Ron Miner graduated from the University of Rhode Island over 45 years ago with a BA in English. He spent thirty-five of those years as a landscape designer and contractor in Oregon. Continuing to write behind the scenes, he began to assemble a collection of short stories and family history pieces.
In 2011, his father passed away, and the family made some unusual discoveries. A magical trove of artwork, writing, photos, and memorabilia of all shapes and sizes lay dormant among his father’s belongings, giving him a rare insight into what the Second World War in the Pacific theater was really like.
Will: Ron, did you always know you were a writer, or is that something that happened later in your life? What prompted your becoming an author?
Ron: Thanks, Will, for inviting me in for a chat.
In a way, it’s a funny question. I wouldn’t say I excelled at anything in the high school classroom, but science held my interest, and I was told I was pretty good at math. When the dreaded SATs were unleashed my junior year, I scored well in math and miserably in English, enough so, that I was persuaded to take the test a second time as a senior and improved slightly.
In college, I bombed out as a physics major, overwhelmed by organic science, labs, and that abominable calculus with its weird mathematical vocabulary. I dropped most of it before midterm and survived on the remaining three courses that were going much better, one of which was English Literature. So much for SATs.
But an actual writer? No, that wasn’t on my radar then. Yet, using words as I used to use numbers was a pleasant option for meaningful expression, and I kind of took to it. I also found I far preferred writing creatively to slogging through term papers or assignments.
Eventually, I became a landscape designer by trade (one of the other two college courses), and creative writing got away from me for most of the next forty years, other than website development or business-related correspondence. For a while, I considered fashioning a landscape design and construction book with extensive photography and illustrations. Coffee table landscape books were trendy during the 80s and 90s, and our company put together some pretty artistic projects over the years. I just never seemed to find the time to get beyond collecting ideas and project photos and packing them away into various files. The book idea sat on the back burner and the birthdays flew by.
Then something unexpected happened.
I received word that my father had passed away, and it opened my eyes and heart to writing about a subject I had never considered. I was beginning to scale back my landscape operation anyway and started my first book as we headed into the fall and winter of 2011. It was something I’d never experienced before: a convergence of available time, an engaging subject, and extraordinary motivation.
Will: Can you share your writing process with us—how you get from “idea in your head” to “words on a page?”
Ron: It varies. Sometimes an inspiration simply happens. It could come from a book or a movie, perhaps an encounter of some kind on a train or on a hike. A concept jumps out and the juice starts to flow. We’ve all seen a film and said to ourselves, “I wish I’d thought of that.” There are so many storylines that have gone through countless mutations and are unrecognizable as a new piece of fiction. I mean, how many snobs have inherited an old Tuscan winery and then thought they wanted to sell it? However, I think I get the most satisfaction when an arbitrary thought dances through my head, unanticipated and original, and then it hits me! If I’m lucky, I grab a notepad and hammer out a few sentences describing the “it” before it gets away.
I am not a spontaneous writer, blessed with the ability to sit down and effortlessly rattle off prose by the page. It’s more of an exercise for me. Often, I need to move around as I work on the rough draft to explore where certain aspects might be going. In my novel, for instance, I began with the general idea for the ending first.
Once I can pull together enough coherent pages, it takes multiple rewrites before I’d dare let anyone see it. Edit, edit, and so on. Like I say, slow as molasses. In landscape work, I used to tell my crew to stand back and look at what they were doing from a short distance. It’s easy to get too close to your work. In writing, I find that a chapter or essay works far better if I can set it aside for a week or more. Get some distance from it. The next time I have a look, it’s with new eyes. It also helps to have a terrible memory.
Will: Your first book, Sketches of a Black Cat, is a direct result of your finding “a magical trove of artwork, writing, photos, and memorabilia of all shapes and sizes” left by your father after his passing. That sounds like something from a movie. Can you tell us about the discovery and then how you wove all that material into such a compelling book?
Ron: The Discovery is actually a chapter title because that’s exactly the way it unfolded. My father was typical of many World War II veterans in that he didn’t talk about the war very often with the family. He sometimes shared a funny anecdote or mentioned an old “buddy” who had gotten in touch, but most of the post-war energy for returning servicemen like my father was focused on reentering society, meeting the right girl, raising a family, and starting a career. It was the 50s and the economy was booming due to war-time levels of production. So it was common to put the war stories behind them and move on.
