Sweet Potato Prince

April 7, 20081 CommentPosted in book tour, Hanni, Uncategorized

The Sweet Potato Queen herself!The Sweet Potato Queen was one of the top speakers at the Arkansas Literary Festival last weekend. The Sweet Potato Queen’s’ Book of Love came out in 1999, and two subsequent titles (The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love is Either Married, Gay, or Dead and The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook) were New York Times® #1 bestsellers.

And so, you may have heard of the Sweet Potato Queen, aka, Jill Connor Brown. Chances are you have never heard of Kyle Jennings, though. Kyle is married to the Sweet Potato Queen and is known to her readers as simply the “Cutest Boy in the World.”

I may not be able to vouch for his good looks, but I can say this: that Kyle guy sure is nice.

My friend Nancy led Hanni and me to our panel Saturday morning. A festival volunteer guided us to our noontime presentation at the Arkansas Historical Museum. Nancy wasn’t all that interested in the Sweet Potato Queen, so she took off after helping me to a seat at Jill Connor Brown’s presentation later that afternoon.

When Kyle Jennings saw Hanni and me sitting alone, he stopped to ask if we needed anything. I knew he and the Sweet Potato Queen were staying in the same hotel we were, so I made a confession: I had no idea what the route back to our hotel was.
Kyle said he’d be glad to walk Hanni and me there after the presentation. “But we’ll have to wait until Jill is done signing books.”

The Sweet Potato Queen is popular. VERY popular. Women stood in line for, hmm, at least an hour to get Jill to sign copies of various Sweet Potato Queen titles.

So while Jill signed away, Hanni and I waited outside on a bench. Sunshine, birds singing…it couldn’t get better than this.

But then, it did.

Kyle Jennings saw us outside and approached our bench. “Mind if I sit with you?” he asked. I scooted over, and, of course, we got to talking. He spoke lovingly about their own dogs. One is a rescue dog who had been hit by a car and left to die. A leg had to be amputated as a result of the accident. They named the dog Sosti, Kyle said. “Sost means ‘three’ in Ethiopian.”
We traded all sorts of stories after that. Eventually I unbuckled Hanni’s harness. She needed a break.
“Can I pet her now?” Kyle asked. I thought he would jump out of his shoes when I said yes. He ended up taking Hanni for a walk, picking up after her when she emptied, finding a bottle of water and cutting off the top so she could get a drink. How they bonded.

The Sweet Potato Queen sounded exhausted when she finally came out to join us. We all took off for the hotel, but after one block Jill asked if Kyle and I wouldn’t mind going on without her. “I’m going to duck in this gallery and rest,” she said. “I can’t walk that far in these heels!” She asked Kyle to pick some things up for her from their hotel room – he’d come back with the car.

And so, Hanni and I proceeded on, our heads held high. After all, we were being escorted to our fancy-schmancey Little Rock hotel by the cutest boy in the world.

Meeting Sonny Brewer

April 2, 20083 CommentsPosted in book tour, travel, Uncategorized, writing, Writing for Children

Arkansas Literary Festival logoA NOVELSonny Brewer’s CORMAC 

Hanni and I head to the Arkansas Literary Festival this weekend – we’re doing one session for children, then sitting on a panel called Dogs and Their People.

With us on the panel? None other than Sonny Brewer.

I first met Sonny Brewer at an Arkansas Literary Festival years ago. I was in Little Rock with Mike and Hanni for the 2004 festival to promote Long Time, No See.
. The Saturday night gala that year was at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and festival organizers were kind enough to arrange for a volunteer to drive Mike, Hanni and me to the event. An author named Sonny Brewer was supposed to come with us, too. But he was late getting to the car. It was hot in Little Rock, and Hanni, Mike and I were squished in the back seat. I was very eager to get to the Clinton Library – it was relatively new at the time. I wanted to spend as much time there as possible. But we had to wait. For some guy named Sonny Brewer. We waited. I was wearing pantyhose. It was hot. Nuff said? I was ready to blow my stack when Sonny finally showed up. The minute he opened his mouth, all was forgiven.

