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Himalaya General 

by Marty Demarest


Ask writers about their work, and if they're being honest, they'll probably tell you that completing anything, even a short story, is an enormous task. The challenges posed by something as lengthy and complex as a novel are even more daunting. Then authors need to edit, find a publisher and see their work through to the store shelves.


The process defeats some. Others adapt to it, making it a part of their working routine. For others, however, it's almost a relief. That's the case for Craig Danner, author of Himalayan Dhaba, who will be reading at Auntie's Bookstore Saturday night.


Danner's novel began when he and his wife, who were both working in medicine in 1991, decided to travel to India and work with a surgeon in a town high in the Himalayas. On their agenda, along with their medical work, was Craig's desire to spend some time writing fiction. "I've always been a fiction writer," Danner explains. "We had gone overseas with the intent of staying indefinitely and working, and I thought that I could write anywhere. So I saw that as an opportunity to begin, since we had been so overwhelmed with patients before."


Unfortunately, after traveling halfway around the world, they found that they had been left in charge of the remote town's hospital, with no surgeon to greet them or guide them. "For us, it was pretty rough going," Danner recalls of the experience. "We did have a young Indian doctor who was coming up intermittently to help us out. But he might only be there one week out of the month. And the rest of the month we were on our own, letting the nurses help us as best they could, to translate patients and translate medicine."


After settling in, and making discoveries like the fact that the strange-sounding injectible medicine the nurses were always urging them to use was, in fact, Tylenol, the two encountered the Himalayan winter. "In January," Danner recalls, "the winter snows closed all the passes and trails that led to the hospital. And I ended up having the free time to write."


Launching Himalayan Dhaba for Danner was an incident that occurred to the couple shortly before the winter snows fell. "A young man came into the hospital with a broken neck," Danner says, "and we had arranged for him to be taken out by ambulance down to Jandigar. And in the middle of the night, as this young man was supposedly lying in a hospital room waiting for the ambulance, I had a dream that someone kidnapped him, because he was so helpless. And I woke up and I woke up my wife, and said, 'Someone's going to kidnap him!' And she said 'Go back to sleep.' And I did, and in the morning, I said 'What a great idea for a book.' That was how the inspiration for the plot occurred to me."


Around the image of a wounded man being kidnapped, Danner has constructed a tale laden with emotionally fragile characters. There is Antone, the aging kidnapper; Phillip, his British hostage; and Meena, a young woman abandoned by her family to service the abusive men of an isolated road crew. Linking them all together is Mary, a recently widowed doctor from Baltimore who had left her medical practice in the United States to work with a mission doctor in India. Like the Danners, the character of Mary finds herself abandoned by her mentor and placed in charge of the medical needs of an isolated village.


"The characters, aside from the main protagonist, were easier for me," Danner says of his writing process and the links between the reality and his fictional work. "They were based on people that we either met or had heard about in India. I would enter their life in my imagination, and they would show me what they were going to do.


"But the character of Dr. Mary, on the other hand, took me a long time to develop, because her experiences were so close to my own. Yet I didn't want her to be me, and I didn't want her to be my wife. She needed to be herself. But for a long time I was so close to her experiences, I couldn't give her any character at all -- I wrote about what happened to her but not what she was feeling. And it wasn't until I was done, and redrafting it, that I discovered who she was and what her name was and what her story was. So it was years after drafting it, and after I felt I had processed the experiences, that she blossomed."


After a failed attempt to interest publishers in New York, Danner decided to self-publish his book, "just to get it out of my system." He initially planned to distribute the 500 copies to friends and family. "I had a friend help me edit it, though, and it just kept getting better and better. So I thought maybe 1,000 copies; and when I got quotes for the back of the book, I thought 2,000 copies. And after that, it just took off. We introduced the book at a trade show in Portland in September. And by the middle of October, we had sold out our entire first printing."


With that sort of grass-roots success, and recognition as the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association's Novel of the Year for 2002, a major publisher picked up Himalayan Dhaba, and Danner was able to switch his career to writing full-time.


"They're totally different," Danner says of his medical experiences in the Himalayas and the process of writing and distributing the novel, "but the similarity is that the whole time my wife and I depended on each other tremendously. In publishing, it's just impossible to self-publish a book and push it out into the world alone. So I was fortunate to have my wife say 'This is overwhelming, I'd better be your publicist.' "

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