In May, Skyhorse Publishing in New York will publish my new book, Ferment: A Memoir of Mental Illness, Redemption, and Winemaking on the Mosel. It’s a book I’ve been working on for five years and it’s a life’s work, at least to this point.
My time in Germany was the most formative experience of my life and set the stage for numerous adventures and expeditions that I would take in the 35 years since I lived in the country.
A couple of things about this book:
First, I’m about as naked in the tale as I can get. I reveal all manner of personal matters from my suicide attempt in March 2011 to the fact that, I believe, I’ve always been an alcoholic. These revelations have made several people in my life uncomfortable. It’s not that they play any role in the story but they want to know how I can be so open about what many people believe are personal failings.
My reply to them is that intense self-examination is what my writing’s been about, at least since I sobered up and started new at the age of 27. Being honest is about the best an author/writer can do. The more personal the tale, the more universal the themes of redemption and loss are. It’s this striving to connect with other people that drives my creative vision. Hopefully, something I’ve learned relates to readers’ own visions for themselves and the world.
Second, being so open about manic depressive illness disturbs some people. They ask how I could disclose the details of mental disturbance and suicide, things most people would want to keep to themselves and/or a cadre of close friends and family. I try to show that suicide has its own logic. On the anecdotal level, suicide is mostly rational while being, in the scheme of things, irrational. It just makes a lot of sense unless something or someone jolts the victim into seeing a larger world, one in which his or her life is intertwined with others.
And who wants to put their mental problems out there for the general public? Well, I don’t. But the tale demanded it. In the first drafts of the manuscript, my readers told me something was missing, that I was leaving out important details. The story suffered. If anything, a writer is in service to his or her tale. They have to be or their narrative is completely selfish and isolated. To be honest is to be open. To be open is to connect with others, something every story should do.
Third, it’s a tale about friends and friendship. In this, it contains a lot of loss and grief. At the same time, it celebrates the best about others, the people who help us out with our lives and make them worth living.
Fourth, it’s a travel memoir that takes the reader through a wide landscape of place and emotion. It achieves, I believe, the best of what travel and memoir encompass. We get to go through little-known parts of Germany, France, and Luxemburg, and not a little bit of the American Midwest. I hope to show people there’s more to Europe than the great capitals and that in these places, life is as storied and picturesque as any Paris, London, or Berlin—though some of the tale does take place in Berlin.
Last, it’s some of the best writing I could conjure. It wasn’t for nothing that the book took five years from inception to publication. The first draft was absolute shite. It’s only through about five major rewrites, two in the last year, and hundreds and hundreds of smaller revisions that we arrive at the finished manuscript. I’m glad Skyhorse decided to take the book and give me some deadlines, as this is a book that I could work on for many more years.
I don’t have any idea how I’m going to promote the book with my new job at the Postal Service. In the past, I did tens of library presentations, speaking engagements with Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, as well as many engagements with local book clubs and groups of friends who wanted to discuss my adventures.
I will do the best I can. That’s all I can do.
Below, I include the elevator speech Jon Arlan, my editor, and I developed for the book. It was on the basis of this torn corner of writing that we sold the book to Skyhorse. I hope it will give you a clue about what the book’s about. More than that, I hope it moves you to buy the book both for my sake as a writer and for how the book will connect with you.
If you have any questions for me about the book and its publication, please get ahold of me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-896-4746.
Ferment: A Memoir of Mental Illness, Redemption, and Winemaking on the Mosel
A deeply moving accountofone man’s return to the German town where he first pursued a career in winemaking, and his attempt to reckon with the mental illness, alcoholism, and enduring relationships that defined the most formative chapter of his life.
After an attempted suicide by hanging—with his son in the next room—author Patrick Dobson checks into a mental hospital, clueless, reeling from bone-crushing depression and tortuous, racing thoughts. A long overdue diagnosis of manic depression offers relief but brings his confused and eventful past into question.
To make sense of his suicide attempt and deal with his past, he returns to Germany where, three decades earlier, he arrived as twenty-two-year-old—lost, drunk, and in the throes of untreated mental illness—in search of a new life and with dreams of becoming a winemaker. The sublime Mosel vineyards and the ancient city of Trier changed his life forever.
Ferment charts his days in Trier’s vineyards and cellars, and the enduring friendships that would define his life. A winemaker and his wife become like parents to him. In their son, he finds a brother, whose death years later sends Dobson into a suicidal tailspin. His friends, once apprentices like himself, become leaders in their fields: an art historian and church-restoration expert, an art- and architectural-glass craftsman, a painter and photographer, and a theologian/journalist. The relationships he builds with them become hallmarks of a life well-lived.
In Ferment, Dobson reconnects with the people who stood by him through his dissolution and eventual recovery. In these relationships, he seeks who he was and how his time in Germany changed him. He peers into his memory to understand how manic depression and alcoholism affected who he was then and how his time in Germany made him who he’s become.