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Yes. But it’s a good kind of crazy.

Artist Glenn Wolff and I have made our livings illustrating and writing books for nearly 30 years. In that time we’ve witnessed the publishing industry go through the most dramatic changes since Guttenberg.

When we met in 1986, Glenn and I could not have anticipated how much the world was about to change. Glenn was drawing his illustrations on illustration boards and delivering them in person to art directors in their Manhattan offices; later, when he moved back home to Michigan, he sent them overnight via Fed-Ex.

I was writing my books by hand on legal pads, then typing the final drafts on a typewriter—initially on the manual Royal my parents gave me when I was in high school, then on an industrial-grade electric IBM that rattled so furiously that it walked across my desk as I typed. I made corrections with White-Out, and when the manuscript was finished made a Xerox copy, sealed the original in the carton that the Southworth 25% cotton typewriter paper had come in, and mailed it to my publisher.

By then Glenn was a regular illustrator for the New York Times and for magazines such as Audubon and Sports Afield, where my nature essays were also appearing. We liked each other, had some ideas for books, signed with an agent, and started publishing with New York houses. (You can read the story of our first meeting and the ensuing fun.)

Almost from the beginning we talked about someday starting a small press, an idea that grew with the years, especially after our early collaborations, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes and The Bird in the Waterfall went out of print and we reacquired the rights to them. This summer we had the chance to team up with the wonderful Gail Dennis, a graphic designer with 30 years’ experience designing books and other publications and who is superbly organized and a master at implementing the ideas Glenn and I so casually sling around, and jumped at it. We named the press for the sugar maple in Gail’s and my front yard and Glenn designed a logo featuring its silhouette.

BigMaplePress-logo-verysmallThen we made a momentous decision: Big Maple Press would publish books to be sold only in independent stores.

Why? First, because we want to stay small. We’ve heard too many horror stories about start-ups driven into bankruptcy when big distributors and big chains ordered thousands of books then returned them. We’d rather work closely with a single distributor—Partners Distributing, in Holt, Michigan—and with a manageable number of independent stores that appreciate our books and might be inspired to recommend them to their publishers.

Second, because we hate bullies. In September I was one of 600 authors who signed a full-page letter in the New York Times protesting Amazon’s strong-arm business tactics. As a Macmillan author, I had watched the buy buttons on four of my books and every other Macmillan title disappear from Amazon’s website in 2010, when the publisher refused to buckle in to Amazon’s unreasonable price demands. Not longer after that, Amazon put a stranglehold on small literary publisher Melville House and nearly drove the house out of business. They used the same tactic this year against the large publishing group, Hachette. Jeff Bezos’ oft-quoted statement “that Amazon should approach small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle” sends shivers down our spines. Maybe publishing a book or two a year that the Bully can’t touch will be satisfying, like slinging pebbles at his forehead.

But there’s a third reason, and it’s the one that matters most. Glenn and I owe our careers to independent booksellers. It was they who championed our work starting with our first books, back when the big chains wouldn’t bother with us, and who support and encourage us still. It is only right at this stage of our careers that we should publish special editions that can be purchased only in independent stores.

We’re here—we’ve always been here—because we love books. We love writing, designing, and illustrating them. We love proofing them, opening the first carton of a new title, organizing them on our shelves, opening their covers and burying our noses in their pages, settling into our chairs on winter nights and losing ourselves in them. We’ve poured our hearts into all of our books and made them the best that we can. Now we have a chance to make them even better.

Is that crazy, or what?



Sometimes the world slips through the window and joins us where we live. And, of course, the more fully we live, the more often it joins us.

In December 1991, in the final sprint to finish my first big book, I found myself becoming more alert than usual. It was my first experience with the white-hot stage of sustained composition and the state of heightened attention that makes the world outside and the world of the imagination come together in strange and magical ways. Similar conjunctions have occurred with every book I’ve written, but this was the most vivid of them.

FrogsFishNewIt was a book about wonders of the sky, and to see those wonders all I had to do was step outside and look up. Writing about sunsets and meteor showers and snowflakes and birds in flight made me unusually aware of them. I’ve been chasing that level of awareness ever since.

