March 11, 2014
By David Hayes
In a life of milestones, local author meets another with self-published book
Sitting in a ray of sunshine in his “hooray for me” room in his Cougar Mountain home, Randy Harrison paused while discussing his book “West From Yesterday.”
From the window seat in the room (a Southern nickname for a room full of mementos from one’s life), the first-time author said he had shared the manuscript with family and friends before self-publishing it through Amazon.com. They’d realized the tale of Tucker, a post-Civil War-era plantation owner who journeys West in a bout of self-discovery, sounded a lot like someone they knew.
“They said they found a lot of me in Tucker,” Harrison said. “I realized both me and Tucker were from a Virginia family, had come from a life of privilege only by birth. And we both felt a sense of obligation that we had to earn what comes from that gift of privilege.”
Harrison, whose 70 years is built upon 49 changes of addresses, further explained he felt his entire life was an amazing string of circumstances that led him down the path to where he is today. For example, the son of an Air Force officer, rather than follow his father’s footsteps into a diplomatic career, dropped out of college his junior year, enlisted in the Army and volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
“At the time, most of my family thought I was out of my mind,” he said.
Even though the Special Forces unit he was assigned to had performed top-secret missions and had the dubious dishonor of a 100 percent casualty rate, Harrison emerged unscathed from his tours in Vietnam.
“That meant someone from my unit took a bullet meant for me,” he said.
Off to Rome, and then west
After seven and a half years in the military, Harrison got out to pursue a degree in journalism. His first gig as a reporter was the Orlando Sentinel, back when it was the only regional publication covering a large area of Florida that generated a huge stream of advertising revenue. As a result, his editor made Harrison the paper’s foreign correspondent. He was given an unlimited budget, had no boss and was totally self-directed. If he wanted to cover an event by the Pope, he was off to Rome without anyone batting an eyelid.
Having taken vacations in the Hood Canal area, Harrison decided to uproot from Florida and move west, figuring his experience would land him a job at a local paper here, no problem.
“It was a great lesson in arrogance,” Harrison said. “Neither The Seattle Times nor the P.I. would give me an interview.”
Jobless, he called a buddy who worked at The Boeing Co. The connection landed him in an opening for a writer. After 20 years in public relations, Harrison retired as the head of media relations.
Harrison even met his wife, Stephanie, through unconventional, but memorable means. A columnist for The Seattle Times was tracking her tribulations in navigating the town’s tough dating scene. After reading one of the final columns, Harrison felt compelled to write her a letter, care of The Times, before heading off on a jaunt to a cross-country meeting. Thinking nothing more of it, he was surprised to learn upon his return that, although she’d spurned all other letter writers, it was his she answered. They met, dated and eventually married.
An unfulfilled ambition
Comfortably retired and living on Cougar Mountain, Harrison remained civically active as a member of the city Community Development Board and the boards of Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, AtWork! and the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank. But one of his ambitions remained unfulfilled — writing a novel.
“It’s a flat statement — I think all of us in journalism that see and experience enough and tell stories for a living, all of us have got a book in us,” he said.
Plus, after prodding from his wife and son, he said he finally ran out of excuses.
So, Harrison wanted to pay tribute to the old black-and-white cowboy shows he grew up watching, like “Gunsmoke.”
Harrison set aside a few hours a day to devote to his tome. After extensive research, he amended his vision of the Wild West to include elements he’d uncovered, from how easy it was to die from lack of medical attention due to the smallest of knife pricks to the surprising number of cowboys, at least 25 percent, that were minorities. A key character on his protagonist’s journey would be an ex-slave turned cowboy, a difficult paradigm shift for the former plantation owner.
Harrison’s wife even lent a hand, helping him delve deeper into authenticity, providing a woman’s perspective on such mundane activities as vainly looking at oneself in a mirror.
The novel itself didn’t take long to write, but it would be another three years before it was published. Harrison said he had only written it to prove he could.
“After I was done, I put the manuscript away in a drawer,” he said.
But word got out among family and friends about his project and he relented, letting the manuscript see the light of day and the scrutiny of other eyes.
Reaction was unanimous — he had to publish the book.
The self-publishing route
“After so many people read it, I thought I’d have to make a ton of changes,” he said. “But there ended up being very little substantive edits, aside from an embarrassing number of typos.”
One friend did notice the book seemed to end abruptly. Harrison admitted that was the case, as he was typing along and noticed how many pages it was getting to be.
“I was like, ‘Wow, look how long it is.’ The end,” he said.
So, he revisited the ending, adding another 30 or so pages to let it reach a more natural conclusion.
The next step to the bookshelves astonished Harrison. He learned most publishers receive 70 percent of a book’s profits and an agent got another 15 percent, leaving the author with just a paltry 15 percent for himself.
So, he went the self-publishing route through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace program. They require just a small payment for printing, while marketing is left up to the author. This way, Amazon takes only 30 percent, leaving the author with 70 percent, Harrison said.
For marketing, he enlisted the aid of his nephew, who he convinced that his burgeoning marketing firm would be perfect to delve into the untapped niche of self-publishing.
Harrison’s final product, “West From Yesterday,” hit the shelves and Amazon.com in December, three years after he started the project. Reaction has been overwhelming — all reader reviews so far on Amazon.com have been five stars out of five.
Harrison said he’s had an amazing time with the project, proving he could do something of such magnitude for the fun of it. Despite clamoring from some of his friends, who want to see what happens next to the characters in a sequel, Harrison said his only plans for now is to complete one other unrealized childhood dream — teaching himself how to play acoustic guitar.