Happy Birthday to Me!

Happy Birthday to Me!

Seventy years ago, my mother gave birth to me in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. At least that’s what my birth certificate says. I don’t remember Ft. Wayne because we left there when I was one.

Sixty years ago, I was in the 5th Grade in Indianapolis at School #84. I don’t have much memory of that school, although not long ago I reconnected with some of my classmates. Unlike my previous school in Indianapolis, to which I could walk, I rode a city bus, which must have been wild. Shortly before I turned eleven, in 6th grade, we moved to Peoria, Illinois.

Fifty years ago, early in my third year at Northwestern University, I struggled with classes. I was having fun (perhaps a little too much) but lacked motivation. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had started college thinking I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea of how to make that happen, and my philosophy major sometimes made my head spin. Although I wasn’t getting into trouble, my father was frustrated with me because he knew I had the potential to do so much better.

Forty years ago, I was preparing to embark on an amazing adventure/opportunity. The decade of my 20s was packed with accomplishments: I managed to graduate from Northwestern; I served two years in the Peace Corps in South Korea and traveled through Southeast Asia on a shoestring for several months; I earned an MA in English and a law degree, finishing both with honors; and I moved to Chicago to join one of the biggest/best law firms in the country. And now I was about to move to Singapore to work in that law firm’s office there. What a difference a decade makes!

Thirty years ago, I was back in school, having resigned my partnership in my law firm (although technically they kept me on as “of counsel” for another year so I could do a little work for one of my clients and stay on the firm’s health insurance). At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I was retooling for a new career in International Development, my goal being to work for the World Bank in Washington or possibly the Asian Development Bank in Manila. The decade of my 30s had also been full: moving to Singapore twice (with a stint in Los Angeles in between those moves during which I was promoted to partnership in the firm); and developing a law practice unlike any of my peers back in Chicago.

Twenty years ago, I was embarking on yet another new career, as a writer. I had succeeded in my 40s in landing a position in the legal department of the World Bank and in that job traveled frequently to East Asia. It was work I enjoyed and believed in, but in the new millennium, after 20 years of practicing law, I felt the pull of my old ambition to write. So, I left the World Bank (although for several years I continued to work for them part-time as a consultant) and enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing in order to find my way as an artist and develop a community of writers. I graduated from that program in 2003 and was just beginning to place short stories in literary magazines.

Ten years ago, I achieved some success as a writer. In the fall of that year, my second published book, What the Zhang Boys Know, a novel in stories, won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, a recognition that was enormously gratifying. (My first book, In an Uncharted Country, had come out three years earlier.) I was no longer doing any legal work. I was writing full-time and occasionally teaching creative writing. And while I wasn’t making much money as a writer, I was doing what I wanted to do, what I had wanted to do since I was a kid, and not many people can say that.

Now, my sixth book, my third novel, is coming out in just three months: The Last Bird of Paradise. This one took several years to write, but I’m very pleased with the result. The other books published in the last decade also please me (The Shaman of Turtle Valley, House of the Ancients and Other Stories, and Oliver’s Travels, which is now available as an audiobook), but the COVID-19 pandemic limited their reach, I’m sad to say. Still, they’re out there, in print, and people are still reading them. I’m not done yet, and I’m working on a new project in its early stages, very different from anything I’ve done to date.

That’s a long-winded way of saying Happy Birthday to Me! To help me celebrate, consider checking out one or more of the books linked above. The publisher of the new book, The Last Bird of Paradise, which comes out on February 22, 2024, is offering a 15% discount for pre-orders. Use code PREORDER2023.

Thank you!

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