The first complete draft of It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky was nearing completion and I could finally see my way through to the end. For months I had been faxing rough drafts to artist Glenn Wolff, who would then sketch ideas for illustrations and fax them back and call to discuss them. Now he was finishing many of the 80-plus illustrations that would later appear in the book and would inspire reams of praise from critics and readers.

All that year our work seemed like a magnet for wonders. When we were working on the chapter about sunrises and sunsets, we saw night after night for a week the most brilliant sunsets we’d ever witnessed, the result of a volcanic eruption in the Philippines that cast vast clouds of dust into the upper atmosphere and tinted the setting sun shades of vivid scarlet and purple. I saw one sunset so astonishing — not only brilliant with colors, but expanding across most of the sky — that it made traffic on a busy highway I was driving along come to a virtual halt. Late one night Glenn stepped outside his studio after working on the illustration for the aurora chapter, and looked up to see the Northern Lights of a lifetime. He called me and said, “Go outside, right now, and look up.” I stepped out the door, then hurried back inside and woke my sons and wrapped them in blankets and took them outside to the yard. The aurora filled the sky, beams of light radiating from a central spot almost straight overhead, pulsating in curtains of red, pink, and green. I have never seen a more brilliant display.

Frogs-and-Fishes-AuroraNightsBy December Glenn and I were working twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week to meet our publisher’s deadline. Much of the month I was working virtually around the clock, sleeping and writing in the same room, taking catnaps when necessary, often losing track of  time or even whether it was day or night. When I took breaks, it was to read in bed or go for walks outside.

My days turned even crazier when Gail and I sold our house on Eleventh Street and had to vacate it the last week of November, nearly a month before our house on Old Mission Peninsula would be ready for us. My parents came to the rescue and invited us to move in with them in their house on Long Lake — the house where I had lived for much of my childhood and adolescence, and about which I had begun writing the essays that would appear a couple years later in A Place on the Water. For Aaron and Nick, who were 12 and 4 that December, it was a grand adventure — a month of slumber parties with Grandma and Grandpa — and they couldn’t have been happier. It turned out to be a grand adventure for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the journal I kept during those years. I will always look back upon that winter of wonders as one of the richest and most rewarding periods of my life.

12/1/91 — Walked to Bullhead Lake with Gail and the kids. Day clear and sunny and very cold. The lake freshly frozen, the ice clear and a quarter-inch thick, etched on the top with crystal patterns, like it had been spread with a broad plaster knife. Thousands of tiny snow fleas (Boreus hyemalis?) hopped methodically, three inches at a leap, away from shore on the ice. Each, when it landed, adjusted for direction before leaping again in a surprisingly straight course out from shore. Where were they headed? Through the ice, as visible as if seen through glass, were water boatmen and other aquatic organisms moving around among the decomposing leaves on bottom. The woods are snow-free after the fohn-like winds of last week, but the leaves are frozen into crunching mats, and the temperature now is cold enough to burn your face and ears.  Glove weather. Aaron and Nick are always enervated by a walk in the woods.

Frogs-and-Fishes-NatureBaroqueHard to get back into the book after the three days off to move. Worn out the first day or two; simply lazy now. Would prefer to nap and read novels and daydream. Language lacks importance. Strange to be in the house of my childhood. I’ve commandeered a bedroom for my office, and sleep alone in it. Best that way, I think, since I expect to re-catch the fever soon and be working late nights again.

12/2 — Another very cold day. Gray stratus has us locked into a colorless and dreary world. The lake this morning was partially frozen, especially on this lee shore between here and the island. Some of the new ice was coated with a fine dusting of snow crystals, the kind that materializes out of clear sky. Had to dust off the car this morning, and scrape the frost. Wind came up by mid-morning and the ice Frogs-and-Fishes-NaturesTantrumsdisappeared. Another night or two as cold as last night and the entire lake will skim over, then the wind won’t be able to slip beneath the ice to break it up.  Now I’m alone in the house and still can’t get my passion back for the book. Worked some on tornadoes and hurricanes, but can’t seem to get fired up in spite of dangerously near deadline. Need to back into it slowly and surprise myself. Work on something that seems easy. Do busy work until I can dig in and compose again.

