Noah and Gaspar: Telling Stories in a Different Way

GasparEarly this spring, the film “Noah” hit the big screen amid much ballyhoo by naysayers across the social media spectrum because the film was ‘not true to the Bible.’  I watched it last night on Google Play and Chromecast and found it very interesting.  The story that writers Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel tell holds true to the core story in the Bible but they have embellished it in a way to offer different and even deeper perspectives.  I take no offense to that and applaud their daring.

As I watched the film, I thought about Thomas Merton’s prayer taken from his book Thoughts in Solitude

“… The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you ….”

Free will and choice stand at the heart of the film.  Will Noah choose to follow God’s will and build the ark?  Well, we all know that he does, but a more complex choice develops through the two hours and is resolved at the conclusion.  No spoilers here … you will have to watch the film to find out Noah’s dilemma.

I’ve explored the Bible in three of my novels.  Few people know the story presented in the Book of Tobit.  I became enamored with the

Tobias saying goodbye to his father

story years ago when I read a single quote every Wednesday morning in a Celtic prayer book I was using

“Raphael answered, ‘I will go with him; so do not fear.  We shall leave in good health and return to you in good health, because the way is safe.’”

Tobit 5:16

I used that verse as the epigram to The Hamsa.  I decided to retell the story in a Civil War setting, hence Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South.  I hope the core message of ‘BELIEVE’ rings true and that the book has inspired readers to return to their Bibles and read the Book of Tobit.

The Sixth Day, a 17,175-Word Novella About Creation and Prizefighting includes a word-for-word presentation of the creation story.  On the flip side is the story of a young boxer’s blossoming faith based on those six days of creation.  

More recently, I have used the story of Jesus in Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ to present my conviction that truth is universal.  While the book follows Gaspar’s search for truth from one end of the known world to the other, the story of Jesus evolves most overtly in the final two chapters.  The stories I tell of the Christ are different than the stories that appear in the Gospels, but I have told them in my own way to aver my belief that truth is universal and to finally answer Pilate’s unanswered question, “What is truth?”

If you have not seen “Noah,” I encourage you to watch it.  I enjoyed every aspect of the production.  If you’ve not read Tobit or Gaspar, I encourage you to read them.  I enjoyed every aspect of writing them!  Thanks for your continued interest and support.  Don’t forget you can enter the Goodreads Gaspar free books by clicking the ‘Enter’ button on the Goodreads widget in the right sidebar.

Why Dogs?

Stephen King is exactly two years and one week older than I am.  We are both New England Yankees.

I never read his first book, Carrie, but I was hooked when I read his second novel, Salem’s Lot.  I’ve only read 15 of his nearly 60 novels.

I’ve heard it said that if this or that is your favorite book, how could you have only read it once.  There are only three novels I have read more than once, and Mr. King’s The Dead Zone is among them.  The Body (“Stand By Me”) and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption are two of the greatest novellas ever penned.  His collection Hearts in Atlantis stands by itself.

Early in Mr. King’s career, I noticed that every book culminated in a firestorm of one kind or another, and then he finally and blatantly put it all together with Firestarter.

As I’ve just recently completed my sixth story, it occurs to me that a dog plays a significant role in four of the six

I even included a falcon in Gaspar who serves as a guide and companion.

The HamsaEach of the animals befriends the protagonist, and each plays an important role in the narrative, probably most significantly in The Hamsa and Tobit.

I recall sitting with a book club discussing The Hamsa many years ago, and one of the members asked, “Is that a real dog?”  That is exactly the question I wanted to elicit.  I won’t tell you in this post what his true ‘nature’ was.  The same question could be asked of Caesar and the blind donkey in Tobit and the Hoodoo Man.

The truth is, I believe dogs are the purest creatures God has placed on the planet.  I think that is why I cannot resist – rather, why I am compelled to include them in all of my stories.

When I first drafted The Sixth Day, the Old Man told the boys that God made one mistake:  he didn’t ‘quit creatin’ after he made the animals.  I rethought that statement and as the story evolved, the Old Man says that the sixth day was the day God ‘almost quit’ because the animals were so perfect and man had yet to taint the world with war and conflict and all of those other things that make our lives difficult.

I think dogs and animals – be they blind donkeys or falcons – will always be a part of my stories. 

Catholic Saint John Bosco told many stories of a giant wolf-like dog whom he called Grigio.  Whenever Bosco was in trouble or threatened by highwaymen on his many journeys to serve the poor, Grigio would appear out of nowhere to save him.  I read those stories and truly believe that dogs are angels in beautiful disguise.  I hope my conviction and belief comes through with the dog Raphael in The Hamsa.

“Night” and “The Hamsa”

Elie WieselI just concluded reading Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I read it in preparation of May’s ‘Seeds of the Word’ monthly book club discussion at the Redemptorist Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Arizona. Having written a ‘Holocaust’ novel, The Hamsa several years ago, some readers are curious that I have never read Mr. Wiesel’s powerful account of his years in the Nazi concentration camp system.  The fact is – until this afternoon – I have not.  My interest in the Holocaust began one rainy afternoon at the Berkshire County Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  I loved the library and frequented it daily between school and basketball practice.  On this particular afternoon, I came across Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  I will never forget that day or that book.

Berkshire County
The Berkshire County Athenaeum, Pittsfeld, Massachusetts

As I prepare for May’s discussion, I have reviewed several reading guides.  One question in particular stays with me.  I do not intend to discuss it at the meeting, but I have to answer it here.  The Hill and Wang Teacher’s Guide asks

“Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?”


The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

In 2007, I first saw the photo commonly referred to as “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”  It still haunts me.  I continue to stare at the expression of the ‘victim.’  His face exudes faith and confidence … he is not afraid.  When I look at the expression of the executioner, I see doubt and guilt … his eyes are filled with fear. Shortly after viewing that picture, I discovered the “Report by Witold Pilecki” who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and who successfully escaped three years later. The photo and the report evolved into The Hamsa, which incidentally is about neither. Back to the question:  “Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?” When I first began writing The Hamsa, I lived in a small town in the heart of Missouri wine country,The Hamsa Defiance, Missouri about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis.  St. Louis is blessed with an excellent Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC).  As I researched my manuscript, I made an appointment with the director and visited the museum.  Included in its exhibition – at least in 2008 – is a large image of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” My conversation with the director ended rather abruptly.  When I explained to him what I was doing, he emphatically stated, “There is no room whatsoever for the Holocaust in historical fiction.”  As his case in point, he referred to the recently released film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig that recounted the activity Daniel Craigof the Bielski brothers who saved over 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the forests of Poland.  “That film is not accurate,” he adamantly stressed and repeated, “There is no place for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” I listened patiently and respectfully.  His statement rang in my ears for the 40-minute drive back to my home in Defiance.  I made a point of seeing the film “Defiance.”  It was a good film.  More importantly, it occurred to me that if only 2 million people saw the film [the actual box office is reported at $56 million], then 2 million more people have some idea of what the Jewish communities in Poland faced during WWII.  Thanks to the Bielski partisans, there were 1,200 fewer people in Hitler’s concentration camps. With that thought in mind, I committed myself to The Hamsa. Do I exercise ‘artistic license?’  Absolutely.  One reviewer, Paul Knott referred to a technique I implied throughout the narrative

“If there is any ‘trick’ to the narrative, it might be Bronek’s meeting such historical figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sonia Henie, and Heinrich Himmler, a la Forest Gump, but these meetings are plausible and serve the story line.”

The final 80 pages of The Hamsa are specific to the protagonist’s — Bronislaw Czech (Bronek) — experience at Auschwitz.  I was committed to historical accuracy, and I stand firm that those pages accurately reflect what happened in that hell on earth.  I am not a Holocaust survivor and do not pretend to know what it was like.  Elie Wiesel did survive, and I hope that what I have written in The Hamsa does justice to those like his friends and father who did not survive. I believe that those thousands who have read The Hamsa have a better understanding of the era and errors of the times.

Dogs in Books

E.S. Kraay
Hans and I

I love dogs.  I have three:  Caesar, a seven-year old American bulldog; Hans, an 11-year old mutt akin to a coyote; and Cooper, an aging 12-year old Icelandic sheepdog.  Big, medium, small … I love them all.

In three of my five books, dogs play an important role.  In The Hamsa, Bronisław Czech meets the dog Raphael in Rome, and the dog is ‘with him’ for the remainder of the story.  In Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, the dog Caesar enters the story with Father Gabriel midway through the narrative.  In The Sixth Day, Scooter makes his important appearance on … ‘the sixth day.’  Each dog plays an important role and is graced with a special ‘spirituality.’

In truth, Raphael and Caesar were both fashioned after my dog Caesar.  Raphael evenThe Hamsa graces the cover of the Kindle edition of The Hamsa.  When I wrote Scooter into The Sixth Day, I envisioned Sparky from the 1996 film Michael.

MichaelThis morning, I read an interview with best-selling author Dean Koontz in the Spring 2014 issue of “Parabola” magazine.  Mr. Koontz includes dogs in his stories, and they play important roles.  (At least I can claim one thing in common with Mr. Koontz!)  His character Einstein, the genetically altered golden retriever in his 1987 thriller Watchers immediately comes to mind.

Here is how Mr. Koontz responded when “Parabola” asked him what happens to dogs when they die …

“I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said, ‘You think dogs will not be in heaven?  I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.’  Our first golden retriever, Trixie, dramatically changed me and my wife, Gerda, and had such a positive impact on our lives that I have written – in A Big Little Life – that I am convinced Trixie was a theophony, the presence of God in our lives.  When I encounter someone who sees nothing miraculous about dogs, I at once suspect they see nothing miraculous about life and therefore live in the absence of hope.”

Parabola Magazine, Spring 2014

I could not agree more with Mr. Koontz.  For those of you who might come to my home and be concerned with dog hair and slobber …. Get over it!

By the way, there is a dog in my upcoming 2014 release.  His name …. Dog.

Win a Copy of “The Hamsa”

As the 2014 Winter Olympics commence tomorrow morning, we are announcing February’s “E.S. Kraay Online” give away, a copy of The Hamsa.

Bronislaw CzechA Holocaust story, The Hamsa is based on the life of Polish Olympic skier Bronisław Czech who competed in three Winter Olympic Games:  1928 in St. Moritz; 1932 in Lake Placid; and 1936 in Germany where he led his team carrying the Polish flag into the stadium at the opening ceremonies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

February’s contest will run coincident with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  The contest begins today and will end on Friday, February 21st at midnight.  We will announce one domestic U.S. winner and one international winner the next day.  If you win, you will have the choice to receive The Hamsa as either and autographed, physical book, or as a Kindle download.

A final note … January’s Olympian winner accumulated 31 points by repeated entries.  Remember: you can return to the contest once a day and take additional action to earn more points.  If you already subscribe to “E.S. Kraay Online,” we will honor your subscription; just enter the year in which you subscribed.  Why make multiple entries?

In February, if the winner earns 50 or more points, he or she will also win a genuine U.S. military issue GI Hamsa.Hamsa

Good luck and let the games begin!


Reformatting “The Hamsa”

Several years ago, my old mentor McGrath first suggested that electronic books, eBooks represented the new face of book publishing.  As I resisted, he continued to send me article after article.  In 2010, two years after The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas was published as a physical book, I caved in and The Olympian went up on Kindle.  Since then, I insure all of my books are available in both physical and electronic formats.

I remain Old School and prefer to read my books in physical format, but not so with my wife, my children and many of my friends.  I have my reasons, but then I chuckle and wonder what the guy was thinking who refused to exchange his stone tablets for scrolls, then codex and then bound books!  Oh well….

The cold fact is that I sell five times as many eBooks through Kindle as physical books through Amazon and other book vendors.  If there is proof in the pudding, that validates it.

During the two years that I’ve worked with eBooks, I continue to learn more and more about formatting the electronic version to make it more readable on an electronic device.

Although I can’t deny that my first novel, The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas has been and continues to be the most well read of my four, my personal favorite is The Hamsa, a story of human dignity told through the eyes of Polish Olympic skier Bronisław Czech.  This brave man represented his country in three Winter Olympic Games, served with the resistance when Hitler attacked Poland and in 1940, he was the 349th person incarcerated in Auschwitz where he died five years later.

Earlier this month, I decided to re-format The Hamsa to make the eBook more readable.  I am pleased with the result.  Among other things, the eBook now includes a navigatable table of contents.  Because of the size of the book, I felt a usable TOC would be valuable to the reader.

If you prefer electronic books, and you have not read The Hamsa, I invite you to give it a look in its new format.

The Hamsa on Kindle

A word about the two covers… During the initial publication process, the designers offered two cover options that I really liked.  I finally decided to go with ‘the blue cover’ on the physical book, and then opted to use ‘the dog cover’ on the eBook.  It is the same book.  Both covers are appropriate and relevant to the story.

Where Ideas Come From: Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, A Mystical Tale from the Civil War South

During the two years I worked on The Hamsa, I became very interested in Celtic spirituality.  I obtained a Celtic Prayer book authored by William John Fitzgerald.  I still use it daily.  One scripture reading from the Book of Tobit captured my attention.

 “Raphael answered, “I will go with him; so do not fear.  We shall leave in good health and return to you in good health, because the way is safe.”

Tobit 5:16

Tobias saying goodbye to his father

I had never read the Book of Tobit.  Frankly, I had not even heard of the Book of Tobit.  Fortunately, I live not far from the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Picture Rocks at the edge of the Saguaro National Park in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.  The Center has a wonderful library and I spent many early mornings reading the Book of Tobit.  You will note that on the title page of The Hamsa, I include the aforementioned quotation.

While The Book of Tobit is perceived in different ways by different people of different religious persuasions, I believe The Book of Tobit tells us about doing the right thing under any and all circumstances, and that is the core concept of my novel Tobit and the Hoodoo Man.

Trained as a warrior, I respect all men and women who serve and who have served their countries in uniform though today, I am an avid supporter of non-violence.  In deference to popular American culture, I believe ‘the greatest generation’ of American servicemen and women were those who fought and died in the Civil War, the War Between the States.  Their efforts preserved the United States of America.  If Americans love their country, they must acknowledge that it remains intact due in no small part to the more than 600,000 men and women who died to preserve the nation some 150 Tobityears ago.

After reading the Book of Tobit several times, I decided I would write a manuscript and tell the story of Tobit with the Civil War South as its backdrop.  I tried diligently to include all of the major events in the biblical Book of Tobit.  That objective led to many twists and turns that made writing this manuscript an enjoyable process.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, I had already used ‘Raphael’ in The Hamsa, so I elected to use another archangel, Gabriel in his stead as I wrote Tobit and the Hoodoo Man.  Hoping to stay true to form and in context with the Apocrypha, I introduced another ‘mystical’ dog and named him Caesar after my own best friend.

Story ideas come from many sources.  I have a lengthy list  of concepts and ideas that continually grows, ideas I intend to develop into manuscripts.  I encourage you to develop and keep you own ‘list’ so that you never run out of ideas worthy of your talent.