“Sorry, y’all,” he said with a whimsical southern drawl. “I lost track of the time.  My name is Sonny, glad to meet you.” He shook our hands. Hanni even gave him her paw.
We got stuck in traffic – of course – but I didn’t mind. It gave Sonny time to tell us his story.
Sonny had opened an independent bookstore in his hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, in 1997. “I was nearing 50 back then,” he said. “Owning a bookstore had been a lifelong dream of mine.”
After seven years in business, Over the Transom Books was still in the red.

Enter Jill Connor Brown with some queenly advice. The author of The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love met her husband Kyle Jennings in Sonny Brewer’s bookstore, and she and Sonny have been friends ever since.

“Jill told me I oughta try selling my book,” Sonny told us, explaining he had already started writing a novel back then, pounding the keyboard late at night when his wife and two young boys were asleep. “She said I had nothing to lose by sending it out, and who knows, if I got a book deal, the money might help prop up the bookstore.”

After mailing 20 pages of his manuscript to a New York agent, Sonny set up an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer for the next Thursday. “The agent called on Wednesday,” he said with that lovely southern drawl of his. Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, wanted his book. They were offering an advance. “I cancelled the appointment with the bankruptcy lawyer.”

Poet of Tolstoy Park came out in 2006. And Over the Transom Books? It’s still up and running. In order to have more time to devote to writing, though, Sunny turned over most of the day-to-day bookstore operations to an employee.

“It has just been a magical, kind of crazy, enchanted trajectory,” Sonny told me a year later, when he picked Hanni and me up at the airport for a trip to Alabama. His second novel, also based in Fairhope, had been published by Ballantine already. He’d just returned from LA. Talking with Billy Bob Thornton. About the screenplay for Poet of Tolstoy Park. “I’m black and blue all over from pinching myself so much!” he laughed.
The book he’ll be touting on our dogs and Their People panel is his latest: Cormac, the Tale of a Dog Gone Missing. Like his first two novels, this book is also set in Fairhope, Alabama. But this one is inspired by Sonny’s dog – the book is based on a true story of how Cormac went missing for almost a month, and was found more than a thousand miles away.

I’m looking forward to sitting on a panel with Sonny this Saturday–I just hope he shows up on time!

Transforming Blogs into Public Radio Essays

March 27, 20082 CommentsPosted in Beth Finke, radio, Uncategorized, writing

Chicago Public Radio logoThis month two of my essays aired on WBEZ-FM. If you missed hearing them on the radio, both are available online – one is about the new governor in New York, and the other is about cab drivers refusing to pick me up with my Seeing Eye dog.

Both of these essays were inspired by blog posts I wrote, and for that I must thank friends from my Chicago writers group. I was very skeptical about starting this blog last year – I thought blogs were self-indulgent wastes of time. Au contraire, said my fellow writers. A blog can encourage a writer to keep at her craft, they told me. “Kinda like a journal, but since it’s out there in public, there’s a chance people might read it,” they explained. “So you work at it a bit harder.” Who knows, my writer friends said, maybe some blog posts could become story ideas.

I may never have written a word about the NY governor or those cab drivers if I wasn’t keeping a blog. So my writer’s group pals were right: keeping a blog isn’t necessarily a waste of time. I’m convinced I’m right about my other claim, though: It’s pretty dang self-indulgent!


March 24, 20089 CommentsPosted in blindness, Hanni, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized

I really am hip!  What do you think of this new eardo?

Hanni is hip. You all know that. But did you know she is so hip that she has a tattoo on her right ear? That’s how she rolls, dude.

Hanni the hip dog and I just spent three nights in New Orleans. Any of you who have spent three wild nights in New Orleans might assume that she got her tattoo while we were there.


And if you think her tattoo is a heart with the letters b-e-t-h inscribed inside, you’re wrong again. Hanni already had the tattoo — a series of letters and numbers – when I met her. The Seeing Eye uses tattoos to keep track of their dogs. The tattoos prove useful, too, in identifying Seeing Eye dogs who get separated from their blind companions.

Separated from Hanni? Yikes. That’s too awful to even consider. Let’s think about happier things. Like…New Orleans!

