LiteratEye #34: Between the Covers: What”™s It Like to Be in a Book?

Filed under: Media Literacy

Here’s the thirty fourth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #34: Between the Covers: What”™s It Like to Be in a Book?
By W.J. Elvin III
October 9, 2009

FOUR-190Once upon a time it was something of a rarity to appear personally in print, or even to know someone who”™d been written about.

Today, it”™s routine to be mentioned in someone”™s blog, or, failing that, to spend five minutes launching a blog and filling it with “me, me, me.”

But it”™s still a bit extraordinary to be in a book unless one has achieved celebrity or notoriety. When it happens to ordinary folk, the experience may come as a welcome surprise or a humiliating shock.

Certainly a book could be written covering all the lawsuits that have resulted from unwelcome attention of that sort.

For me, a career in the news business has meant frequently writing about others and rarely being written about myself.

I was, for many years, a Washington “insider” columnist and feature writer.

I”™ve often run across books mentioning intrigues, scandals and skullduggery that I”™d unearthed or expanded upon.

But that”™s not the same as actually being named and perhaps profiled.

So far as I know, up until recently, the only time I was named in a book was in “Incident at Big Sky” by Johnny France and Malcolm McConnell.

The case involved the abduction of Olympic athlete Kari Swenson by two genuine, murderous mountain men. That was in 1985.

Kari Swenson was jogging on an isolated trail in the rugged mountains of Big Sky, Montana, when Don Nichols and his son, Dan, seized her. After living in the wilds for a dozen years, the pair decided young Dan need a mate.

Pretty, athletic Kari unwillingly filled the bill.

It was one of life”™s peculiar coincidences that I knew some local people in the Big Sky area, and I was getting a slightly different story from them than the one spotlighting heroic Sheriff Johnny France. Which is how I got mentioned in the book.

It says in part: “In November, a reporter from the Washington Times who called himself W.J. Elvin III came out to Montana to interview Johnny.”

That little snippet — ““¦who called himself”¦“ – has bugged me for years.

What does it mean, exactly? Should I have called myself something else? Archduke Ferdinand, maybe? Jo-jo the Dogfaced Boy?

I don”™t know. My guess is the writer thought my name sounded high-falutin”™, I should have a more folksy and down-home moniker. (Fact is, I only use that name on stuff I write. Maybe it”™s quirky but I figure if you Google me, you won”™t confuse me with, say, Bubba Elvin, who, hypothetically, advocates tasering school-kids who won”™t stand up for the Pledge).

Well, it just so happens that the next time I got mentioned in a book, it was indeed by nickname.

Being named “the third” in a family means two other guys before you got to use most of the names. The way that worked out is that, as a kid, I got my middle initial, “J.,” as a nickname.

So when I appeared in a book my sister wrote, it was as “Jay.” The book, just out this summer, is: “The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father’s War,” by Jan Elvin.

It”™s a good, solid, well-written and seriously researched account of our father”™s World War II experiences and the resulting effect on the family.

In the early years after that war, our father would throw mother to the floor at the sound of an airplane overhead. He was still thinking, “bombs.”

When the four kids are together talking about “how it was,” one thing we never disagree on is the fear. We all sensed that Father was the bomb and no one wanted to be close by when it went off.

And all the while, outside our home, he was the prominent and highly regarded gent honored by the community association as “Citizen of the Year,” to name just one such award.

Today, it”™s almost expected that anyone who”™s gone off to war is going to come home kind of crazy. The stress of seeing your buddies, your “enemies,” and other adults and kids blown into tangles of blood, bone and guts is called PTSD, and it”™s dealt with compassionately.

Back then, in John Wayne”™s America, you were supposed to be tough and keep the traumatic shock nightmares to yourself.

Well, like I said, I got mentioned in the book. It comes across with some accuracy that as a juvenile crime wave and budding substance abuser, it was only my literary pursuits that offered hope I might not spend my life in institutions.

Personally, I probably would have written a much angrier book. But, as Jan has said in our few talks on the subject, it”™s her story. She wasn”™t trying to be inclusive, in terms of perspective.

So, to get back to the opening question, “What”™s it like to be in a book?”

The answer in many cases has to be a matter of how serenely you can surrender to someone else”™s perspective, to their interpretation of you.

If you”™re on film, or otherwise recorded, it”™s you, no two ways about it. When it”™s someone else”™s written words, though, it”™s their version.

The redeeming grace of that might be mirroring. Or, as my father”™s fellow Scotsman, Robert Burns, put it: “O would that God the gift might give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

If you would like to know more about my sister”™s book, visit her blog at

photo: The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father’s War, by Jan Elvin

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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