Saturday, October 19, 2013

Q&A With Author Sally Ooms

Title: Finding Home
Author: Sally Ooms
Publisher: Home Free Publishing
Genre: Nonfiction

Sally Ooms has been a print journalist for 30 years—a reporter, correspondent and editor for publications in Oregon, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri and Kansas. She has covered spot news, government, education issues, the arts, mental and other health concerns, business, sports and local crises during times of war, and has written hundreds of feature articles and investigative reports. Among the publications she has worked for are: the Sacramento Bee, the Las Vegas Daily Optic, the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Business Weekly, Springs Magazine (Colorado Springs), the Kansas City Star and The Sun newspaper (Johnson County, KS).
In this Q&A Sally candidly talks about her book and her personal engagement with the stories.

H: Talk about your book, “Finding Home.”

SO: I have been a print journalist most of my adult life. I spent four years interviewing people around the country about displacement from the place they called home and hearing how they recreated or regained them. I talked to them about what home means to them as well, and discovered a wealth of meanings in that word or concept.
H: Does the book follow a pattern, regional or otherwise? And why?
SO: The book is divided into about 10 types of displacement—from foster kids to veterans, immigrants to Native Americans, victims of natural disasters to homeless men and women. They all tell in their own voices how they climbed out of their adversities and “found home.” That often meant how they regained their center. Witnessing their determination and grit is what makes the book upbeat in general and downright inspirational at times.
H: How has your personal life experience shaped the way you wrote “Finding Home?”
Throughout my journalism career, displacement has arisen and been a huge issue for me. I gravitated toward, and received assignments, of that nature. For example, I have interviewed farmers who have been relocated from their land and written articles about mental hospital outpatients who were being taken advantage of by boarding house landlords.
At one point, I went to Oklahoma and interviewed Wilma Mankiller who was then chief of the Cherokee Nation. She, of course, talked about the Trail of Tears and this led me to do research into forced relocations of other Native Americans.
As a Midwestern child, I spent time cowering in the basement wondering if my home would be ripped away. And, I was raised by a father who had lost his parents at an early age and had been tossed from family member to extended family member several times in his upbringing. I sympathized with his early-years predicament and learned the importance of family as home.
H: What was the writing process? Did you do it story by story or gather bunches of stories and then put them together?
SO: I began the book after I watched Katrina’s sad aftermath and a tornado destroyed the entire Central Kansas town of Greensburg. I had first-hand knowledge of Greensburg because I traveled through it and sometimes stayed in it on my trip from New Mexico to see my mother in Kansas City.
So, I began investigation of my topic with people who were rebuilding their physical houses and communities. I discovered then that the word home contains a wealth of meanings, from the structure we inhabit to a place strictly in the heart. I decided that was what I wanted to talk to people about. Furthermore, I wanted to hear from people who are on in the fringes of society and have felt isolated or alienated from mainstream America. I saw so many groups of people that we dismiss, either because we do not understand their plights or, if we do, we are clueless as to how we might do anything to uplift them.
I found people who have been dislodged from their core, if you will, and regained their identify and the “place” where they can be their authentic selves.
I did all the things reporters are supposed to do in terms of researching my material. I read newspaper accounts, mined the Internet, read books on the issues related to various types of displacement. I told everyone I came into contact with what I was doing, always carrying my trusty pad with me. People would ask me what I was writing down. That is how I got a tip from a man in a Missouri motel breakfast room, a suggestion from a waiter in a Chicago hotel restaurant and a helpful comment from a fellow subway rider in San Francisco. I talked to people at the head of agencies that are helping people climb out of their difficulties. I heard from friends, relatives of friend and friends of friends.
I set up interviews and traveled to towns, cities and regions around the West, Southwest and Midwest and to Washington, D.C. More often than not, I would arrive at an appointment with a person I thought was crucial to be a part of the book and that person would say, “Sorry, I’m busy today,” or “I just don’t have the time.” They would then lead me to another person who actually turned out to be the perfect person to interview. So, there was a lot of serendipity in the process.
For example, the coordinator of the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans, turned me over to the man who really rolls up his sleeves and creates a home atmosphere for young people who have been incarcerated and have troubled homes. In addition, he had walked the walk himself, having experienced similar troubles in his own youth. He then interested one of the young people in talking with me about her experiences.
Another example would be when, after quite of few days of pursuing the head of a Navajo organization called Forgotten People, (he kindly took me around to chapter house meetings on the reservation to meet people but they only spoke Navajo), he introduced me to his mother and said she was the right person for me to interview. Her story is incredible—a tale that spanned her life as an adolescent sheepherder in remote New Mexico mountains, to her hard-won education and election to the Coconino County (Arizona) Board of Supervisors where she served for 30 years.
Putting together the book was quite a journey. I began to see that it was best not to try and rule the material with an iron fist. There began to be a natural flow as to the people who were “right” to tell their stories. I gained confidence that they understood what contribution they were making to others in relating them.
I also recognized that there is a healing power for people when they tell their stories. I would see them move from the memories of devastation or hardship to pride in overcoming the problems. Pride in what they had accomplished. Gratitude for those who had assisted them.
H: In the process of writing the book, what resonated most with you?
SO: People ask me what I learned in creating the book. I think one of the things I learned is something that I perhaps already suspected: there is increasing connection between and among people, and this connecting is a powerful thing. It particularly comes to the fore when there are hard times or collective predicaments to be tackled.
I have heard people read some accounts in the book and compare themselves to them. “I would never had been so brave,” or “I could never have overcome those circumstances.” But, I think they don’t understand the reserves that they—that we all— have to draw upon. If you have never been tested, as it were, you don’t know what enormous strengths you possess. Or recognize the value of partnering with others toward a common goal until a desperate need arises.
That is why I included the word “prevail” in the subtitle: How Americans Prevail. I saw, and hope others see, how Americans of all shapes, colors and persuasions are discovering what is meaningful to them and taking charge of their lives. They would all agree, I believe, that divisiveness is not the answer. They are living, breathing examples of how we cope, and then go beyond simply coping.
H: What kinds of reception are you getting from people who read the book?

