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EdIowaCity
Posts: 4
Registered: ‎10-19-2006

Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Colson - I have read through the first four chapters so far and, like the others who have posted, I'd like to thank you for sharing the book with us in advance of it being available for purchase.  I have not read any of your other work so am enjoying getting to know something about you through both the book and through the questions you've answered here.  I was born and raised in small town Iowa (now live in Iowa City) so never had an experience of spending summers near the ocean nor of long periods of time away from parents -------- except time spent at grandparents homes where there clearly were still older family members around.

 

Some things I've enjoyed about the book thus far:

 

- In the first chapter you had a section when they first arrived at Sag for the summer where you wrote " . . . I retreated into that early-summer dream of reinvention, when you set your eyes on September and that refurbished self you were going to tool around in . . . " which made me think of some of my own summers when it seemed there was so much time to make use of that surely I'd be a markedly different person at the end of those three months.  Usually, I wasn't a markedly different person at the end of the three months, however. :smileyhappy:

 

- I was the youngest of 4 kids --- by a lot ---- my nearest brother was 10 years my senior and my oldest sister graduated from high school the year I was born.  So, I enjoy the closeness of the relationship between Ben and Reggie as a sibling near my age wasn't an experience I had.  Just having read the chapter about the bb gun battle, it was touching to read about Ben wanting to do it when Reggie wasn't there so he wouldn't get hurt.  Just as touching was Reggie's desire to protect Ben after he'd been injured.

 

- One of my good friends in high school worked at the Baskin Robbins in Iowa City during high school.  He used to talk about how all that work with the ice cream scoops helped build up the biceps.  Did you notice any such effects on your physique during the time at the ice cream shop? :smileyhappy: I do remember the introduction of the waffle cone to the ice cream world.  It was like all of a sudden here was this thing called a waffle cone that we'd never heard of before.  I have to say I'm maybe a bit old fashioned when it comes to ice cream cones.  I like the old style cones better than either the sugar cone or the waffle cone.  Seems like the plainness of that kind of cone makes the real experience ---- the ice cream ----- even more tasty.  I feel bad that working there ruined the world of sweets for ya, though.  I have an incredible sweet tooth ----- probably encouraged by the fact that both my grandmothers were they type that always had cookies, cakes, and pies at the ready!  I still look forward to warm summer nights in Iowa and the pleasure of a good ice cream cone.  

 

- I really enjoyed the sections you wrote about the crowds watching the waffle cones being made.  Could really see the scenes based on the descriptions you gave.

 

- Since I just ended the chapter maybe something is yet to come but I was really surprised that the description of Ben's injury from the bb fight seemed like it was something that couldn't possibly have gone unnoticed once the parents were there but it did.  Thought that added a bit of mystery ---- were Ben and Reggie exaggerating what the wound was or were the parents just totally unobservant?

 

- In most cases the parents and grandparents seemed like non-entities.  I think there was more than one instance where doors were closed when the gang went into a certain house. Made me think a bit of the parents in the animated "Peanuts" specials where they were these disembodied voices off camera that were even unintelligible voices.

 

I look forward to finishing the book and hope to offer some more comments as I read or when I'm finished.  

 

 

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blkeyesuzi
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Colson,

 

I finished your book and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the experience.  The ending was lovely. Start to finish, your book is a winner as far as I'm concerned!

 

Thank you, again for bringing it to us.  I'm so glad I was a part of this FirstLook!  Thanks to this experience, I've discovered a beautiful book and a fine author who I am sure will bring so many more great works.  I'll be looking forward to reading more!

Suzi

"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see. " --John Burroughs
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booksJT
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Thanks Colson Whitehead for allowing me to read your new book ahead of time. Who inspired you to become a writer? Who are some of your favorite authors? I also  like the characters you decided to use. Good luck with the sales of your new book. I hope to be reading some more of your work in the near future.
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jclay26
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Registered: ‎10-19-2006
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Mr. Whitehead, 

 

I first want to say that I am really enjoying your book. This is a fantastically written book. The prose is so thought-provoking, humorous, and engrossing. I find myself thinking about Benji and his experiences long after I have set the book down. I love how you use humor to bring important issues to the readers' consciousness. 

