This ‘About Return To Sender’ interview was transcribed and edited from a recorded conversation with Roxana Arama, author of Re-Writing History.
As a young Irish immigrant in America, Theo thrives with the help of Solomon, a Nehalem Native-American man. After the Korean War, Theo finds Solomon again, and his old mentor helps him in his struggle against Genghis. You studied the Nehalem culture closely for this novel. Is there a real-life model for Solomon?
Yes, there is. I mean, I didn’t know this man and I didn’t know if he was anything like Solomon, but he left a deep impression on me. When I was about ten years old, my dad and my uncles would go fishing and then we’d go to the Cannery in Wheeler, Oregon, and they would go inside and have a beer and talk for a long time about smoking salmon. For a ten-year old girl with her Barbie doll in tow this was not a very interesting time. So I would go sit outside on the bench and wait. And outside there frequently sat an elderly Nehalem Indian gentleman. It was widely-known there that he didn’t speak.
Back in those days we had popsicles that break in two, (do they still make those?) anyway, I broke my Popsicle in half and handed him one and he said, “Thank you!” That startled me because I didn’t know he could speak. So I said to him, in one way or another, “I didn’t know you could talk. Can you hear me?” The type of thing a ten year-old would say.
He had this cryptic language and tone of voice, very guttural – it was a wonderful, soothing voice, I loved it – and he said “I don’t talk to white people over twelve years old because they’ve lost their souls and don’t know how to listen.” It was a huge statement to ten year old me. I mean, I went for years pondering why people lose their souls after twelve years old. I know I’m not remembering exactly as he said it but that was the essence. It stuck with me as I worried I would lose mine. And then he said, “…but I can tell that you listen.” And I remember thinking, yes, I’m a good listener; maybe I won’t lose my soul.
Those maybe, three times that I sat on the bench with him, he told me stories and said they were Indian stories and that the Indians used to live there and that it used to be his family’s homeland. It all captured my imagination and interest at the fledgling age of ten.
Flash-forward a lot of years and I decided to put this man in my novel, and so unconsciously created Solomon, who is my favorite character in the book. He is a shaman, a healer, and he heals Theo and helps him transcend his current life situation and move onto his destiny.
I instinctively created a healer while I was dealing with cancer. So I really got involved with writing about him as a shaman – what kind of herbs he would’ve used, and all – while I was going through my own healing process. And it wasn’t really until I made it through the cancer and realized I was going to live that I looked back on that writing and had the epiphany that, while I was going through my journey, I subconsciously created what I needed. I needed a healer. I needed Solomon.
Later, I bought Clara Pearson’s book at an auction held by the Oregon State University. She was considered the last living Nehalem Indian and she was interviewed in 1953 by the Oregon State University and they documented it all in a book called Nehalem Tillamook Tales. So I bid on that book and got the only one they had. And I read through those myths, which was very difficult because it’s such cryptic English and the interpretations are a little wonky. It’s a brutal read. But now, all the myths and things that Solomon says in the book come directly from real Nehalem myths as does his language and the way that he speaks. Inspired by that man I met as a little girl, I tried to make Solomon resonate with his spirit that he so generously shared with me.
I wonder if other writers get as attached to their characters; I cried for days after writing what happens to Solomon in my novel, but it had to be that way. Still, letting go of my spiritual healer was difficult, painful and yet timely.
Occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advertisement h
Writers are always in search of the perfect place to write. Some like noisy coffee shops, as I do on occasion, and others need soft music, birds chirping, the sound of water (and a gazillion other personal muse requirements) and some need silence. I tend to need silence when I’m creating, and noisy coffee shops if I seek inspiration. It’s been my life-long dream to have a quite place with a water view where I can write.
Guess what we just bought!!!! My dream. This will be my new writer’s nest (after Sept. 1st), with a view of the Puget Sound. I’m so blessed. Finally the perfect place to write my next book. Return To Sender launches in the fall (mid October) and then I’m heading up those spiral stairs to begin my next book in the perfect place to write.
Return To Sender is based on some true story details. There has been a stack of 1950-54 Airmail envelopes with negatives tucked in the letters stashed in a tin box in my cabinet for close to forty years. I finally took the negatives to the one and only developing company in Bellevue WA that could handle the fragile reproductions. What I discovered was a treasure of forgotten faces. Many of the pictures were from my ex-father-in-law who is now deceased. He told me how he adored the Korean kids, many of whom were orphans, while he was there during the war, and how broken hearted he was to leave them behind. In part, those brief insights into his heart that otherwise seemed as impenetrable as stone, were inspiration for my character Theo’s back story.
