Monday, September 9, 2013

"Revenge of the Pond Scum" is real!

"Revenge of the Pond Scum' is a delicious title, don't you think? Well, maybe delicious isn't exactly the word you would used for anything to do with scum but I thought delectable was going a bit too far. Still, the title got me interested and the funny, flowing, clear writing kept me engaged.  Today I have an interview with the fascinating author, Kenn Amdahl. I'm sure, after you read the interview, you will have a clear idea of his wonderful writing style and will want to have one of his books for your own. The good news is most are available in ebook form.

Long ago I read a science fiction short story about a crew sent on a mission far from earth.  I don't remember the writer's name nor the title of the story but the plot ideas have long stuck with me. Everyone on the crew had a specific job and expertise from the biologist to the engineer - everyone except one person. The young man stewed and stewed about the fact that, genius that he was, he didn't have a 'job' or a reason to be on the ship. Then one day the crew ran into a problem none could solve even with all their knowledge. It was then the young man's role became clear as he took what he learned from the engineer, the physicist, the biologist, and others to come up with a solution. Reading Amdahl's book reminded me of this science fiction short story. He was the one who didn't have a job on the crew but, in the end, he might be the most critical person of all - Amdahl or someone like him. I am not surprised at some of the responses Kenn Amdahl got from those working on the diseases he was researching.

Available from Amazon or ClearWater Publishing
Thank you, Kenn, for agreeing to this interview.  I know being a researcher, writer and publisher can take most of your time.

Vital Signs, a section of Discovery Magazine, is one of my favorite parts.  Your book had the feel of these folksy medical mystery stories. Did you develop that for this book or are all your books written in the same everyday language tone as "Revenge of the Pond Scum"?

I usually write in a conversational style. Generous people like yourself describe my writing as  "folksy;" others might call it "smart alecky" or "wisecracky."  Pond Scum really is a medical mystery, so I'm pleased it seemed that way to you.

Most of my books try to explain dull subjects in an easier and more fun way; it makes sense to keep the writing livelier than the textbooks I compete with. Once I finally understand something, it's not hard to explain it in simple terms. When we feel a little foggy about an idea, we hedge our language. If you're the head of the Federal Reserve trying to explain a multi-trillion dollar economy that no one understands, you toss out phrases like "over exuberant quantitative easing" and hope everyone else is as confused as you are so they don't ask a follow-up question. If you're a boy trying to explain the way you feel about a girl, you start talking about moonbeams and rose petals cascading down the rainbows of your imagination. When you talk about something you actually understand, you say it simply, like this: "Your spark plug's loose. Tighten it." 

Of course, we all modify our style depending on the mission. There's a site where you can paste some of your writing and the algorithm calculates what famous writer you most resemble. It decided my unpublished science fiction novel is like Arthur Clark. The intro to "Revenge of the Pond Scum" is apparently in the style of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. My funny contemporary mystery, "Jumper and the Bones"  reminded the site of Dan Brown. I'm pretty sure Dan would be insulted by that.

I'd like to try that site myself!

What kind of response did  "Revenge of the Pond Scum" receive from the science community?

The response has been gratifying.  I asked leading experts to review chapters about their specialties. Derrick Lonsdale, M.D., retired from the Cleveland Clinic, actually called me on the phone to talk about thiamine. He's written four books on the subject and was quite excited about my project. Gary Gibson of the Weil College of Medicine at Cornell University was very kind. I had a nice exchange with a legendary world pioneer in iodine research. A guy whose nonprofit coordinates the ALS research of 20 universities said my book "helped him think about ALS." I've had great email exchanges with experts on bats, ethnobotany, fungi and vitamins. Each of them also gently corrected any errors in my own thinking. 

Regular readers have said nice things as well, although that feedback has been limited so far. Unlike most of my books, I released this first as an electronic book and haven't put out a paper version.  Most of my mail comes from readers recently affected by one of the diseases I talk about. They usually say they found the book a useful place to start educating themselves and appreciate that it isn't somber and depressing. Other people just like all the weird scientific tidbits they learned.