 

Were you hesitant about using so much profane language in the book?  I have noticed in other books I have read that the authors shy away from using profane language and it is to their detriment in my opinion. It seems they may be fearful of offending their audience. Your use of the language in such a realistic way was what really brought me into the story. I used quite a bit of profane language growing up (more than any teenager should use) and it just became a natural part of my vocabulary. I remember playing around with the different words and learning how to use them in the proper sense because it made me feel more adult-like.

 

I have to mention I LOVED the Coke story - hilarious! I could feel your desperation. What if they had never made the real Coke again? Thank God New Coke was a disaster!

 

One more question: How long did it take you to complete this book start to finish?

 

I will definitely pick up your other books to read. I have read some of your interviews online and your comments here on the discussion board and I love your sense of humor and the way you leave many things unanswered to be interpreted by us (the reader). 

 

Thank you for sharing this book with "First Look". It has brought back so many memories of growing up in the ‘80s and the struggles of trying to figure out who I was and searching for where I fit in. 

 

Janice

What you have to do...is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself. - Tim O'Brien; The Things They Carried
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Sarita_Li
Posts: 25
Registered: ‎01-30-2009
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Mr Whitehead,

 

Ok, I finally have a question for you. :smileywink:

 

 It has been said that you got your real writing start doing reviews of music, books, and television for Village Voice. How did you get that job? Also, it looks like you didn't have an awful lot of experience writing prior to this? How did you break into the niche of review-writing? It isn't necessarily something that comes naturally.

 

I'm always curious about how established writers got their start, & how they got noticed in the first place. I apreciated your earlier comment about a need for rent money being a strong incentive to hone your craft.

 

I'm lovin' Sag Harbor- it's gettin' to me!

 

Sarita Li

 

 

Sarita Li
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Colson_Whitehead
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Registered: ‎01-22-2009
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


KimTX wrote:

Hi Colson,

  Your book is so funny...and even though you are writing as a young black man, I can relate to the experiences and feelings you describe (a white woman). It facinates me that life is like that...there is a certain universality to being human and the growth experiences and yet there are such differences between generations, genders and races. I love that "messiness" of life, even as it frustrates the hell out of me! And books that can be hilarious and heartbreaking and can reflect that really resonate with me, so thank you for writing something so enjoyable to read!

  Anyway, I wondered what your father's reaction to your book is, or if he is not still with us, what was the reaction to other family members? I could so relate to your descriptions of him--it was as if you were writing about my own dad in some ways. Also, how did you decide where to start in your book and what incidents to write about? It seems to me that some of the most interesting parts are just those tiny slices of life that hardly seem worth writing about, and I am wondering as a writer how you decide to put them together the way you did.

   It is a great book, and again, thank you!

Kim


 

Hey Kim,

 

 

Glad you are enjoying the book!

 

Has my dad read the book? Gee, why would you ask that question? :smileywink:

Let's just say that the members of my family who have read the book have enjoyed it, in particular for bringing back the old town and community they loved.

 

In terms of which episodes I decided to use... I wrote down typical summer landmarks (Labor day, bbq'ing, going to the beach) and teenage preoccupations (the opposite sex, crappy job, favorite songs) and then tried to figure out how Benji would interact with them, which ones could yield fruitful episodes.

 

You and I don't have the same exact circumstances, but how can I take our common sense of summer and adolescence and get something going? Benji has specific circumstances, but surely you can relate if I get it right -- that was the idea.

 

And yes, grilling and going to the beach are every day activities, so...how do you animate them in a way that serves the story? I was constantly trying to "open up" these experiences so that the novel could find space in them.

 

Thanks

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


blkeyesuzi wrote:

Colson,

 

I am SO enjoying your novel.  I really don't want it to end.  Your writing is superb and I plan to be a loyal reader. I'm hooked!

 

There's a part in the book (p.61) were you and Marcus are comparing Kraftwerk's original tune from Trans Europe Express as it's found in the music of Afrika Bambaataa's new work. 

 

You explain that you didn't understand back then why Marcus was having a problem with the idea of you pointing it out or suggesting that it was "stolen", but that you "get it now"... that the art was converting it to a new use and you explained that you didn't say this at the time and you didn't know even know it yourself at the time.