Our trip was colorful right from the start. After a two-hour delay at O’Hare – ugh! — we finally got seated. In the bulkhead. Between two guys flying home to Louisiana. From Africa! “Were you there with a church group or something?” I asked.

They both laughed. “We’re not missionaries,” the guy on my right –his name was Chris – said. “We’re mercenaries!”

They were mechanics. Caterpillar had sent them to Nairobi for a month to build boat engines. “We built ten engines in four weeks,” Timmy, the guy on my left, said. “That’s a lot — they’re BIG engines.”

After the usual array of questions about Hanni, they told me about their time in Africa, how hard it was to be away from their families, how cramped the living conditions had been. But it sure beat working on oil rigs at home, they said. That’s what they’d been doing before they got the job with Caterpillar. Chris had escaped the oil rig life relatively unscathed. Timmy hadn’t been as lucky. Two back surgeries, three knee surgeries and one operation on his elbow. Pain management classes had helped him survive, he said. Martial arts helped, too. Part of the reason he had accepted the Africa job? He was able to do more supervisory work there, it wasn’t as physical. “Plus it pays $500 a day,” he said. His voice sounded sheepish, admitting such a large sum. “I have two sons; I need to make as much money as I can. You know, while I am still able to work.”

Timmy took care of Hanni when I left to go to the bathroom – she can’t fit into that small space with me. Chris jumped up to take my backpack from the overhead bin any time I needed something from it. They both told me stories of duck hunting in Louisiana, their families back home, surviving the hurricanes.

Our flight to New Orleans, well, it flew by. When we landed, Chris jumped up to get my backpack. “You go ahead,” he said. “It’s been a long flight for Hanni.”

I urged them to go first. They’d left Nairobi 36 hours ago. They weren’t home yet – they still had a three hour drive – but they were done with airplanes now, they should get off.

They wouldn’t have it. So Hanni and I said our goodbyes, headed for the exit. As we passed through first class, a passenger took me aside and asked if I was okay.

Yeah,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. I asked him what he meant.

“Well, those men they sat you with,” he said. “They looked very rough.”

I’d look rough, too, if I’d just flown from Nairobi to London, London to Chicago, and Chicago to New Orleans. I hadn’t really thought much about what Timmy and Chris looked like, though. I was too busy listening. “Did they have tattoos?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” the first class man said. “All over. Are you sure you’re okay.”

The benefits of blindness are few, but they’re powerful. “I’m sure,” I assured him, a smile spreading across my face. I gave Hanni’s right ear a scratch before picking up her harness and heading to the jetway. “Hanni, forward!”

Say it Loud — I'm Blind and I'm Proud

March 18, 20085 CommentsPosted in blindness, radio, Uncategorized

Governor Paterson giving his first speech! Woohoo!Governor David Paterson swearing in… 

If you didn’t hear David Paterson give his first speech as governor of New York yesterday, the full text is available online. But really, rather than reading the text, it’s better to hear the new governor saying the words himself. This link does not include the five minutes of introductions — he introduced at least 25 people. My favorite part of the intros was when he wasn’t sure if one of the people he wanted to introduce was there. I forget the guy’s name, but Paterson simply asked, “Is so-and-so out there?” No one answered, so he went on introducing others. The fact that he couldn’t see if the guy was out there, and he had to ask, was no big deal.

I. Love. It.

Mike and I watched Governor Paterson’s speech on C-SPAN last night. Both of us were literally brought to tears, not only by what Governor Paterson said, but by how he said it: without using notes.

You read it here first: this guy is going to be president someday.

Later on Mike and I were brought to tears again – tears of laughter this time – watching the Daily Show. Special Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore warned those of us who are blind to back off, quit claiming Paterson as our own special victory. Paterson is 100% Black, he reminded us. He’s only 90% Blind.

I am loving all of this. Today I went to Chicago Public Radio to record an essay about Governor Paterson — the essay was loosely based on my “Blind on Long Island” blog post from last week. I’ll post the link to that radio essay once it airs – either tomorrow or Thursday morning.