I enjoyed the science tidbits but I also know someone who recently died of ALS so that part was also interesting.

Why did you release it as an e-book? 

I decided to do the kindle version before the paper version for several reasons. First, Amazon allows an author to set up a few free days, and I used those to get the book into the hands of hundreds of researchers. If there was anything useful in the book I wanted to make sure they could find it easily. Conversely, if there was anything wrong, I knew they'd let me know. Second, it's much easier to make corrections in an e-book. I didn't want to print thousands of copies of a paper book and then discover it contained some factual error that everyone missed.

I can understand the easy edit part. I used to do my writing on a typewriter.  So glad my blog is electronic!

How long did the research take you? 

The project took about two years. 

Was all your research done from your home and on your computer? 

No, but much of it was.  A friend came down with a disease similar to ALS; I wanted to understand it.  Like everyone else, I started  with Google and Wikipedia and moved on from there. It became a bit of an obsession. I kept notes about what I learned and those notes morphed into the book. Although I did most of the research on the Internet, I also read several books. Often these were obscure or expensive and I had my local library get them for me. I read two fascinating but difficult books on bats, one on the history of iodine deficiency, one on the cycad tree of Guam, a couple on fungus and mushrooms. Other books -- for example, two about epidemics and one about life in the canopies of trees -- that I happened to read when I didn't think I was researching wound up influencing the book as well. 

But the Internet was critical. A couple of incidents made me realize how powerful it's become. The head of Oregon Health Universities, a world renowned researcher, agreed to read a chapter about his specialty  to check my facts. When he first responded to my email, he was in Beijing giving a talk at a conference. Along with his initial reply, he graciously attached a copy of a paper he'd published three weeks earlier describing his studies of an unexplored role of a certain kind of toxin. (Briefly: besides merely killing cells, "excitotoxins" can alter the DNA of surviving cells, particularly nerve cells). It was so new he figured I probably hadn't seen it yet. But actually, I already had seen it, read it, and had incorporated his new findings in the book. On the other end of the scale, the same week, I was also able to read a book published in the 1890s on raising mushrooms, and some largely forgotten studies from the 1930s about using vitamins in conjunction with a treatment program.  Imagine:  I could read scientific papers from a hundred years ago as well as those published last week, delivered within seconds of my keystroke, all while wearing pajamas in my basement. I could swap jokes with a world class scientist who happened to be in China. Ten years ago, I could not have written this book. No one could have. 

There is a dark side to that. It's equally astonishing how much really bad science floats around the Internet as freely as plastic garbage on the ocean.  It takes more time to sort the valid from the crazy than it does to read the studies.

Still, I am with you. The internet has opened worlds for people like never before. I liked it in the beginning because I could send messages at three in the morning when I was working and not disturb anyone...Well, those who keep connected with their phone 24/7 might be disturb nowadays. Today I am fascinated by how much information (and people) are their at your fingertips. However, as you say, there is lots of misinformation out there as well.

Are you still doing more? 

Not in the same intense way, but I'm still interested. I have Google Alerts set to several key words and phrases, so I receive frequent news updates. Every day I read articles from around the world about blue green algae blooms, for example, and shudder at the casual reactions of the local officials. 

What other books have you written? 

I'm probably best known for "There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings."  My other books include two I co-authored with math professor Jim Loats, Ph.D: "Algebra Unplugged" and "Calculus for Cats."  I've published two novels, "The Land of Debris and the Home of Alfredo" and "Jumper and the Bones."  "Joy Writing: Discover and Develop Your Creative Voice" is a condensation of my thoughts on becoming a better writer.  "The Wordguise Alembic" is a collection of essays and poems from my blog, as well sample chapters from each of my books. I released that as a 99 cent kindle book just for fun.  I've written several other novels that aren't good enough yet, so I haven't published them. I wrote a book on music theory for guitarists and a book of musings about becoming more spiritual. Neither of those are ripe yet either, so they remain unpublished. When you are your own publisher, you have to learn to reject yourself and not give in no matter how much you whine.
You certainly have done tons! As an aside, the name Jim Loats struck me so I looked him up on the internet and found he is a math professor at my Alma Mater. I probably took a class or two from him! (six degrees of separation!)

