SWINGMAN: What a Difference a Decade Makes. I’m very excited about this book because its the hardest book I’ve ever written and actually took me on a journey.
My co-author is Capt. Marshall Allen. He’s a fire fighter in Fort Worth who also happens to be a quadriplegic. But he’s the kind of guy who makes other people feel good when they’re feeling down. You forget that he’s in a wheelchair, that he’s paralyzed from the armpits down … until something happens to pitches him forward or he can’t cough.
The book is unlike most books in that there are four seemingly unrelated stories that cover the span of one decade: Marshall’s life and paralysis, toxic air pollution in a small rural town, funny Christmas letters and my own personal journey. You know the old pitch: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry … Yeah, this is it!
Tell us something about yourself.
I was on the US women’s bobsled team from 1994-1998 and was named Athlete of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee. Before that time, women were not allowed to bobsled and were not yet in the Olympic Games. There was some kind of nonsense about the sport being too dangerous and physical for women. I started an obnoxious letter campaign and the next thing I knew, I was invited to “try out” at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY. There were a few problems … like the fact that I was still nursing my first child but I am my father’s daughter so I went for it and did pretty well.
My dad was a US Diplomat so my sister and I grew up all over the world and I think that helped with the whole ‘be fearless’ factor. When I was named Athlete of the Year, it was kind of a big deal because I was also pregnant with my second child. No one had ever heard of a pregnant bobsledder before so I got some instant press and began fielding phone calls from elite athletes around the world wanting to know how I knew it was safe to train the way I did. I wound up sharing it all in a book that got my foot in the publishing door. Now when people ask how I got published I like to say, “Well, first you need to get pregnant and then try bobsledding ….”
What inspired you to write this book?
I jumped on my bike one morning, thinking I was going to do a 30 mile bike ride. It wasn’t a big deal because I’d done the route countless time but what was weird about this time was I did not eat or drink, I just had this crazy need to get on the bike and go, go, go! But 15 miles in, I tanked. So, I pedaled to a Starbucks. They knew me and I was pretty certain I could beg some food and drink with the promise to return with $$. When I rolled up, I noticed this huge man in a wheelchair and his large, muzzled Rottweiler.
We wound up talking and I asked the guy if the Rottie was nice. What’s with the muzzle?? He assured me that Caesar was nice (he is) and we began talking about dogs. When he mentioned that he was happy to have rescued Caesar before his accident, I had to ask, “What happened?”
It was one of those answers you can never really be ready for. Turns out Capt. Allen was on a bike ride – similar route/distance to the very one I was on when he bunny-hopped over a stick — a damned stick – in the middle of the road. It caught in the tire and sent him flying forward into a ditch. It was then that I learned how just weeks before becoming a quadriplegic, he’d decided that voice-activated computer software was the way of the future and he was learning how to use it or that he’d stopped eating meat (something that is hard for quads to digest). Geez!! And this was just the beginning. A whole series of eerie “coincidences” readied him for his new life in the chair and I was stunned ….
Three years later, we meet every Sunday at that Starbucks and he’s changed my life. I adore him! There is so much more about his background, his family … I don’t want to give anything away but it is stunning. He’s an amazing man.
How did you choose the title?
A Swingman is a fire fighter who literally goes where he or she is needed in the department. The Swingman goes from station to station, wherever and whenever needed. As soon as I heard the term, I knew this was Marshall. He is the ultimate Swingman.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
Ooooh, baby! What a question. I lost an agent over this book. He said there was too much going on with the book, too much action and though it was very pleasant, he no longer wanted the book. So, there I was. I KNEW this was a great story and loving Marshall as I do, I couldn’t walk away from it. The same time I was trying to tell Marshall’s story, there was nasty business going on in my own back yard. My son’s school was named by USA Today as one of the most toxic school in the United States. Tommy, my son, had been hospitalized six times in two months and neighbors all around us were getting sick. I’d invited Erin Brokovich to come, had dinner with her and she said flat out … you’re screwed. Until we change Texas politics, there was not much else to do except, oh, I don’t know, write about it!
Swingman became bigger than Marshall and his story. The beautiful thing about our friendship was I had been so afraid of publically speaking out about my town but when I watch Marshall struggled to pick things up or deal with bowel or urine issues, it gave me strength, you know? He made me really look at the big picture and figure out what’s important and what’s not. Being afraid of what your friends will think of you when children are sitting in a toxic classroom suddenly seems ridiculous. Or stupid.
I found World Audience Publishing, Inc. in New York. They are the best!! I even spoke to the publisher and shared my concern about pissing off the cement industry. Mike Strozier, the publisher, stood behind us and this project. But the kicker was when he learned that I am splitting the royalties with Marshall with the hopes of him (Marshall) getting a better wheelchair and van, Mike sweetened the pot. Publishers don’t exactly have the reputation as being warm and fuzzy folk but Mike really is. I knew we found a great home with World Audience. We’re very happy.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
Well before bobsledding, I was writing. When I was a kid, my dad was assigned to Moscow, Russia. Mind you, this was during the Cold War. We had no TV, no movies, no videos or malls or teenage hangouts so I learned to write, create stories and movie scripts.
But how did I get started?? Well, first, you have to get into bobsledding. Then … you need to get pregnant.
Do you have writing rituals?
It helps to be pissed or scared or highly motivated. Examples: When I learned women were not allowed to bobsled, I was highly motivated to show the good ‘ol boy network what a load of horse poop that was. When I wrote for Sports Illustrated while playing women’s professional football and being chased around by very large, very strong, very motivated women … I was scared! And when I heard someone call a beautiful African American baby a “pretty little niglet” I was pissed. Stunned, actually. And in less than four weeks I wrote a soon-to-be-published (I hope) book, White Trash, a comical social commentary about life in rural Texas.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book?
Wow. I learned so much. Because World Audience is relatively new and growing, we’ve had some growing pains. I’ve learned a lot about HOW your book is labeled in bookstores means everything in terms of doing book signings and getting PR.
You know, when you publish a book there are fantastic dreams of great magazine reviews and a steady growing interest that leads to more and more exposure. Instead, we’ve had to do a lot of PR ourselves. I can’t imagine Stephen King or Tom Clancy and I share the same problems but I’m ready to roll up the ‘ol sleeves and go to work. Marshall is worth it. This book is worth it!!
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
As cliché as this is to say, Marshall has taught me so much. You can’t look back. We’ve done so many interviews together and spent more time talking and drinking coffee and laughing about things that I would have told you I knew him inside and out. In the book, he talks about how he thought about killing himself as he lay in the ditch, paralyzed but unseen by any passing cars. I’ve thought about this so much during our friendship and realized that the what-ifs or imaginary do-overs just drive you nuts. As Marshall says, “It is what it is.”
I’m taking all of this as it comes and just hope our efforts will bring a lot of happiness and satisfaction to Marshall. I fantasize about seeing him on Oprah! Man. That would be amazing. So, I focus on looking forward.
What types of books do you like to read?
I love biographies and murder-mysteries.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I am actively trying to sell WHITE TRASH but have begun a new book about dogs, their owners and politicians. Again, it is a social commentary about how crazy we make our dogs and ourselves.
What advice can you give other writers about writing or publishing?
Very simply: Write what you know, write what you love. When you write about something you feel passionately about, the work that follows does not feel like work. You WILL have to do a lot of work to sell it. There is no question that there have been times when I get tired but then I think about Marshall, his chair, his circumstance. I think about Tommy’s health, his school and our town and I am determined to sell, sell, sell.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
Ooooh, Morgan Freeman? James Earl Jones? Or Marshall.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?