Humboldt State Press publishes new novels by local authors

LOCAL WRITERS Lelia Moskowitz with her book, Growland, and Kathy Wollenberg with her book Far Less. Janine Volkmar | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Two women met 17 years ago in a creative writing class. Since then there have been births and deaths, life changing relationships starting and ending, despair and frustration, and that horrid question: Why am I bothering to try to write?

Through it all they have supported each other, as tough critics and encouraging friends.

Now Kathy Wollenberg and Lelia Moskowitz have achieved that writer’s bliss: their novels are published.

Humboldt State University Press, which has an interest in fiction with local settings, has published Moskowitz’s Growland and Wollenberg’s Far Less. 

It’s a tribute to each writer’s perseverance.

(Full disclosure: this writer has proofread each manuscript at least three times, perhaps more, over the years.)

Trinidad’s self-proclaimed Comma Queen, the late Darlene Marlow, was a tough taskmaster to both writers. For several years, she ran a writers’ group and dealt each cliche and punctuation error a quick but merciful death blow.

Wollenberg said her daughter Elena was an inspiration to her in writing Far Less, which tells the story of Jesse, a 17-year-old homeless boy.  “I came up with the idea when she was in eighth grade and started writing it when she was a sophomore,” Wollenberg said. 

Elena was making origami earrings to sell so that she could buy large bags of dog food. She’d package the food into smaller bags and hand them out to homeless folks for their dogs. 

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“She was invited to interview Betty Chinn for school,” Wollenberg explained, “and she was nervous. I suggested that she ask Betty about a typical day. Betty told her that she had just gotten a nice sleeping bag donated and was going to give it to a boy who was 16. I couldn’t get that boy out of my mind,” Wollenberg added.  

Wollenberg’s son, Larkin, was also an inspiration for her main character’s tree climbing. “The kids were climbing tall trees way before I wanted them to,” she said. “All the shenanigans that Jesse does are inspired by Larkin.” 

On publication, Elena sent her mother a text: “Mom, I think I’ve been reading this book my whole life.”

Moskowitz’s children have also been supportive of her book, Growland. “My eldest daughter, Tia, designed the font for the cover, the back cover, and the spine. She helped with the layout for the photos. My son, Louie, contributed 18 original photographs,” she said. Growland is set in Southern Humboldt.

Wollenberg wrote most of her book in her van, waiting for her children at sports practice or play practice. “I’m learning how to write at home now,” she said, smiling. “In the van or in the theater, I could get some pages done. There are distractions at home, like clean the fridge... In the van, there was a whole chunk of time.” Wollenberg also credited having the pressure of pages due for writers’ group as an impetus.

Both books have been published under the imprint of Humboldt State University. “Our main field of publication is non-fiction,” Kyle Morgan said. Morgan is the scholarly communications librarian at HSU. “Kathy and Lelia’s books capture the culture of the area. It’s wonderful to be able to help them make their works available,” he added.

“Kyle is the wonderful man who said yes to us,” Moskowitz said. “At 62 to have a book published, I’m so happy and so lucky,” she added.

What’s next for these two writers?  Moskowitz explained. “We’re out of the region and we’re both doing ghosts.”

Wollenberg chimed in. “You can’t get away with it in a conversation but you can pull it off in a novel.”

See book reviews of each book, below.

Living in the Arcata Community Forest

By the time you’ve read the first chapter of Far Less, a novel by Kathy Wollenberg (Humboldt State University Press), you will find yourself rooting for the main character, a homeless 17-year-old boy named Jesse.

Jesse is brave and bright, strong and resilient. He needs to be, because he lives in the Arcata Community Forest with his drug-addled mother and his six-year-old sister, Lizzie. Jesse gets Lizzie to school on time by jogging down the hill with her on his back and then gets himself to high school where no one knows he is homeless.

His girlfriend startles him when she comments on his smell. “The campfire smell. You always remind me of summer and camping,” she says. 

He scrounges fruit and energy bars from the cafeteria for his sister, figures out how to take showers at the university, and works hard to keep his sister clean and safe. He dreads being separated from her if the authorities help them and put her into foster care.

The supporting characters are well drawn and believable. Jesse relies on an older veteran who lives in a tree stump with two dogs; he is encouraged in his nature studies by a professor he meets in the library. These two positive male figures are offset in the narrative by his mother and her boyfriend, a scamming Occupy activist. 

Jesse’s feelings for his mother, who lets them down, time after time, are complex and well portrayed. This is a novel of contrasts but it’s also a novel of tremendous reality. We can see the dirt under the siblings’ fingernails and smell the sour milk odor of a little girl’s hair who sleeps rough. We also see the pain in their hearts when their mother’s continual failure to care for them, even minimally, gets them into difficulties and danger.

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The high school students are well drawn and a girl who discovers Jesse’s secret is particularly appealing. Others in the cast of characters are social workers, teachers, and his mother’s kind sister.

As a character, Jesse takes the reader to a place of wonder and beauty during his daily tree climbs. When Jesse was 11, a former boyfriend of his mother’s taught him to climb and to learn everything he could about the forest. It’s an important part of Jesse’s character: the free-climbs into 100-foot-tall redwoods and his discovery of a rare salamander. The heights lift him above the squalor of his life and into intellectual heights as well.

Read this tough and touching first novel. You’ll come away with a heightened compassion and a sense of a young man’s joy.

Jesse is not a perfect kid – he’s a teenager after all –  and some of his mistakes will make the reader squirm. But he’s a remarkable character, one who will stay in your imagination long after you’ve read the last page.

Inside the SoHum grow scene

Lelia Moskowitz has written a novel that beats all. Sure, there have been other books, other novels, films, and Netflix series about the marijuana scene in Southern Humboldt. But her new book, Growland, (Humboldt State University Press) puts all those other efforts in the shade. 

Growland tells a story that jumps off the page like a skydiver, like a bungee jumper, like a cliffside high diver in Mexico. Moskowitz has got the magic: the energy, the language, the arc of the story, the unique neighborhood that is Southern Humboldt, all combined in the journey of a woman and her two daughters from the big city to the country.

Moskowitz has crafted a fine novel. The writing shines like the stars in a deep velvet night where no electric lights can dim the experience. Her characters, both major and the walk-ons, all ring true. Her dialogue is witty and terse at times; sometimes it is lyrical. 

But above all, it’s funny. A scene at a party with three women peeing off a balcony with no railings is hilarious. A Dolly Parton-gone-bad character who runs a tavern makes the reader beg for more. Conversations among growers at the bar make the reader laugh out loud. That one of the growers has clouds tattooed all over his bald head just adds to the ambience. Moskowitz’s casting is word-perfect.

Her main character, Celeste, is a 44-year-old woman who has bundled her two daughters into her car and fled Los Angeles and a disaster of a marriage. 

She seeks refuge with an old boyfriend who homesteads in the hills above Garberville. His family and friends welcome her and things happen: a romance, a murder, a rip-off. 

But the real charm of the novel is Celeste’s transformation into a member of the community. 

She likens her work with other women in the trim shack to an old-fashioned quilting bee. She helps organize a memorial service for yet another young man killed. She participates in a Blessing Way. She enjoys her kids’ happiness with horseback rides, long days at the river, and making friends. 

When tragedy happens, she has become so much a part of the life that it rips her world apart. Moskowitz has done it. Can’t wait for the film adaptation of this very fine piece of writing.