Consequently, I didn’t know much about his World War II experiences. However, I did know my dad was an artistic fellow in a whole host of ways. When I was a young boy, he surprised me one day by showing me the contents of a manilla folder in a file cabinet in our basement. In it were sketches of planes, jungles, and soldiers—wonderful stuff for a kid. He had done them all during the war, much of it in Guadalcanal. I secretly took friends to visit the folder for, I don’t know, a year or so, when I suddenly found the cabinet locked. My dad was on to me. I didn’t see them again as a young man.
When he passed away early in 2011 at 93, we endured several months of confusion and disorder involving his actual status. His second wife was in declining health, difficult to communicate with, and they lived 3000 miles away. It took six months before we could even arrange a service and visit the house.
When we finally made the trip to New England, the house had been empty for years. It would be an understatement to say going through his effects was unpleasant. Rodents of all kinds had been there first. I worried about the condition of his artwork and if it was even there at all. I was thrilled to find it intact, and our search also uncovered another several boxes of notebooks, photos, and keepsakes that I had never seen before. It was a moment filled with electricity, and I suspected his entire wartime story was scattered within these boxes––if I could only piece the puzzle together.
It began with the artwork. I decided on a creative design for the book, using a sketch or painting to begin each chapter. My landscape office became the bunker, with writing, photos, graphics, maps, and research materials stacked about like a 1940s police detective’s room. I read his writing, journals, logbooks, and official Navy War Diary. There was a collection of magazine articles, letters written home, and hundreds of black and white photos, many with descriptions on the back. I decided to use the outstanding graphics throughout the book as part of the narrative.
I connected with a talented artist and book designer, Anneli Anderson (StudioAnneli), who took my rough layout, text, and assorted materials to heart and gave the book an inventive, scrapbook appearance. Our collaboration has continued now for two books and second editions. Initially, Sketches of a Black Cat was only available in full color, but the cost for self-publishing in color was somewhat prohibitive. We decided to release a black and white and later, an ebook, along with the collector’s edition in full color.
Will: Is it fair to say that your second book, The Last Word, is the result of the reception Black Cat got? I know that although The Last Word is a novel, it is based on actual events and anecdotes you compiled by interviewing ten World War II veterans and painstakingly recording their stories. Can you tell us about that fascinating process?
Ron: Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist with an assignment in the year 2038. It’s an interview with an old man––a very old man. And he fought in World War II.
The Last Word is the unquestionable by-product of Sketches of a Black Cat. My initial opportunity for a real interview with a World War II veteran came in 2013. As luck would have it, he had read a brief snippet in the paper about my initial book launch at a small, local college. He walked up forty stairs using a cane, waited in line with a newly minted book under his arm, and promptly handed me a photo of my father, picturing the two of them at a squadron reunion together. I still get goose bumps when I recall his words: “I knew and flew with your father.”
His was the first of nearly a dozen videotaped interactions with men who were members of a night flying Navy squadron that also included my father. Dad, indeed, had left behind a trove of writing, memorabilia, and documentation about his adventures as a part of this little-known group of flyers, but I had published the book after his death, and there were many unanswered questions. With the opportunity to speak to his colleagues came a reprieve, a second chance to ask them about the things I could never ask him. As the book caught on, I continued to film interviews with veterans up and down the West Coast. I developed friendships and accumulated priceless narratives. They told me stories with humor, sincerity, and tears––stories that begged for an audience. By 2018, I knew it was time for a new book.
There was another influence. A big one. This wonderful group of ninety-somethings who had so graciously invited me into their homes were passing away. I was attending funerals and losing friends. I found myself wondering, How long will it be before they are all gone?And beyond that,someday in the not-so-distant future, this process will play itself out until the last veteran in all of World War II surrenders to time.
It suddenly occurred to me that I should create that individual now.
I again put pencil to paper (OK, fingers to keyboard), and started developing a novel, my first attempt at historical fiction. I was a reasonably experienced interviewer by then, had a wonderful assortment of compelling tales to draw from, and a pretty good notion of what my last World War II veteran might like to say on behalf of his comrades, given the chance. His personality grew into a composite of all the gentlemen that I’d interviewed, his mind filled with memories of skies above vast, unexplored regions, expansive seas between tiny specks of Pacific coral, and the nostalgia borne from well over a hundred years of living. While my fictitious character recounts his story in 2038, it becomes a way of emphasizing how fragile––how finite––the World War II generation and their in-person accounts are today.