12/3 — Woke to a white world. Snow made fine by the cold; drifts to three or four feet. School closed. The lake unfrozen, no doubt because of the strong winds all night — open water looks peculiar when surrounded by snowy landscapes. Excitement of the unusual, unexpected. The day the color of a black-and-white print in excellent focus.

12/9 — Crazy salad days. Blitzing on the book now; not far from having all the first drafts finished. The rest will be relatively easy. Worked nearly 17 hours Saturday and finished two chapters. Working long days and nights, sleeping late (when I can), piling words upon words upon words.

The weather has been bizarre, though I’ve had little time to be out in it. The view from the picture window here has been interesting: Last week the lake froze entirely, then snow covered it with enough weight to streak it with cracks that soaked through and looked like snowmobile tracks. Everyone thought it was here to stay, and that, like most years, we would have heavy snow cover before the ice had a chance to firm up solid. Then, the sixth, thaw: overnight the snow on the lake puddled to a continuous layer of water over the clear ice (we could see through it to bottom even from the house). Then, the seventh, rain and warm wind. By the eighth the lake broke open again, all the ice except some shore piles melted, most of the snow gone. Today it’s clear and sunny, 40 degrees, breeze from the west, and the driveway is damp gravel and the yard has patches of open areas. If this holds until we move on the 18th I’ll be a grateful guy.

I love this stage of a book. I’m so engaged in composition that I experience a psychological equivalent of continental drift: subterranean plates are shifting, grinding one another, and something that lies beneath, something vaguely sensed, threatens to come visible. I’m in a continuous state of mild excitement, with moments of intense excitement and lucidity. Everything seems possible; no project is beyond my abilities. It seems now it would be the easiest thing in the world to sit down and compose fiction — and a relief, not having to worry about getting the facts right. If this confidence lasts beyond the completion of the book I want to begin work in January on a series of new stories. And a series of nature essays. And a novel…

12/13/91 — Stealing a few minutes from 2:20 AM. Buried to the eyebrows. Don’t know if I will finish the book on deadline or not — don’t know anything. Paul Bowles notes the difference between a diary (things that happened) and a journal (what I think about the things that happened), but I don’t know whether it applies to real life. Watched three otters this morning diving and swimming out front. They came to shore finally, swimming underwater even in the very shallow water, then climbed up on the bank and nosed around for awhile. Very sociable with one another, always close, frequently touching and rubbing. They took turns rubbing their backs and sides on patches of snow; if there had been more on the bank perhaps they would have slid. They seem extremely confident creatures — superb at what they do best — so efficient in the business of getting around and getting enough to eat that they have leisure to do it beautifully and leisure to be inquisitive. Hard to tell from our vantage in the house (Gail and Mom watched too, and we were all sorry that the kids weren’t here), but they may not have been quite full-grown. All were similar is size (though one may have been slightly larger than the other two — they did not stay still long enough to give much opportunity for comparison) which made me suspect they are siblings. They took their time getting back in the water, then porpoised away to the drop-off. At one spot between Johnson’s and Menzel’s, maybe 30 feet out from the drop-off, they dove repeatedly for perhaps 10 minutes, often coming up and making chewing motions. I’m sure they were feeding, but could not see on what, even with binoculars. Not fish. That’s what happened. I don’t know what I think about it.  Yes I do: I think the otters traveled up the creek from Lake Dubbonnet and only visit Long Lake in late fall because Long Lake in the summer is full of power boats and is an unhealthy place for otters. And I think it is mighty intelligent of them to know it.

Weather continues strangely mild. Steady rain much of today. Forecast is for freezing rain tonight and snow tomorrow, then cold and snow forever. The lake is so anxious to freeze it produces thin plates of ice in spite of the mild temperatures, then the wind breaks them into slivers that gather in odd loose slush-like aggregations for 10 or 20 feet out from the windward shore. The waves are sharply ruffled until they reach the layer of slush, then are soothed, like a blanket laid over a troubled child. The wind has blown from several directions this week, which I suspect means we’re in for stormy weather. It was from the southeast this morning, then from the west this afternoon. We’re in for it.