 

I realize that this event may not have actually happened to you. However, I was touched by how it resembled little moments that happened in my past and how I would love to have an opportunity to perhaps explain myself to my friends in retrospect...now that I HAVE the words.  I know this is a small thing, but so many times I've looked back to moments from the past with long-lost friends and have sometimes wished I could explain to them now what some of those little things really meant to me.

 

I'm not sure if  this was expressed eloquently enough, but my question is this:  

 

Do you feel that parts of this book will prove to be therapeutic in allowing you to explain a few things to some people you care about? or are events so entirely fictionalized that no one you know would really recognize anything of note?


 

 

blkeyesuzi,

 

 

Thanks for the kind words...

 

 

There is no particular person I was thinking of -- it is an invented episode -- but certainly the spirit of reconciliation in there. I was trying to address a general wish of wanting to get it right, and use something very important to Benji -- music -- to do it.

 

I'm a big consumer of pop culture -- I was a former critic, and I like writing about it.

 

Since my protagonist was a teenage boy, I wanted to use his cultural tastes to animate certain ideas I wanted to get across.

 

There's no one person I'm "trying to reach." I pretty humbled that I get to reach perfect strangers!

 

All best

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


Saundra_SFO wrote:

Mr. Whitehead,

 

This is my first experience of your work and "first look" and I really appreciate your willingness to share your journey this way.  I am really enjoying the book and I am finding that it is not a quick read as I originally thought.  You appear to purposefully shift the style of the language between the two worlds that Ben is living in and I am wondering if that is my projection or your intention.

 

I really enjoyed Ben's reflection on "hacky sack" and other activities that his white friends engage in and how he sees the value in those activities (reflective and funny - thanks).  I particularly enjoyed and even felt his apprehension when the new handshakes were breaking out for the first time.

 

Thank you for representing the "particulars" of both races so eloquently.  After all everybody really is "faking it."

 

Peace,

 

SD


 

Saundra,

 

Thanks for joining the book club.

 

Are you projecting? I don't know. I'm not sure if I follow what you mean by "two worlds," because I see Benji as being caught between so many different worlds that I can't pin down which two you are referring to.

 

Come on back and let's figure it out.

 

All best 

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


libralady wrote:

Hi again,

 

I am very close to finishing Sag Harbor, and I wanted to tell you that I have really enjoyed reading it.  It is somewhat different from the books I have chosen in the past, but I am enjoying the writing style a lot.  So, at the risk of being redundant, thanks so much for making this book available to us!  Now for my question, can you share with us what made you decide to make this book available to B&N First Look?


 

Libralady,

 

That's an easy one -- they asked me!

 

The book hasn't come out yet, so I haven't talked it to death yet. So a lot of these questions are things I haven't been asked before, or are about parts of the book that I didn't know people would be interested in. That's always a nice surprise  -- to see what affects people.

 

You never know, sitting at home.

 

You also never know what irritates people -- but people will tell you!

 

 

Thanks,

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


sczjames wrote:

Dear Mr. Whitehead,

I am always very excited to read a book that promises to bring me into a world that seems so different from mine.  One of the best things a book can do for me is to get me inside the head of another person;  to see their thoughts developing, understand their experiences and feel their feelings.  While I am only a few years older than Benji and Reggie, I grew up in a very different part of the country and in a very different family.  It has been wonderful to feel myself inside Benji's head and find both striking similarities and vast differences between our lives.  At first I kept stopping to step back and ponder, "Is this the real part or the autobiographical part?".  But soon I realized that it didn't matter and just plunged in and enjoyed the literary ride.  Thanks for the book and best of luck to you in the future.


 

 

sczjames,

 

Thank you for your comments, and for taking the time to read my book.

 

You said: "At first I kept stopping to step back and ponder, "Is this the real part or the autobiographical part?".  But soon I realized that it didn't matter and just plunged in and enjoyed the literary ride."

 

To which I say: "Yeah, that can probably get tedious, all that wondering. Better to think, Is this a good part or a boring part? At least you can get straight answer on that one!"

