Debut novel hits close to home

Ever wonder what those commuters on the ferry are working on as they tap away at their laptops? At least one of them was writing a “blog” — a story written in 20-minute daily chunks and posted on the Internet for all to see. Now that online endeavor is in print, the debut book for blogger-turned-novelist Bill Branley. He has just self-published “Sea Changes,” and will present his first public reading June 29 at Eagle Harbor Books.

Ever wonder what those commuters on the ferry are working on as they tap away at their laptops? At least one of them was writing a “blog” — a story written in 20-minute daily chunks and posted on the Internet for all to see. Now that online endeavor is in print, the debut book for blogger-turned-novelist Bill Branley.

He has just self-published “Sea Changes,” and will present his first public reading June 29 at Eagle Harbor Books.

Branley, of Bainbridge Island, said the book is about “climate change, Hurricane Katrina, energy policy, hiking in Maine, pirates in Westport, making shrimp stew, riding the ferry, Pablo Neruda, Ella Fitzgerald, Wild Ginger, Blackbird Bakery, and most of all, two midlife baby boomers who refuse to give up on love.” Whew. That’s a lot to fit in a slim 241-page novel.

While all those elements are present, the story is primarily about a budding romance between Peggy and Raoul, two 50-something widowed people who meet while commuting from Bainbridge to Seattle daily. They are at a crossroads in their lives, but will their paths converge or simply cross?

The story began as an exercise in writing about a character completely different from yourself, Branley explained, speaking of the main character, Peggy.

He wrote an entry a day on the ferry commute to his software job in Seattle, and gained a following, first among family and friends, then others who read the online blog.

When he had 70 such entries, “I knew I had the first draft of a novel,” Branley said.

While Peggy may not be Branley’s doppleganger, other elements of the plot are very close to home. Branley includes locations familiar to any Northwesterner, from Pike Place Market to the Blackbird Bakery on Bainbridge. When he went on a family vacation back east, Peggy and Raoul came along.

“I had to invent a reason for my characters to come along,” he said. “That part was all planned out.”

What was not planned when he began the story in May 2005 was Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his hometown of New Orleans in late August, and the death of his mother in New Orleans just days before.

Those events too went into the story.

“I didn’t realize the story would revolve around Katrina,” Branley said. Originally he had planned the main characters would visit New Orleans as tourists so the author could show readers around “his” city.

But then, “I lost my mother and my city in one week,” he said. “I needed to vent.”

What Peggy and Raoul experience in New Orleans, both before and after Katrina, is almost word for word what Branley and his family experienced, he said.

His sister and her family lost everything, their mother’s condo was flooded and trashed, and they had to evacuate before they could bury their mother. They weren’t able to have a full memorial service for her until this past April.

Writing “Sea Changes” was cathartic for Branley, and now he has quit his job to work on promoting the book. He founded One Sock Press to publish the book after being turned down by seven agents. While many first-time authors end up self-publishing, Branley hopes to make One Sock Press a second career, along with being an author.

He considers the book a work of “general fiction,” although the target audience is decidedly middle-aged women — the romance novel market.

“It’s not technically a romance novel because of the ending,” he said, but it’s close enough to appeal to those readers. It won’t go down as one of the greatest novels of all time — the writing is breezy with lots of back and forth dialogue, and the plot is light as meringue — but it’s a good summer read.

Branley presents a slide show of settings featured in the book, 7:30 p.m. June 29 at Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way E, Bainbridge Island.

The evening is also a fund raiser for Gulf Coast libraries restoration. Bainbridge Island publisher Tamara Sellman is dedicating 100 percent of the sales of “Southern Revival: Deep Magic for Hurricane Relief” to Book Relief, a national organization working to buy books for schools and libraries damaged or destroyed in the 2005 Gulf hurricane season.

“Southern Revival” is an anthology of poetry and prose “celebrating the cultural magic of the Gulf Coast,” Sellman said in a press release. Branley is among the book’s 40 contributing authors.

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