Barbara Walsh is a Pullitzer Prize winning journalist and the author of the picture book Sammy in the Sky and the memoir August Gale. I am very excited to welcome her to The Lupine Librarian! Here is my interview with Barbara:
Sammy was our family’s first dog. He was a lovable, loyal hound and my daughter Emma’s best friend. When Sammy turned twelve, we learned he had cancer. Emma was not yet five and had no idea what cancer or death meant. I began writing down Emma’s thoughts and emotions after Sammy died. “Why can’t he come back?” She asked. “Can’t he visit, just for a little while?”
My younger daughter Nora did not understand why Sammy went away. She looked up at the sky and scolded Sammy, “You come down here!” She also thought “Maybe if Daddy gets a really tall ladder he can go get Sammy.”
As I wrote the Sammy book I wanted to capture the emotions involved in losing a pet or a person. It’s difficult and sad and I didn’t want to diminish that. But I also wanted readers, both young and old, to know that they will always hold memories of a loved one in their heart.
Emma and Nora often searched for Sammy in the clouds after he died. I used those scenes to end the book with the young girl spotting Sammy in the sky declaring, “I love you Sammy. You’re still the best hound dog in the whole wide word!”
Many families have told me that the Sammy book is helping their children cope with losing a pet, which is satisfying. Before the book was published I explained to Emma and Nora, “One day the Sammy book will comfort other children.”
Teachers, parents and children often say they cry when they read Sammy in the Sky and Jamie Wyeth even cried when he painted some of the illustrations. But that’s okay. Grief means that you have loved a pet or person deeply.
The book is divided into two storms: the 1935 gale and the tempests that my grandfather created. The 1935 hurricane was the worst tragedy to strike Marystown, a small Newfoundland outport where my grandfather was born. Twelve Marystown fishermen and two boys died when a “devil danced on the water.”
Though I love the ocean, I had no clue about schooners, dory-fishing and the “iron men who sailed wooden ships.”
I interviewed dozens of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia men who had sailed and fished in the early 1900s. I also traveled to Newfoundland three times and spoke to more than 200 people. I talked with Marystown historians, people who had lived in the Newfoundland community when the gale descended. I interviewed several men and women who lost their fathers in the storm. I also talked with a hurricane expert who helped me recreate the 1935 gale.
And I spoke to dozens of family members about my grandfather, who died before I had the chance or desire to meet him. My father also shared stories about Ambrose with me for the first time.
Reporting and writing August Gale tested me more than any other story in my newspaper career. A journalist for many years, I had reported on corrupt cops, bad politicians and mothers who lost their children to cancer or car accidents. I had reported on Massachusetts’ first-degree killer Willie Horton’s prison furlough escape, a story which affected the 1988 presidential election and earned my newspaper a Pulitzer Prize. But I had never written about family.
How does a daughter tell her father’s story? How does she recreate a past that he never wanted to talk about? Writing about my father’s childhood pain overwhelmed me.
“It’s okay,” my dad told me. “I trust you.”
I cried when I hung up the phone. Despite my father’s words, I would fret for nearly a decade while I researched and wrote about the 1935 August gale and my grandfather.
But I later learned that I agonized for nothing. My father loved the book and he is one of my biggest fans, relentlessly selling August Gale at book stores, the golf course, airports, pizza parlors and even to telemarketers.
Both Sammy in the Sky and August Gale are true stories from your life. Would you ever consider writing fiction or do you prefer to write non-fiction?
Because I worked more than 25 years as a journalist, I gravitate toward true stories. My next books will likely be non-fiction, but I wouldn’t rule out writing fiction in the future.
What is your favorite place to read during the summer months?
Reading on our dock is one of my favorite spots. It’s even better when Emma and Nora are lying next to me with their own books.
I’m always curious about authors’ snacking habits. Do you have any favorite reading or writing snacks?
I love crackers and I am a huge Triscuit fan. Crackers and cheese are usually my favorite snack. When I’m writing, I’m usually too focused to snack. I drink a lot of tea in the winter as I write.
Thank you, Barbara! Barbara Walsh will be at the Ellsworth Public Library tomorrow night at 6:00 p.m. to talk about her book August Gale.