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Films Introduce Story of Nature, Business and War

In a guest post for the blog of Johns Hopkins University Press, I describe how as a writer, it’s rare to feel that a story is destined for you. I felt that way with my first book, Ginseng, the Divine Root. It’s about forests and a secretive subculture around a medicinal plant from American forests that for over two centuries has been exported to Asia. That tapped my life-long passion for stories about forests.

Years later in a library, I stumbled on an article about a tree-planting campaign during World War II. Americans were planting millions of cork oak trees from coast to coast, with the idea they could save the country. Cork wasn’t native to North America, but people considered it important. How could tree-planting help win a war?

That question led to my discovery of another forest-related story–the narrative of my new book, Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II. I found the story through interviews and documentary research. Charles McManus Jr. was 96 years old when we met, very sharp. We sat in the empty ballroom of his retirement community outside Baltimore and he said two things that captivated me. First, he described an otherworldly scene of cork harvests in Portugal. Back in his 20s, McManus had visited Portugal with his father, and the traditional harvest – the skilled workers peeling the thick cork bark from the trees — was magical.

The story of Melchor Marsa describes his work with the cork industry before he got recruited for espionage in Lisbon during World War II.

The story came together through three families, and short films introducing them helped to invite readers into that world. I worked with a documentary filmmaker, Kiley Kraskouskas, on short films to introduce the families. We drew on my recorded interviews, and used animation and archival film to bring each to life. Altogether, the videos introduce the book and the characters.

To read the full story, visit the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.

On Saturday, January 26 I’ll be talking with Kiley and other members of the filmmaking team at a screening and book release event at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance. Free! Details:

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