SO: Readers have told me a variety of things in reaction to “Finding Home.”
One woman said she was going to be more patient with her adult son who had a learning disability. Another person said she wanted to start a scholarship organization to help former foster kids get their college degrees. An ex-combat veteran told me the book was important. A retired boat captain says he will tell everyone he knows to read it because these are stories people will want to hear. An investment manager bought 10 copies, saying simply that he loved it. The formerly battered woman who was interviewed in the book came to a reading in Taos and publicly thanked me for writing the  
book and for including her in it. (That, of course, touched me deeply.) I have just completed a six and a half week book tour and will resume it this week. As I travel, I hear how timely the book is and how people have renewed hope in their countrymen and women as they read “Finding Home.” I feel very gratified to hear their comments.
I feel very privileged to have made the acquaintance of my interviewees as well. You can’t hear people’s struggles and follow their accounts through to their triumphs, both large and small, without developing a sense of intimacy with them.
This I think is one of the things I hope people take away, that they “meet” people they might never have come into contact with, that they find some commonality with them. They might say, “Gee, I never thought I would have anything in common with that person, but I might have done the same thing in their circumstances. I might have found that same solution or taken a creative approach like that.”
So, I always hope for a reaction that is more than “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not that there is anything wrong with feeling that. I just want readers to move one step forward toward considering what home means to them and realizing that hopelessness is not really stitched into our consciousness. I believe that hope is.
H: The image on the cover is interesting. Talk about what that means to you.
SO: Jerry Uelsmann is the creator of the photomontage on the cover. He is famous for this technique and taught it in the ‘70s and ‘80s at various schools and universities. His website is really worth checking out. Lots of interesting images. This one was on a postcard that I had sitting on my desk in front of me the whole time I was working on the book.
Once I decided that the issue of home was where I was going with the book, the image became even more linked in my mind with my topic. A huge root system arises from the ground supporting a house. The strength of the support system is symbolic for me of the wellspring within us that grows our sense of home.
I silently kept wishing that I could use the image for the cover. When I moved to San Francisco to get the book published, I found my terrific editor. I told him about my long-time desire to include it in the cover. He said, “Why don’t you e-mail the guy?”
Oh, hmm, now that seemed too simple a solution. However, I did e-mail him immediately, explaining the concept of the book. The next day I heard back that I could definitely use it. It’s funny how we get these, “Oh that could never happen” thoughts in our heads and cling to them.
The overall design is by Stewart Cauley, a New York cover designer who suffered the loss of his own home and business because of Hurricane Sandy. The cover was held up several months because of his circumstances. The publicist and I found it ironic and sad that he had been working on the cover for “Finding Home” when he lost his own. He has now recovered. Perhaps fodder for a second book?
Along that line, I would very much like to travel back east and hear what creative things people are doing to rebuild their lives after the hurricane hit such a populous area. Also, I neglected the east and most of the south in this book except for Louisiana and Mississippi, strictly because I had more familiarity with the areas I went to. I lived and worked in most of the regions in the book, but I’d like to take up other home-related issues with people back east. I’ve done loads of phone radio interviews with stations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and more, so I’d like to follow up.
H: In the course of writing “Finding Home” did you learn something about yourself you didn’t know before?
SO: That I possess that same resilience that I admire in so many others. I just access it differently than I once did, partly because I have taken to heart the examples of the people I had the good fortune to listen to.
It is good that I am half stubborn German and half pig-headed Scot. These traits carry me through when I need them to. But only up to a certain point were these attributes useful in gathering the people for the book and during the process of putting it all together. I had to abandon the “this-is-how-I want-it-to-be” approach to the project and give it over to the universe, in a sense. I had to trust that things unfold as they are supposed to and make room to allow for that in my psyche and my heart. Oh yeh, in my mind too. Did I mention the doubt demons? I think for any author a book is a battle over preconceptions and what is expected.
I guess the short answer is: I learned more about who I am, and I feel more capable of living my calling.
H: When you asked people if they would share their stories through your book, what was the most consistent reaction?
SO: Most understood what I wanted. I would just ask a few questions about their lives and they would start talking. I didn’t have to prompt them much. As I say, I think most were glad to tell their stories.
They were sometimes reassured by the agencies I found them through. It was always a matter of trust but I told each one that they would be able to review their stories (a horrifying pursuit for a journalist, believe me. But necessary.)
Some Native Americans were concerned they would not be able to use their own stories after I published them, that I would have some right to them. I signed things saying that this would not be the case.
I solicited all the stories. The exception was one man who came up to me at a friend’s party in Colorado Springs and said to me, “You have to interview me. I’ve never felt at home anywhere.” Incidentally, he reverses himself in the telling of his story, but it was an interesting account because for him, like so many of us, what home means to us has evolved as we go along in life.