Frogs-and-Fishes-IceBird12/14 — Woke up to snow on the ground and it has been snowing continuously and in increasingly heavy amounts all day. Now, late afternoon, we’re in mild blizzard conditions, with visibility reduced enough to obscure the far shore of the lake, and the island at times, and accumulations of six inches or so on the ground. The wind, gusting from the north, has kept the lake from freezing, and the lake looks like it doesn’t like the idea one bit. It looks like winter is thumping its heavy way in for good. Just in time for moving day Wednesday. After two weeks of non-stop work on the book I had to take a break yesterday afternoon and found myself incapable of doing much but watching television basketball. Recovered the juice about 1:30 AM, worked for an hour, then went to sleep and woke up refreshed and ready to hit it today. Clubbing away….

12/16 — Fighting the flu or something. Could sleep and sleep and sleep. The lake froze over last night, during a fairly heavy snow, so that today it is white and slushy already, with continental outlines of black where it has cracked. Still a wide area of open water to the northeast of the island, but everywhere else it is frozen. At leave 12 inches of snow on the ground. Went out long enough today to catch snow crystals on my jacket sleeve, then had to return to bed. Picking away at random paragraphs on the book. Too weak to care about deadlines. Mixed in with the lethargy of illness come moments of elation, even spurts of creativity. Might have written a poem yesterday, the first in months. Instead of sleeping at night I’m reading all the 1987 issues of Antaeus and Paris Review. In the midst of a lot of intellectual weight-lifting and pompous posing, some brilliant essays and stories, notably by William Kittridge and Donald Hall. Otherwise, much self-important wheezing. Donald Hall says reading should be done with the tongue and mouth, and that most critics read only with their eyes.

Saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers flying overhead one afternoon last week. They seemed too heavy for flight, as if their bones were solid. Between each wing stroke they plummeted, rose when they beat, then plummeted — if they had missed a stroke they would have fallen to the ground like hatchets.Frogs-and-Fishes-ToughBirds

Up against the usual dualities. I want to dedicate my life to literature, but after two or three days of hard work I long to be with the kids outside, free of language; outside I soon long for the intimacy of my desk, a pool of yellow lamplight, and a stack of notebooks. Can neither be satisfied just living nor just reacting to living. Want both, somehow, simultaneously. In the act of writing I feel most alive, but it’s not enough. I want to carry the intensity of creation to the ordinary moments of existence. I want meaning to adhere to experience, but don’t want to intellectualize experience. The solution perhaps is to cultivate a moderate level of mania: one in which my judgment is not distorted, and from which the fall to the ground is not crippling. Can I sustain such a level for a solid month?


Hail the Unfinished Project

With labor day behind us and the first autumn leaves skittering across the patio, it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. I’m not all that ambitious by nature, so it must be the cooler temperatures that have me energized. Or maybe it’s a residue of all those years of summer vacation when we were kids. School has started, the fun’s over, and now they’re piling on the assignments.

So now I’m faced with all the work I’ve been putting off all summer. First up is the upstairs bedroom that the kids and Gail stripped in June of its circa 1972 red shag carpet and emptied of furniture and all the stuff the boys had been storing there since they were 3 and 11. For much of their youth, this was Aaron and Nick’s room, and their marks are all over it. The dents in the plaster are from hockey pucks, I suspect; the yellow swaths of scotch tape from their posters and art; the U of M decal on the window a memento from Aaron’s Freshman year in Ann Arbor. In 2001, when Aaron was briefly at home after finishing college, he and Nick painted a mural across the entire west wall. The mural has given our family much pleasure over the years, but this weekend Gail and I set ourselves the task of painting the room, as part of our new fix-it-up and clean-it-up policy. After deliberation we decided we had no choice but to cover the mural. Tough decision. But we want the room to be either a guest room or, perhaps, the new master bedroom, and in either case the mural must go. I hope some future conservator can figure out a way to get back to the masterpiece beneath.