 

All best

 

Colson

 

 


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


StellaBee wrote:

Colson,  I finished your book this afternoon, laughing out loud at times as I read and feeling pensive as well.  The story is thoughtful and entertaining.  I'm wondering why you chose not to end your book with a "where are they now?" character summary.  At the end of "The Gangsters" chapter, you alluded to future realities; however, I was left hanging, wondering what happened to the major characters as they grew into early adulthood and beyond. Does your ending signal a follow up to Benji's/Ben's story?  Thanks for sharing your book with First Look.

 

 


 

StellaBee,

 

Thanks for playing!

 

I felt that where they are after the summer of '85 is already kinda written in where they are in the summer of '85. You know what I mean?

 

I've never brought back a character for a return engagement. But if I were ever to do it, Benji is probably the one I would use again.

 

All best

 

Colson


 


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Vermontcozy
Posts: 5,276
Registered: ‎10-20-2008

Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Being an observer of human behavior,like I am feeling you are,this was probably a bit different for you..Then I read posts by you,and then I felt you were really enjoying this.......so my question is,will you come back (you can just use any screen name,if you wish) and join in ,we are such amazing group here,it might be fun for you to go undercover,as we all are..Many Happy Years to you and your Family, I felt close to your thoughts  after I finished it...Thanks Colson,Mazel to you.. Vtc.(my daughter is relating well and most of all your street wise ways,and your reflective way of writing...From Her...VTC....
Kindness,I've discovered,is everything in life...Issac Bashevis Singer
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detailmuse
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


Colson_Whitehead wrote:

I've been following the posts since last week, and it has been an interesting experience.


Lots of authors talk about their writing process but this prompts me to ask about getting reader feedback. Have you had some memorable experiences on the street, at signings, via mail? And specifically, what's it like to log on here and read these threads? How do you incorporate -- or shake off -- feedback?

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nytngale128
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

This is not a question but a thank you. Sag Harbor wasn't just an eye opener in some about growing up and learning about life but it reminds me of many of the summers I had when I was growing up. I was very independent at a young age and grew up fast at the  age of 16 which was probably the age you were at time or close to it. As I was growing up I felt like my brothers (I was the oldest sister) were my children alot of the time. Did you feel like you were you brother's keeper? Do you feel like you grew up quicker than you should have?

Thanks for a great book!

 

sjj
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sjj
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

Thank you Mr. Whitehead, for allowing us to read your book and to talk with you about it.  I had so many emotions as I read it - many times comparing the experiences of Benji and his friends to those my own sons went through (that I knew about), and my own life during this period that was Benji's formative years.  I was a teenager in the late 70's and early 80's, so many of the iconic images remain vivid.  I work in education and am troubled by racism that still occurs today, as well as stereotypes.  I found myself very troubled by the unspoken racism that occured, though I am conscious enough to know it still happens today.  I sensed that Benji and his friends just knew that was how it was.  Sometimes we wonder why behavior is the way it is, neglecting to see how we have encouraged it.  I just admire you for writing such a novel and I learned cultural norms that I would not have been introduced to if I had not read it. 

 

My questions to you would be, "What were your feelings after the novel was finished?  Did you see it as a piece of literature that could educate others?"

 

Thanks! Stephanie

 

 

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detailmuse
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?

I read your cover letter’s characterization of Sag Harbor as your “Autobiographical Fourth Novel,” and anticipated a mostly real-life story that included some made-up/rearranged parts for storytelling purposes. I was happy about that, because it seems more honest than labeling something a memoir and then embellishing it. And I really enjoyed the book -- virtually every sentence (!) on its own, and then all of it together.

 

But now, I’m discouraged to read your posts here that disavow the autobiographical aspect. I went back and reread your letter: “The people are made up, but the streets and the houses are all real.”

 

“The people” -- including Benji? So how is it autobiographical (which refers to a life, not just a setting) vs “nostalgic,” or “historical,” etc.?

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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


booksJT wrote:
Thanks Colson Whitehead for allowing me to read your new book ahead of time. Who inspired you to become a writer? Who are some of your favorite authors? I also  like the characters you decided to use. Good luck with the sales of your new book. I hope to be reading some more of your work in the near future.

 

Hey booksJT,

 

 

I wouldn't say there's a "who," but a what: reading comics, and then horror novels and science fiction. Making up stories about Spider-Man or vampires -- or even better Spider-Man AND vampires -- seemed like a cool job.

