Katie: I’m pleased to interview today memoir author Dick Drechsler. Dick has written a compelling, personal account of his struggle with neck and throat cancer. He regains limited use of his throat. Not willing to postpone his lifelong dream to cruise throughout the world aboard his sailboat, he sets out on a voyage of adventure and discovery sailing from Mexico to Alaska.
Dick, tell us a little more about your book, Manning Up in Alaska. Why did you decide to chronicle this part of your life?
Dick: So many things in life, Katie, happen by accident, and this is no exception. During the summer of 2007 my story of surviving cancer, losing the ability to eat any food, and deciding to cruise the world, caught the attention of the publisher of Latitude 38, a well-respected West Coast sailing magazine. The month after he published an article about me, my blog, www.voyagesoflastresort.www, received over 50,000 hits and the realization that I was inspiring others provided the impetus for me to form the Sail Through Cancer Foundation. Subsequently, I had a number of people tell me I should write a book about my story, but since my wife, Sharon, is a writer by trade, I always imagined she’d be the one to write a book, not me.
But during the winter of 2008 I was snowbound in the Pacific Northwest aboard our sailboat, Last Resort, and not being one to be caged, I had to funnel my creative juices somewhere. I actually set out to make a coffee-table book to showcase some of the spectacular scenery I’d captured during our Alaskan adventure. Thinking I’d write a short preface about my 50-year sailing history, I started writing what was to be a couple of pages. Before I knew it, I had 50 pages and, at that point, realized I had enough material to write a book. That’s how it happened.
Katie: Have you written other memoirs of different parts of your life? Why or why not? Are you planning to write more?
Dick: Manning Up In Alaska is my first book. About 25 years ago a couple of friends of mine, Hollywood screenwriters, took some interest in my early family history and tried to make a go of a movie proposal. It lost momentum during the writer’s strike in the early Eighties and never went anywhere. But now, Sharon and I have decided to collaborate and turn it into a novel, which we’ve started writing.
Katie: What was the most difficult part of writing this memoir?
Dick: I learned something about writing a book. By the time you get to the fifth chapter, you forget everything you wrote in the first chapter. I found that the only way I was able to write was to find a big block of time so I could reread everything I’d written so far to remember all the threads I’d started and get back into the same frame of mind. I found the easiest time to do that was late at night, after Sharon went to bed. So from around 11 p.m. until sunrise, every night for a month in December, 2008, I wrote the book.
Katie: As a result of this part of your life, you started a foundation called The Sail through Cancer Foundation. Tell us more about this foundation, why you started it, how it operates, and your vision for it in the future.
Dick: As I mentioned, the publisher of Latitude 38 wrote an article about me in the August, 2007 issue. After that, I began to get hundreds of emails from fellow-cancer survivors and others, telling me how inspirational my story was to them. You know, it’s hard to see yourself as providing inspiration to others, because it’s just your own story, and everyone has a story. But I began to realize that my story really was resonating and seemed to be helping thousands of others. I believe to this day that I am living a borrowed life, as I was only given four-to-six months to live when my cancer was first diagnosed. Thinking that I should be able to do more to help others I envisioned the foundation. The primary mission of the Sail Through Cancer Foundation is to provide cancer survivors, especially children, a brief retreat on the water aboard a volunteered yacht in what we call our “Armada of Hope.” In addition, we are advocating a Six-Point Call for Presidential Action to reform the national response to cancer. I recently presented this plan at the Newsmaker series of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. That launched a grass-roots effort to bring this plan to the attention of the President and the nation. You can read the entire plan on the foundation’s website, www.SailThroughCancer.org.
Katie: This book is traditionally published. Do you have an agent, or were you able to contract with a publishing house personally?
Dick: When I first finished the manuscript, I had no idea what to do with it. I contacted a friend of mine who’s a lawyer in New York and he recommended several agents. At the time, the economy was in freefall and, while I received positive feedback from all of them, the genre was out of their normal representation and they didn’t feel that they would have success with the book. So I struck out on my own and sent query letters to three publishers. I didn’t want it to be “type-cast” as a nautical book, because the book really has three distinct themes, survival, adventure and inspiration. Since it does revolve around a sea tale, however, it seemed the path of least resistance would be to approach publishers of nautical works. The third publisher who received the query expressed interest. He later said “Every once in a while a book comes along that you just can’t put down. Occasionally, you’ll come across one that also inspires you.” Little Harbor Publishing, Inc. subsequently published the book.
Katie: If you plan on writing future books, will you take the same publishing path? Why or why not?
Dick: I’ve already had several agents contact me about a second book and I believe I will hire an agent for my next work. A large publisher has resources available to an author that a small publisher simply can’t provide. But whether you self-publish, work with a small publisher, as I did, or go with one of the large, ‘mainstream’ publishers, the reality today is that much of the success is predicated on the author’s own efforts.
Katie: How difficult was it to edit your memoir? Did you have editorial suggestions from your publisher?
Dick: Funny you ask. While I wrote the original manuscript in one month, it took almost three months to finish the book, as it went through two complete edits. Before I released it to the publisher, I had a friend of mine, Gary Garfield, who is a doctor of education, review and edit the book. After that, the publisher edited the book, so I went through two complete edits and substantial rewrites before the book went to press. I think the editing process was far more difficult than the initial writing.
Katie: How much self-promotion have you had to do with your book? What worked best for you? What worked least?
Dick: I’m still learning about how to promote the book. Lucky for me, my wife is in the public relations business, although in a totally different field. We’ve been learning together and have had some degree of success in creating visibility for the book. What works best is when I can personally appear in front of groups and tell my story. Other than the National Press Club appearance, we haven’t yet had much luck generating radio and television interviews, but that will be the next major effort. If people hear my story, they seem to want to buy my book, so we have to expand my personal exposure.
Katie: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone who wants to write a memoir?
Dick: First, don’t be compulsive. I was very excited to get the book to press and publicized and we have had some false starts as a result. Second, don’t give up and keep a positive attitude. The publishing business is changing rapidly, providing new challenges, but also new opportunities for authors. I didn’t seriously consider self-publishing my book, but having learned a lot about this possibility since writing it, I believe self-publishing is a viable option for many authors. Lastly, have fun. During my career, I really abhorred public speaking, but since I’m passionate about the work of the Sail Through Cancer Foundation and the inspiration I believe my book can provide to anyone facing a life-threatening challenge, I love speaking to groups about it, especially groups of cancer patients and survivors.
Katie: Thanks, Dick, for being my guest on my blog today. You can order Dick’s book from the www.ManningUpInAlaska.com website, which has links to Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and West Marine, which all carry the book. Dick can be reached personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.