Will: Your works are a glowing tribute to “The Greatest Generation,” and I understand that you are still involved with these heroes. What are some of your ongoing projects on behalf of Black Cats and World War II veterans?
Ron: I’ve had numerous meetings with museum curators and staff trying to develop exhibits that would showcase the Black Cat squadron, whose legacy is still one of the least known to come out of World War II. I then began to develop a documentary using the footage from interviews and the collection of photos and video from my library. I got as far as an eleven-minute trailer available on Youtube, which I’ve also given to museums and use for presentations. Movie making is a lot of work!
I’ve reeled in some of the more ambitious projects, and now try to promote the books and use Facebook as a forum, blog, and communication tool of sorts. Some of my ads continue to cast the net for squadron members, hoping to connect with a few more on the West Coast, but time is not on our side. I’ve launched a new post called “Help Me Tell Their Stories” that I hope will be a platform for families of World War II veterans who might wish to furnish accounts that may never find their way into print, so that I can compose and share them with readers of my posts.
Will: Can you tell us what the self-publishing process has been like for you? Unlike novels which are plain text, your books have photographs, maps, drawings, all of which make them exponentially more difficult to manage. How did you do it? Do you have advice for other indie authors who may be daunted by all that?
Ron: Self-publishing has been a mixed bag. I enrolled in a self-publishing seminar as I was working on my first manuscript. I ended up showing a few chapters to the instructor over lunch, using the complication of artwork and graphics as a ruse to get him to look at it. I was shocked when he smiled and started passing chapters around the table. This instructor became a wonderful advocate and encouraged me to self-publish, describing it as the wave of the future. So, I tried it.
The print book was high-resolution and the file was huge. Reducing resolution very much made some of the images on the Kindle file blurred or otherwise garbled. The file size added a lot to Amazon’s delivery cost, and to the selling price of the ebook. The layout, including fonts, drop caps, and the images in both booksis pretty complicated, especially Sketches. Things can also move around depending on the device and often escape from where they were intended. I think some of this might have been avoided with a conventional publisher.
Overall, I am very pleased with the quality of the print books and the publishing-on-demand aspect works for me. I was relieved not to be saddled with a garage full of books.
I seriously considered conventional publishing with The Last Word, and at times, still wish I had gone that route. I felt this was a truly unusual storyline and wanted it to have the widest possible audience. However, it was somewhat time-sensitive, in that it presupposes a date in the near future and was inspired by interviews with elderly people who I hoped to share it with. I was afraid to wait the two years it might take to get through the publishing process. Of course, now, we are beyond that anyway.
I depended on a pro to help with the formatting and setup. I would have had no idea how to create a master file like the ones for Sketches or The Last Word. In fact, it was tricky for Anneli at times, but I like to say that she not only pulled it off, she added the sparkle.
This process definitely adds a layer of cost and carries some risk if you find the book doesn’t sell. In my case, I was determined to tell my father’s story. I looked at it as an expenditure I might make for a vacation or favorite pastime, as something that I wanted to do and not as an investment. The fact that the book has been relatively successful for a self-published book is both unexpected and gratifying.
You never know.
Will: What can we expect from your next project? Can you share a behind-the-scenes peek with us?
Ron: I’m currently working on a local history project about a small Oregon community founded in the mid-1800s. The early pioneers are fascinating individuals, and to dig into the lives of folks whose names adorn street signs and creeks today is quite an experience.
For me, non-fiction is tough. Sometimes I find I’ve been working all morning and have a single, tangled up paragraph to show for it. Research is time-consuming and distracting, partly because it’s interesting. I find I now prefer fiction, and especially historical fiction. That way, if you really get stuck, you can just make it up.
I enjoy short story writing and will probably bundle together a collection at some point. I also think I’m old enough to be thinking about that memoir. If not now, when? If you wait too long, you might lose the ability to do it, and if you do it too soon, you might miss the best thing you ever did.
I think you should relive your life in prose while you can and see if you can determine what that gleam in your parents’ eyes amounted to. Hey, at least someday they’ll have something to use for your obit.
Will: Ron, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating “writer’s journey” with us. This has been a real joy.
Here are links to Ron’s books: