Westword Book Club: Author Kenn Amdahl on algebra, self-publishing and daphnia
Reading is about more than following a narrative or absorbing information; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, which celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
Kenn Amdahl is an author, an entrepreneur and something of a homespun polymath based in Broomfield. Frustrated by difficulties finding a publisher for his book, an educational manual leavened by bits of whimsy, Amdahl founded Clearwater Publishing in 1990. Since then, Clearwater has released eleven books. Westword recently sat down with Amdahl to talk about math and science, self-publishing, his favorite books and being part of a community of writers.
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Westword: So, you started your own publishing company?
Kenn Amdahl: I did, back in the Pleistocene era.
How did that come about?
It happened because the book that I thought had a market was rejected so many times. Eighty-nine times. Yet it was successful with the people reading it. The people who were rejecting my book liked it, but they said it was too weird for them and their company to publish.
Were there any self-publishing models that were helpful to you?
There weren't many good models that I remember, but I do remember a book called The Rogue of Publisher's Row, written in 1956 by Edward Uhlan. He'd been in publishing his entire life and he wrote this exposé of the publishing industry that -- of course -- no one would publish because it was an exposé of the publishing industry. So he self-published because he knew a lot about publishing and it wound up selling steadily, something like 350,000 copies. I read that book and thought that was interesting. I had done a lot of other business, I had been in real estate and I had run a couple nightclubs, so I wasn't afraid of business, and I had written this book that I was certain had a market. I read an early edition of Dan Poynter's self-publishing manual, and it basically walked me through the steps. I read it and thought, "This doesn't look that hard," and it wasn't.
The hardest part of self-publishing is getting someone to buy your book. Writing a good book is an important part that a lot of authors miss, but then the challenge is getting someone to buy your good book. As far as writing style goes, I'm currently rereading E.B. White and William Strunk's Elements of Style because I always forget that stuff, and every two years, I re-read William Zinsser's On Writing Well, but I didn't have any local heroes, models or mentors, though.
Where did you get the inkling to start writing books like Calculus for Cats?
I had taken my kids to see a Star Wars movie. Maybe the first one, they were still very young. They were transfixed. I noticed that everything they saw stuck in their brain because they were so engaged. I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to write a book where the first objective is to entertain and engage the brain, and then if your brain is that engaged, that entertained, you can teach anything. So it was also kind of an experiment. When I wrote my first book There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings, I knew hardly anything about electricity, but I studied how it works, for three years I read all of these books on electronics and schematics, and then I wrote these goofy stories, maintaining that formula of putting entertainment first, and only then coming at them with information.
Had you identified that the sort of playful spirit you're describing was missing from education?
My family and I were living in Tulsa at the time. We had moved there from Boulder for about a year. Perhaps it was just luck of the draw in the Oklahoma school system, but we were not pleased with the way my children's education was going. In my son's class, they were learning about crustaceans, and the teacher was insisting that they were all salt water creatures. My little boy raised his hand and said, "Well, what about daphnia?" My second-grader knew more biology than his teacher.
Your son also knows more about biology than I do. What are daphnia?
Well, we had aquariums. Daphnia are planktonic crustaceans that live in fresh water. But I was afraid that my kids weren't going to get properly educated so I was very conscious of education. All of my kids write, and books were always around for them; we swap books a lot. I thought back on the things that I had missed in my own education and regretted missing them.
Do you wish you had access to books like yours when you were in school?
I wish that I had access to a book like Algebra: Unplugged, because when I was in ninth grade I got a D in algebra. I should have been a scientist; that's what I should have been. I've always had critters and aquariums; I was dissecting things on my own in second grade, doing little taxidermy projects. But I fell off the math and science track because I was so bad at algebra. I wish that I'd had a book that could have made algebra easier to understand.
It seems like a lot of science fiction writers have a similar frustration, and their struggle against their limited understanding of science leads to these interesting speculative leaps.
Certainly like the terraforming in Frank Herbert's Dune series. What a masterful world he created.
Are you much of a sci-fi fan?
No, not especially. I've corresponded with Ray Bradbury and he wrote me a blurb for Electrons. I like Herbert, and I like Anne Rice, but I don't tend to read as much genre fiction. I don't have a particular fondness for any genre; for me the common denominator is just good writing. You know, Steinbeck is my favorite author, and E.B. White is probably my favorite non-fiction writer. I was an English lit major, so I read all the Shakespeare and the Keats poetry, and I loved that. Mark Twain.
Is there a book that you remember being influential to you growing up?
There's a book called David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd. It was just such a magical book that I read it several times and still remember little snippets of it. Just being transported to this magical world -- I thought that this was cool and that I wanted to do that. I wished I could do that magic. A while back, I was doing enough business that I thought about maybe publishing other people's books, books that were out of print, and one of the things I wanted to do was get David and the Phoenix back into print. I contacted Edward Ormondroyd and he was very friendly, but had sold the rights to republish two weeks earlier. We corresponded for a while and he wrote a blurb for my book.
Do you try to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction?
Yes. I've written six novels, but I've only published two of them. Jumper in the Bones, which I just published, is my experiment with e-books; it's available on Kindle and depending how it goes I may do a paper vision. I've written and published several non-fiction books, but again, not everything. When you're self-publishing and signing your own checks, you become a pretty tough acquisitions editor. Do you want a new car, or do you want this book in print? Is it really that good? I've got a science fiction story that I've re-written thirteen times without publishing. It was the first novel I finished and I'm doing another draft on it now. Maybe I'll put it out as a Kindle.
Does it help to have a network of fellow writers?
Yes, and Colorado has especially good community of writers. The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Colorado Independent Publishers, I founded an organization called Book Organizations of Colorado that facilitates the communication between the leaders of these groups of thirty or forty across the state, so we can send one e-mail that gets to everybody. There's the Pike's Peak Writer's Conference, there are a lot of ways to connect with other writers. Which is nice because it feels like connecting with your tribe when you're scribbling away in solitude, it can feel like you're the only one with this crazy habit of putting words down, and so going to a conference and meeting people who are just like you is pleasantly bizarre. A unique thing about groups of writers spending time together is that we settle into our vocabularies and talk to each other in a writerly way. Writers tend to truncate our speech around other people.
We don't want to seem supercilious.
Right, it can put people off. In the company of writers, though, feel free to be grandiloquent.
For more information about Amdahl and his bibliography, visit Clearwater Publishing Company's home page.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more word-wrangling.
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