information, there was no reason why I could not reprint the text. Thus my 2008 book “Shipwrecks and Rescues” contained three up-dated chapters from “Ice Water Museum” Once again I ran a contest for cover artwork by way of the boatnerd.com web site.
As I keep saying- one of the best aspects of this author job is meeting and talking to the readers. Most of these folks are from the north central states near the lakes and they all have a story to tell. On occasion those stories can lead me to a terrific history discovery- so no matter how boring some may consider it to be, I always listen intently while signing someone's book. In the case of Mildred, who I met while signing books at a Lake Huron lighthouse, she told me about a "Big piece of wood " jutting from the sand in the yard of her son-in-law's shore-side home. I agreed to drop by there and take a look. Sure enough, there it was- I started digging around it by hand and her husband Ray said "You ain't gonna uncover it like that." So I asked for a shovel, and in short order I have unearthed a huge wooden rudder. I informed Ray that it was from the scow schooner A. LINCOLN. He asked how I knew that, and I replied that it wrecked almost exactly at that location on September 29, 1872. As I said, my readers are very important to me, especially when they have stories to tell.
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My 14th book also contained three up-dated chapters from my now out of print books. Yet by way of the Internet, research is getting easier and easier. Now instead of sending a letter to another researcher and waiting weeks for a reply- I was simply able to send an e-mail. Likewise, nearly everyplace has cell coverage- so I can make calls to people and catch them away from their home or office. So book 14 was nice and fat. Again I held a contest for cover art. Avery dropped the standard cover scheme that had been used since “Sounds of Disaster” for full jacket photos and I told the folks in the contest that there would be two winners- each on the front cover. The problem was that after the folks at Avery selected the cover, Wells Chapin, the owner of the company, found a photo that he liked and insisted it would be on the cover- so it was… on the back cover- thus, we had three winners. The book came out titled “All Hands On Deck” and my only problem with that is there is apparently a pornographic novel on Amazon dot com by the same title!
It’s always something.
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Of course I did not title it, but what I really like about the title is that there are no X-rated books on Amazon with the same title... at least, not yet.
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In the summer of 2013, Avery's president contacted me by e-mail wanting to know when the next book would be coming. I sent him back an e-mail saying that at that time the manuscript was on schedule to be delivered to them on October 31, 2014. That was in pace with my usual one book every two years normal writing schedule. Later, in mid-November of 2013 I got an urgent e-mail from him, "Where's the book?!" Writing back to him I said that the book would be delivered on the date that I had put in the previous summer's e-mail.
It turned out that he had misread my e-mail and thought that they would have a book from me in November 2013 rather than 2014! Now they had a real problem, because they had left a space in their catalog for a book by me. What to do?!
The answer came from a phone conversation that I had with Avery, also in the previous summer. They were wondering what they could do with the half dozen or so books of mine that are out of print. At first they suggested that we simply release them under a new cover and new title with old contents. My head did not explode at that idea, but I firmly rejected it saying that our readers HATE that. I suggested that we should try a "Best Of" book. Hell, I have a dozen best of albums from musical groups that I like, and they all have songs that I already have, but I don't mind. Avery said that they would "think about it." Well, November 2013 with them having a hole in the next year's catalog where my name should be settled that issue.
Thus, I got to pick out and update a whole bunch of my personal favorite stories and Avery made a "Best of" book. Of course having my name in huge letters on a bronze plaque that appears riveted to the cover was not my idea. I complained to my wife that this was "a bit too much Wes." She said, "Tough rocks." I grumbled to Avery that it was a bit too much "Wes." They had the same response as my wife... "tough rocks."
So it is that while others struggle to get nothing published, I get my 16th title published because my publisher misread an e-mail. Indeed it is a strange world.
Of course the book that I had been working on when the board room at Avery mis-read my e-mail was the one that came out in 2016 as "Wooden Ship and Deadly Seas."
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What's unique about this book is that as I was writing it I was also writing a six book series of books on spaceflight that I self-published on Amazon. So, I wrote 7 books concurrently over 3 years.
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When I told my wife that I would be writing 7 books in 3 years she said that if I wanted to impress her, I'd clean my bathroom more often. Hey, give her a break folks... she's been with me since my first book way back in the 1980s and she's Japanese, so she's hard to impress.
One thing about publishers is they tend to come up with book ideas of their own. Of course authors beg "Please, please DON'T have any ideas for me!"
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Book 18 World War II & the Great Lakes
So it was that in the spring of 2016 I was happily strolling around Washington DC with my wife and kids enjoying their spring day when my cell phone rang. It was the folks at Avery and they had a concept for my next book. Initially it sounded like a good idea- a book about all of the aircraft lost on the Great Lakes- but the more I looked into it, the more it slid toward that "Great Lakes triangle" nonsense. Soon it became a frustration and one day as Teresa and I were on a long road trip I began venting. "Hell, most of those aircraft were lost off the two training aircraft carriers that the Navy used on Lake Michigan," I scoffed. My wife, who is one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, looked at me and said simply, "Well, why don't you write the next book about that... the Great Lakes during World War II?"