I saw "There are no Electrons" and thought it looked interesting since I majored in scince and took electronics in school.  Can you tell us what that is about?  

It's about the basic concepts of electricity-- voltage, resistance, capacitance, inductance etc. It's an odd and funny little book. As an experiment, I wanted to write a book that was first entertaining and only coincidentally instructive. That is, grab the reader's attention the way a good movie does, and then, while the reader is engrossed and leaning forward, slip some information into his brain when he isn't looking. A reverse educational pickpocket move. The book is pretty silly but many people like it, even if they aren't particularly interested in Ohm's Law.  It inspired all the books for Dummies and Idiots and may be the only book about electricity with back cover blurbs by Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, Dave Barry and George Garrett.Those guys are saints and I owe them big time. Please tell your readers to buy all of their books. 

You heard it, folks. Buy books by these authors. I actually have bought books by three of these guys.

What are you planning for the future? 

Someone just turned "Jumper and the Bones" into a screenplay; reading their proposed "movie version"  reminded me how much fun I had writing that book. Now I'm halfway done writing the sequel. I'm rewriting a science fiction novel I wrote years ago. Dozens of my poems have been published in literary journals, so I keep thinking I probably ought to collect them into a book.

But I'm probably most interested in a mixed media music and history project. One of my sons gave me a very old book of Irish songs published while Thomas Jefferson was President.  It contained cool songs which, I discovered, had fascinating histories. None of the songs have ever been recorded because they had faded away by the time audio recording became possible. Over the last couple of years, I've arranged several and researched the people who wrote them. I hope to release an e-book that includes my version of the songs themselves, plus the history, plus the sheet music and lyrics.  It feels like an honor to have the chance to bring those songwriters and their songs back to life for a while. 

Irish music speaks to me.  I look forward to your book.

Why did you develop Clearwater Publishing

No one else wanted to publish There Are No Electrons and I decided they were all simply wrong. It was rejected 89 times. 

it takes guts to buck the system. How is it working for you?  

It's been fun. I've met many authors, publishers, book store folks and librarians, as well as people who just love to read. Readers and writers are my tribe, so connecting with them is always a joyful family reunion. Plus, I've sold about 100,000 paper copies of There Are No Electrons and it continues to sell reasonably well. I've been making my living by self publishing for 23 years. I'm not rich by any means -- all my vehicles are old enough to vote-- but I'm not complaining. People often tell me that one of my books improved their life in some way, and you can't put a price on that. Many of the companies who declined to publish Electrons have contacted me saying now they'd be delighted to take it off my hands. I've rejected them all. You can't put a price on that either. 

Over 100,000 copies sure does prove someone wrong, at least 89 someones. I have to pick up that book today!

Do you accept other authors? 

Sadly, no. I've tried and only had mixed results. Writing takes  time and so does marketing. When I try to market other people's books, I find I'm cutting into my own writing time.
I guess there's one exception:  my son Paul did pretty well with "The Barefoot Fisherman: a fishing book for kids." He basically self published it under the Clearwater umbrella. He did all the work, including the marketing.  He sold many copies, improved some lives (especially kids who were "reluctant readers") and won an award or two. 

These days, when an author thinks my company would be a good fit for her book, I tell her she should consider self publishing. I recommend she read "The Self Publishing Manual" by Dan Poynter. Publishing is much easier today than when I started. If a book is going to do well, the author will make more money by self publishing. Like ten times more money. If it doesn't sell, at least she'll skip the years of brutal rejection. Plus, she won't have to agonize over what to give at Christmas.

Publishing is fun and easy. Only two aspects are hard: writing a good book and then convincing someone to buy it. 

This has been so enjoyable! Thank you so much for your time! By the way, I think you would be a wonderful fit for Terry Gross’s show ‘Fresh Air’.  I would love to hear you live on the radio.

Remember you can get copies of Kenn Amdahl's work on Amazon and through Clearwater Publishing.

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