Wittier Word Weavers

Writers' Club of Whittier


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The Chick Sexer – A Novel Education by Sherry Novak

Chick sexer – what’s that? I enjoy watching expressions when I tell people what 101-year-old Frankie used to do for a living. He squeezed day-old chicks to determine their gender. I’ve heard Frankie’s stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, for the thirty years I’ve been his ballroom dance teacher. All the time I thought: Someone needs to get this little known and soon-to-be-lost slice of Japanese American history down on paper. And so, three years ago I set to work writing the novel entitled The Chick Sexer. Creating the story of the fictionalized Frankie Honda has been an education!

Places like the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. and the Densho website have done a great job of documenting short pieces of oral histories. But how did it feel to be a young Nisei, second generation born in America, man in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s? Kids who played baseball, watched Charlie Chaplin films and built their own boards with skates on them; teenagers who learned to box, drove Model T Fords and danced the Lindy hop were soon to be viewed as the enemy. What happened between the time they were born of Issei, first-generation, parents and the bombing of Pearl harbor?

How to start the process of writing a historical novel? Along with collecting vignettes from the real Frankie, I asked him a million questions over lunch, every Tuesday. I started soaking up movies from the 1920’s-40’s, both American and Japanese. (Hulu has a large selection of old Japanese movies, however, quite a few, annoyingly, stopped about three-quarters of the way through. Slow internet?) I learned that, next to Hollywood, Japan had one of the most prolific film industries in the early 1900’s. Sadly, many classic moving pictures were lost during the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Frankie told me that in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Japan the silent movies always had benshi. The narrator stood on stage next to the film voicing man and lady’s roles as well as adding explanations. Sometimes they threw in jokes or improvised new dialogue. They were as famous as the actors and rode up and down the west coast in limousines. Japan continued making silent movies even after talkies come out, because their patrons so enjoyed the narrators. Producer Akira Kurosawa’s brother was a famous benshi. Keeping the art form alive, a lady narrator named Midori Sawato performs today as a benshi.

Part I, to be continued . . .

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Reaching a Milestone

I am finished. No, that sounds wrong. I am finished with my book. Does that mean I have thrown it out? I have finished my book invites the question: finished reading or finished writing? I have completed writing my book. Well, this sounds clearer. Now that I am going through the labor pains of putting all the pieces together: table of contents, acknowledgements, dedication and other boring stuff, I am already dreading the post partum despondency that happens after a book is sent in for publication. I hang on to the book like a treasure and am tempted to lock it up in a bank drawer. I have become tyrannically possessive. It’s like taking your first-born to kindergarten and dreading to leave the child there.

Did I mention completion? Can you imagine the audacity of writing a book in a foreign language? How about reading it over for the nth time, revising some, wondering if I missed a crooked sentence which may happen in the mire of translating from Armenian, my mother tongue; English learned at high school in Cairo; and American since I came to the United States. I still struggle with prepositions, compositions and oppositions. A few other sterling words seep in, like ambiance, kismet, raison d’etre that lose half their flavor translated into Amerenglish. Expressions like “you’re pulling my leg,” or “working the graveyard shift” throw me off completely, because I take them literally.

The book has passed the editing stage long ago but it is still on final revision – it has been on final from the second to the eighth version. I still find erroneous sentences, words underlined in red by the computer, a missing comma here, a capital letter there, quotations marks that I have not closed. When does it end? We crossed quite a milestone together. We went through critiques, computer hacks, identity theft, personal health problems, and other hair-raising distractions like losing seventy-five percent of the edited data without hope of recovery. Comparatively speaking, changing the title was a child’s play.

Reviewing my writing  itinerary was eye-opening. Now, would I be able to face doomsday when I part with it? Did I mention all that needed to be told? Did I overlook a life-changing event in my all-important memoir? Yes, I could include a few more but the original assumption that my book would end in three chapters has already grown into two volumes, putting me into competition with the Encyclopedia Britannica. I look back and marvel at the transformation I went through. I never expected that this quiet and silent girl who as a young adult had to ask for permission to go out of the house, escorted by her brother, crossed three continents alone in search of a niche and settled in the fourth one, a hemisphere away.

In writing this memoir I found the real me.


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A Web Presence

Should you ask a barber if you need a haircut?

Should writers have a web presence? Search online. You’ll get hundreds of thousands of links offering lists of reasons why every writer should have a blog, a website, or a website with a blog. Rationality doesn’t explain my web presence. As a recruited WCW contributor, this blog was foist thrust upon me. I already had a website.

Here’s why I had a website. My first novel, Well Oiled, involves characters interacting with mayberryoil.com. An hour after the book hit Amazon, it occurred to me that my readers should be able to interact with the website as did the characters in the book. This brainstorm hit thirty minutes before I needed to leave for a dinner engagement. In that time, I was able to confirm that the name of the website used in the book wasn’t taken. I bought it.

After dinner, I built the site using Drupal. I also created an account with a username and password matching a character in the book. In the next week, I added treats to the site — pictures of elements in the book and related materials. To access the treats requires answering questions based on the story.

It takes time and energy to maintain a web presence. There’s probably a benefit. I still don’t know if every writer needs a website. My reason for having one is simple — it seemed a good idea at the time.


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Welcome to Mayberry

The Pasadena Author’s Fair took place on February 21, 2015. Hobnobbing with other authors, and signing and selling books entertained me from setting up at 9:30 am until packing up books, bookmarks, and posters at 2 p.m. There was also a chance to present. My remarks, including four passages I read, are the bulk of this, my first blog post.

Good afternoon. I’m Rubin Johnson, a Californian, born in New York. I graduated Harvard before doing an engineering Ph.D. at Berkeley. I worked at big companies before starting a software firm. Lately, I’ve been focusing on the craft of fiction.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my novels – Well Oiled and Cyberbully Blues, both Mayberry Multisport Adventure stories. Why Mayberry? I’ll explain and then read some excerpts.

Continue reading


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Pasadena Author Fair

Four of our writers will be appearing at the second annual Author Fair sponsored by the Pasadena Public Library this coming Saturday.  Rubin Johnson, Kay Murdy, Raquel Reyes-Lopez and Mary Terzian will be among the fifty-plus authors who will be speaking and signing books at the Fair. Continue reading


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Finding Good Mystery Books

IMG_2038How do you find a good mystery?

I raced through all of Sherlock Holmes as a kid, and then, suddenly, I was done. Doyle was dead and I’d read all the Holmes stories he had written. After that, it was the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Some time later I went on an Agatha Christie binge. I read her books over lunch in a department store dining room, surrounded by old ladies. It was perfect. Any one of them might have been another Miss Marple, slicing chicken and sipping tea while she considered who might have left Joanna dead in the greenhouse.

But sooner or later every mystery reader must face the same quandary: How do I find the next wonderful book? Continue reading