LOOK at these faces; How could you not be broken-hearted to leave them behind?
Then, while cleaning out my attic I discovered the full photograph album and love letters written and sent from Korea and Japan.
You can red the interview with a local newspaper here “Author’s book inspired by 60-year-old letters, photos”
Manzanita Oregon is one of the most special places in the Northwest (in my opinion) and since I moved to Seattle I miss going there on the weekends. We only get down to the coast about 3 times a year now, when I’m lucky. The last time I was there my brother Clark took this picture of me and then did a digital drawing of Neahkahnie Mountain (in the background) for me to use on this website. I think it looks great. What do you think? I used it as the header on my home page. I have a talented brother.
Ex-POW, turned Priest, dealing with the remnants of war: Return to Sender
There are countless millions of soldiers who return, or returned home after war unable to forget, tortured by their memories. My father was one such returning veteran. Based on my experiences with him, then later with friends returning from Vietnam, I created a character, Theodore Riley, in my novel, Return To Sender who embodies these issues–or at least as I imagine them. Theo, who upon returning home to his small coastal village of Manzanita Oregon in the 1950’s kept a family promise and took his vows as a Catholic Priest. He now counsels other returning veterans with unconventional (for the 1950’s) wisdom and often uses his hard earned soldier sensibilities to create small town justice.
Theo suffers from PTSD, which of course back then had no name. Men were simply told to “buck up and deal with it” or to “Put it out of your mind”. Liquor was my dad’s escape. Later, for my Vietnam vet friends, it was much harder stuff; heroine, pot, psychedelics, and whatever else they developed an appetite for while in Nam. Not much has changed. These days Vets still return with PTSD, and bring their nightmares, fears, horrors of war home to their wives, husbands and children who can’t relate, and so they just ‘deal with it’. I know we as a culture have come a long way, sadly not far enough to not go to war in the first place, but far enough to recognize the effect on the human spirit. Suicides are skyrocketing among returning vets of our endless Middle East melees’ and though our society is trying to reach out, offer help when and where we can, it will never be enough to end their pain. Anyway, back to my story….
Theo has nightmares, flashes of memory and struggles to return to life as he knew it before he left, before war, before he fell in love with a group of Korean Orphans, and long before he was held prisoner in a POW camp, shot and left for dead. How could anyone not be changed inside and out, heart, body and soul?
Excerpt from Return to Sender; (one year after Theo’s return home)
The children’s dark eyes emerged from the grainy newspaper picture – for a moment I swear they all moved. We were in Pusan. I, in uniform, my M1 strapped to my back, tying shoe laces for the five year old twins who had never seen shoes that tied – one of the girls held her foot, a foot smaller than the palm of my hand, up for me to lace. ‘Riley,’ she called me, all the orphans called me Riley, ‘you tie shoe.’ She smiled and placed her tiny hand on my shoulder.
The following day we were ambushed. She and her sister, shot.
I grabbed a church pew to balance myself. My stomach rose to my throat.
Excerpt from a scene where Theo counsels another veteran who cannot live with what he did in Korea and now contemplates suicide;
He whispered, “Thing is, dying would’a been easy; livin’s what’s hard.”
The weighty lament in his voice concerned me; knew it well, knew where it may lead.
“It is hard.” I said with a sudden clarity about what he, what any soldier needed to hear. I leaned in and said, “Give thanks, you had the power to shepherd evil from this world back to God for His swift judgment. Give thanks you were able to do something about the tribulations brought forth by evil men. Be thankful, knowing God chose you, and that now you will be healed through His mercy. You shot an animal who killed a blameless family. Take comfort that animal never took the life of innocence again. Because you took action. Be proud. Son, for that’s not cowardice.” I sat back from the screen and straightened my collar. A quiet calm washed over me.
He took a deep breath. “Thank you, Father… thank you… My penance?”
“Your penance . . . read in Romans 13, about how the governing authorities are God’s servants, agents of wrath, bringing punishment to the doers of evil. Understand that the Lord uses man-made authority to rain retribution onto the wicked. So, read and find peace in understanding. That’s your penance. Then sleep like sleep is your reward.”
Return to Sender will be released by Booktrope Books in October 2014