There’s also the issue of unfinished work work. Like everyone I know, I start many projects but finish only a few. But unlike more organized, mature, and clear-headed people, I never throw away the work I abandon. That’s probably because I think of it as pending, not abandoned. It wasn’t a problem for the first decade or so of my career, but now that I’ve been at it for a full geologic epoch, the unfinished stuff is heaped to the rafters.

I won’t burden you with the complete list, but here, in the leaf-turning spirit of the new season, is some of the stuff I intend to finish this fall and winter:

– a short story that I’ve been working on for a ridiculously long time – an embarrassingly long time – more than ten years — that begins with the sentence: “Monkeys make poor pets.”

– an inquiry into the literal and figurative trails that weave through our lives.

– a batch of short (and short-short) stories about men behaving badly. (Very badly.)

– a long essay that might end up being a short book celebrating the wind.

– an essay about starlings and William Shakespeare.

– a study of Niagara Falls and the bizarre industries that have collected around it.

– approximately 20 poems that have burst upon me in recent months and are howling for attention.

– an essay about the man who saved my father from drowning when he was 17 years old.

– an homage to white space on the page and roominess in our lives (have you ever noticed how much room there is in the word “room”?)

So, to work. A fresh sheet of paper in the old Royal beater. Roll it up, indent, fingers on QWERTY. Begin:

“Monkey’s make poor pets. But how could Melody know?…”



Former Luddite Goes Cyber; Sort of Likes It

With two new websites, an electronic newsletter, and a Facebook page churning away via mysterious processes it seems I’ve parachuted into a futuristic cyber age powered by steam engines and magic. What’s next, a Tweeter account?

Yes, if the wizards at Chelsea Bay Design and Maue Design have their way. In recent months Chelsea and Jon have used trickery and perhaps hypnosis to nudge me in directions that seem suspiciously close to what my friends and I used to refer to sneeringly as “self promotion.” We didn’t say those words, we hissed them. Sometimes we spit them out with righteous force. Promoting oneself was what politicians did. It was undignified. It reeked of ego. It was driven by terrible greed.

Besides, “marketing” is what the publicity department gets paid to do. They do it so we authors don’t have to get our hands icky. It works nicely that way. We go on book tour and promote the crap out of our book and tell everyone we have no choice in the matter. It’s in the contract. And the evil publicist is cracking the whip. Do you think we would go on all those radio talk shows and drink beer until three in the morning with Jon Stewart if we didn’t have to?

But times have changed. The publicity department’s budget got slashed again. Or so they claim. The truth is, according to my friend Wally, who’s better informed than I, Publicity is under orders from The Suits to promote only authors who are already billionaires. The rest of us, the mere millionaires and ten-millionaires, are lowly “midlist authors.” That was once an honorable category. The frontlist made most of the money, but the midlist was where all the interesting books were found. If you couldn’t be rich, at least you could be respected.

Now we’ve lost even the respect. Back in the day, when we walked into the offices of HarperCollins the staff came running with champagne and caviar and unrolled a purple velvet runner so our shoes wouldn’t have to touch the carpet. Now everyone stampedes screaming from the building. Wally says it’s like we’ve come down with a literary form of leprosy. Or worse. It might be as bad as Proteus Syndrome. It could even rival Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis. (OMG, don’t look it up. It’s hideous.)

So that’s why I’m here, in this strange new world with its many powerful gadgets. I’d rather be crafting deathless prose in my tower, surrounded by fans camped on the plains as far as I can see, waiting breathlessly for the next typewritten page to glide from my window. Those days are over, alas. But I’m okay with it. Kind of relieved, even. I was getting tired of autographing women’s breasts and endorsing all those royalty checks (talk about writer’s cramp!). And I was real damned tired of composing my books on the same manual Royal my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. This Commodore PET is amazing. Can you believe it? It can store an entire book – nearly 300 pages! – on only ten floppy disks.