 

Some of my favorite authors? Nathaniel West, Samuel Beckett, Don Delillo. Friends of mine like Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Kevin Young, Myla Goldberg. You shoukd check them out!

 

All best

 

Colson

 

 


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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


jclay26 wrote:

Mr. Whitehead, 

 

I first want to say that I am really enjoying your book. This is a fantastically written book. The prose is so thought-provoking, humorous, and engrossing. I find myself thinking about Benji and his experiences long after I have set the book down. I love how you use humor to bring important issues to the readers' consciousness. 

 

Were you hesitant about using so much profane language in the book?  I have noticed in other books I have read that the authors shy away from using profane language and it is to their detriment in my opinion. It seems they may be fearful of offending their audience. Your use of the language in such a realistic way was what really brought me into the story. I used quite a bit of profane language growing up (more than any teenager should use) and it just became a natural part of my vocabulary. I remember playing around with the different words and learning how to use them in the proper sense because it made me feel more adult-like.

 

I have to mention I LOVED the Coke story - hilarious! I could feel your desperation. What if they had never made the real Coke again? Thank God New Coke was a disaster!

 

One more question: How long did it take you to complete this book start to finish?

 

I will definitely pick up your other books to read. I have read some of your interviews online and your comments here on the discussion board and I love your sense of humor and the way you leave many things unanswered to be interpreted by us (the reader). 

 

Thank you for sharing this book with "First Look". It has brought back so many memories of growing up in the ‘80s and the struggles of trying to figure out who I was and searching for where I fit in. 

 

Janice


 

Janice,

 

Thanks a lot for the kind words. Glad you took some time out of your life to take a look at the book.

 

About the cussing -- well, you want to be realistic as possible, and kids curse a lot, and adults like the narrator curse a lot, so I had no choice. Someone who is put off by foul language is not someone I'd like as a reader. I grew up on George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and they informed some of my ideas about profanity. The "cursing chart" in the 2nd chapter seems a bit Carlin-esque in retrospect. 

 

How long did it take? I took notes on and off for two and a half years, plotting it out a bit while working on other things. Then I wrote it in 13 months.

 

Thanks again!

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


Sarita_Li wrote:

Mr Whitehead,

 

Ok, I finally have a question for you. :smileywink:

 

 It has been said that you got your real writing start doing reviews of music, books, and television for Village Voice. How did you get that job? Also, it looks like you didn't have an awful lot of experience writing prior to this? How did you break into the niche of review-writing? It isn't necessarily something that comes naturally.

 

I'm always curious about how established writers got their start, & how they got noticed in the first place. I apreciated your earlier comment about a need for rent money being a strong incentive to hone your craft.

 

I'm lovin' Sag Harbor- it's gettin' to me!

 

Sarita Li

 

 


 

Sarita Li,

 

Thanks for playing.

 

In '91, I started working as an assitant in the book section of the Village Voice -- opening boxes and answering the phones. But I got to know some of the editors, and eventually I got a try-out article -- on the final episodes of Who's The Boss and Growing Pains. 

 

You have to start somewhere!

 

That article led other assignments, and so on, and I became a better writer, bit by bit. After a couple of years, I felt ready to start writing fiction. The freelance life gave me enough time to work on things...

 

 

All best

 

Colson


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Colson_Whitehead
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Re: Questions for Colson Whitehead?


Vermontcozy wrote:
Being an observer of human behavior,like I am feeling you are,this was probably a bit different for you..Then I read posts by you,and then I felt you were really enjoying this.......so my question is,will you come back (you can just use any screen name,if you wish) and join in ,we are such amazing group here,it might be fun for you to go undercover,as we all are..Many Happy Years to you and your Family, I felt close to your thoughts  after I finished it...Thanks Colson,Mazel to you.. Vtc.(my daughter is relating well and most of all your street wise ways,and your reflective way of writing...From Her...VTC....

 

 

Vermontcozy,

 

Thanks  -- and thanks for your thoughtful posts on the other threads as well. 

 

This is a very kind community, so let me say again how honored I am that all of you took the time to read my book. 

 

Many Happy Years to you guys as well!

 

Colson


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