tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A conversation about ‘Emerging Son’

Emerging Son, an autobiographical memoir, was published earlier this month. Memoir enthusiasts – especially American men at midlife – are likely to find the book to be a worthwhile read. The last two posts offer excerpts. For information about ordering your copy, see the conclusion of the December 14 post. Following is an interview with author Tom Bengtson.

Why did you write Emerging Son?

The newspapers, big-time magazines and television shows are filled with stories about people who are far from ordinary – movie stars, athletes, politicians, billionaires, or people who have done amazing things like climb Mount Everest, or break a world record, or make some great discovery. The stories of these people should be told, but not to the exclusion of the stories of ordinary people. I am marginally interested in the pro athlete and movie star but I am really interested in the guy who has to figure out a way to put his four kids through school. Or the guy who has to work three jobs to make ends meet, or the person who is trying to understand God. Those are universal struggles that are the stuff of great stories, but too often those stories go unrecorded. Ordinary people need to write their stories down. These stories can be affirming and inspirational to other ordinary people.

So Emerging Son is one of those stories?

It’s the story of an ordinary guy making his way through life from about age 20 to about age 40. The story deals with topics nearly every American guy addresses during that time of life: finding a job, getting married, starting a family, figuring out who your friends are, figuring out that the world doesn’t revolve around you.

You are 43 years old. Isn’t that kind of young to be writing a memoir?

Many of us are familiar with end-of-life memoirs but this is a genre that can work at many points in a person’s life. I wanted to write about this period in my life while it was still relatively fresh in my mind. It is essentially an adult coming-of-age story and I found there was a lot of thinking that went into that maturation process. This memoir tries to tap into some of that thinking.

What kind of ego-maniac writes an autobiographical memoir?

It is true that I am the protagonist in Emerging Son, but my hope is readers will see the book as being more about them than about me. The themes in the book are so universal to typical, middle-aged, white, American males that I hope people see the “Everyman” in my character more than specifically Tom Bengtson.

How long did it take you to write Emerging Son?

The classic answer is “all my life.” The actual writing process started in June 1999 and the manuscript was mostly complete in summer of 2003.

Tell us about the process of writing the book.

I was 38 when I started writing the book and I had it in my head that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was 40. I had always called myself a writer and I felt like the title was a little hollow without a book to my credit. Part of me wanted to prove to myself that I could even write a book-length work, something I had never done before.

A good friend encouraged me to journal and I spent most of that first year on the project doing just that. I wrote down just about everything I could think of from my life – all the little episodes and stories and interesting things that happened, and memorable moments. I put those stories into chronological order and thought I had a book. Then I took a memoir writing class at the University of Minnesota and learned I didn’t have a book at all, just a bunch of ramblings. The class was extremely helpful in terms of learning the essentials of story telling. I learned something about the arch of a story, when to introduce characters, and what level of detail to include. The class was a huge educational step forward for me. So I started over and developed an entirely new draft. I ran that version by my instructor and he very kindly told me it needed a lot of work. I eventually ended up scrapping that version and started over again. The third version took a lot of fine-tuning but it eventually became what is the published book.

What about the process of getting a book published? You went the self-publishing route.

Yes, I did and there are a number of reasons for that. First, NFR Communications is a magazine publishing company but I have thought for a long time I would like to develop a book publishing division or service, so this was a natural way to try that out. Second, I didn’t find the book publishing industry to be interested in my work. I was told 80 percent of books are purchased by women, and that the books purchased by men are generally about investing or sports. The universe of men who buy memoirs is, apparently, very small. Emerging Son speaks mostly to men so I had no luck attracting the interest of any book publishers. Having now published the book on my own, I am hopeful that in the future NFR Communications will be able to help other ordinary people who write worthwhile books bring them to market.

Is everything in Emerging Son true?

Essentially, yes. Whenever you write a story you might have to mold a few episodes to make it work for the overall book, but I didn’t have to do that very much. I addition, you have to work with the limitations of the human memory. I did the best I could, drawing from my memory on some of the episodes from twenty and thirty years ago.

People who know me ask more about the things I left out than about the things I included. For example, I worked for a couple years at Honeywell and at the Minnesota Bankers Association. I don’t mention those two experiences at all. That’s not because I have anything to hide, but simply because my experiences there didn’t fit into the story I was trying to tell. Those first two versions of the book that I scrapped included stories from my work experience with those two organizations. They ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. That, in fact, is where most of my writing ended up. Emerging Son is 227 pages, but I easily wrote twice that in the early drafts.

You spend at least one chapter in Emerging Son describing your faith. Is this a religious book?

Emerging Son certainly is a spiritual book, but there is no preaching in it. I think for any true story about a person to be worthwhile you have to address the big questions: Who are you? What do you believe? Where did you come from? Where do you hope to go? God inevitably is going to be a part of those answers. I try to be honest in the book with my insecurities and doubts, but also about my developing faith and increasing comfort level with my place in this world.

Your father plays an important role in the book. Is Emerging Son a tribute to him?

My father played an important role in by life, so he is important to the book. I think every man has to figure out his relationship with his father. I found this universal experience makes a pretty good basis for a book.

Did you learn anything through the process of writing Emerging Son?

I learned a lot. For one, I think I learned how to be a better writer, and I hope that shows up in my work for NorthWestern Financial Review magazine. Second, I learned a thing or two about story telling. This has sharpened my eye when I watch stories on television or in the movie theatre. For example, it has made me appreciate a really well-written show, like “West Wing.” Third, the writing process helped me to define some direction in my own life. By looking back seriously at where I have been and deciding what’s important, I can see the path I am on. This has helped me to decide whether I want to remain on this path or make changes for the future. And finally, the book writing process taught me a lot about perseverance. Five years is a long time to work on any project, especially for a journalist who is used to daily and weekly deadlines. But seeing this project through from beginning to end, resisting the urge to give up, as been very reassuring for me. A person can accomplish things. It may take time -- more time than you like -- but things do get done if you stick with it.

What’s next? Are you going to write another book?

Well, first I want to devote some energy to promoting Emerging Son. It is a good book that will mean something to a lot of people and I want the book to have the best opportunity possible to reach a wide audience. But beyond that, yes, I hope to write another book. I have a lot of books inside me and the challenge for me is to channel my energies into the most worthwhile project. My next book likely will have something to do with spirituality and the workplace. I do really like memoir, however, and I hope to produce another one, God willing, when the time is right.

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