DING! DING! DING! The bell went off in my head, "There were bombers, iron ore vessels, submarines, war ships... YEAH!"
I got right on the phone and talked to my publisher about the new concept that my wife had conceived. The moment I said "submarines" I thought he was gonna come through the phone! "OH! OH!" He exclaimed, "I served on one of those subs when I was in the Navy! Do it! Let's do it!"
Although I'm a career pilot with a BS Degree in Aeronautical Science, World War II and bombers and submarines are not in my writing expertise, neither are tanks, POWs and Axis war machines. I'm a specialist in obscure shipwrecks and such. My learning curve was VERY steep for the WWII book. I was constantly on Amazon buying books and reading as well as purchasing documentaries on the war. I downloaded tons of .PDF documents and wormed my way into the Library of Congress web site where I hunted photos on many a late night. Yet, my skill was not enough to keep the book from sliding into the suckisphere. I needed someone with my same knowing of the lakes yet an additional knowledge of military equipment in WWII to tune the manuscript. Enter Chris Rottiers- a person whose name I'd known for nearly three decades, yet never met. Every time I'd visit the great collector Ralph Roberts he would always say to me that he had to get Chris and I together, because we'd really hit it off. Then in late April, 2016 Chris "friended" me on FaceBook. Ralph had passed away a few years earlier and Chris became the manager for Ralph's collection of Great Lakes historical material. Chris and I exchanged messages and soon got around to the subject that all books have some errors. He had a lot of technical proof-reading experience as well as being a Great Lakes history expert. In December of 2016 I invited Chris to edit my next book... the poor guy had no idea what he'd gotten himself into... 75,000 words in the manuscript and more than 90 historic photos and captions when it was all done. Luck for me, Chris is a tank buff and has a Navy background. We quickly learned to work together very well, but coming into my author's world made for a very long 8 months for Chris. Thanks to his input, "World War II & The Great Lakes" avoided the suckisphere and came out as a far better book. Whew!
My 19th book came on the coattails of the success of the first book that wrote on WWII. Avery wanted another WWII book and they wanted it before I wrote another shipwreck book.
In that first WWII book I'd pretty much done a macro look at the things that took place during the war- it was sort of like picking the low-hanging fruit. This second and final book about the war took a much closer look at the people who were involved in the war. While I was back in Michigan doing a book tour for the initial WWII book, my cousin Dale brought over a pocket address book that had been carried through the entire war in the Pacific by my uncle Jack. Dale allowed me to photograph every page of that book which contained the names and addresses of all of his buddies or their next of kin. That entire book, is now in this book. At that same time I'd been contacted by a fellow by the name of Don Booth who lived in Bay City and said that his dad had been a WWII fighter pilot and he had a lot of pictures and information. So, while on a research trip up to Bay City I dropped in on Don. It turned out that Don's wife Jo and I graduated together from Freeland High School! It also turned out that he had a treasure trove of photos and information. One photo was so compelling that it had to be on the cover! Later a young lady by the name of Alison, who is a WWII "living historian" had a line on someone who was a WASP and she put me in touch with that lady's daughter who in turn put me in contact with Jane Doyle. She had actually served as a Woman's Army Service Pilot during WWII. I fell in love with Jane on the phone, she was so sweet and kind and still as sharp as an arrow. We talked pilot to pilot for a very long interview. Jane passed away just three months after my interview with her- and thus to her this book is dedicated.
Unfortunately, the book was released just as the COVID 19 lockdown took place, and sales tanked.
Thus, I contacted my Great Lakes publisher, Avery Color Studios in Marquette, Michigan and proposed that the shipwreck book that I had scheduled for 2022 be moved up to the spring of 2021, by which time, hopefully, the lockdown would be lifted. They doubted that the book could be done in just a single 12 month time-frame and that there were enough November 10th wrecks to make a book. I assured them that both were easy to do. Next, I needed a cover- and I sure as hell was not going to use some photo of the FITZ that had been seen published a bazillion times.
Everything was ready nearly two months before the lockdown was lifted in Michigan, yet we ran into one unexpected snag. Because of COVID, the printer was both short of staff and backed up on work. So the book that should have come out in mid-May was delayed until late June. Avery was in a near panic as the tourists were flocking to the U.S. Great Lakes (because Canada was still locked down) and the July 4th holiday week was looming, but the books had not yet been delivered. They all had their noses to the window waiting for the delivery trucks from the printer.
The books arrived just in time!