Book publishing Forestville family is a tribe of scribes
The Baer/Morey/Levitin family certainly has a way with words.
How else to explain the Forestville clan’s prolific publishing prowess of late? Three authors, three books, all with different publishers, all in a span of about six months.
Two of the books - one by Barbara Baer, the other by her adult son, Michael Levitin - are novels; the third, by Baer’s husband, Michael Morey, is nonfiction. Each work tells the story of a complicated protagonist on an epic journey in a faraway place. One is set in India, one in the Philippines, one in Berlin. Oh, and the books by Morey and Levitin are debuts.
“We are a family of writers,” says Baer, who is the eldest of the trio at a spry 79. “We share a passion. We share a drive. We share an interest. And we understand the importance of not bothering each other and giving each other the space to create.”
Morey, 73, agrees. “We’ve supported each other in writing and life for more than 40 years,” he says. “It’s nice to celebrate these accomplishments together.”
Ever the realist, Levitin, 42, puts the family’s success into perspective: “We’re longtime Sonoma County residents with deep roots in the community, and we know that, as a unit, we’ll never have another bumper literary year like this one.”
The works themselves couldn’t be more different.
The newest of the trio, Morey’s, was released Feb. 15 and is titled “Fagen: An African American Renegade” in the Philippine-American War. The nonfiction book spotlights David Fagen, a former member of the Buffalo Soldiers whose defection from the occupying American forces to join and lead the successful Filipino resistance became a legendary saga at the turn of the 20th century - especially since Fagen was never caught.
Levitin’s novel, “Disposable Man,” was published by Spuyten Duyvil on Jan. 10, and is based loosely on the author’s experience as a foreign correspondent. It also deals with the realities of growing up Jewish, the legacy of the Holocaust and modern masculinity and its discontents.
Finally, “The Last Devadasi” is Baer’s third published novel, and is a perfect book for the #MeToo era. The book takes a deep dive into traditional Indian dance culture and the sexist legacy of the Untouchables caste of Devadasi - women who spend their lives cloistered in temples where they’re also abused by the priests. It was published Oct. 10, 2018, by Open Books.
In a sense, words are what brought the family together: Baer and Morey met at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley conference back in 1978. Each was partnered with someone else at the time, but that didn’t stop them from coming together shortly thereafter. Levitin was just a toddler then, but the trio became a unit and in 1980 moved from Ohio to a 2-acre parcel with a small bungalow behind El Molino High School.
Morey already had written two novels by the time he got to Sonoma County and determined fiction was his thing, but he struggled to get either book over the goal line. So he switched to nonfiction and began working on the Fagen book. His was a slow burn; over the course of 10 years he dropped it, picked it up again, tinkered and revised. He conducted research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
“The book for me was an ongoing project, something I worked at and worked at until it got to a point where I was comfortable shopping it around,” he says.
Ultimately the University of Wisconsin Press published the book.
Baer, meanwhile, produced like Shakespeare from that West County perch - first freelance newspaper and magazine work (following a career in newspapers). She wrote about denuclearization and the United Farm Workers for the Nation and Commonwealth. She wrote another novel titled “The Ballet Lover,” also with Open Books. Then, in 1995, she launched a small publishing company: Floreant Press.
She has published six books under that label, including “Cartwheels on the Fault Line,” a compilation of essays from numerous women writers from Marin to Mendocino.
“Back then publishing your own work wasn’t nearly as common as it is today,” says Baer. “Really, starting a small press just seemed like the best chance to publish the kind of work my friends and I wanted to publish.”
As for Levitin, from the beginning all roads have led to writing. Some of his earliest memories are set in the Forestville house - playing amid the fruit trees, spying on his mother while she wrote in her study. He also remembers Morey’s writing shack from the early days: A converted chicken coop that Morey lovingly called “the Hooch.”
Though Levitin didn’t truly fall in love with writing until college, he says he “never wanted to commit to anything else,” and “never found another occupation that seemed doable like writing did.” So he became a journalist. He sought his own stories. And he worked extensively overseas.
“I followed my own path but learned by example,” says the resident of El Cerrito. “[The influence] my parents had on me turned out to be stronger than I ever knew.”
These days, Morey writes from a small study on the back side of a standalone garage - just steps from the wood platform where his old writing room once stood. His next project: Developing essays from some of the Fagen material that didn’t make it into the book.
Baer is looking forward, too; her next novel will draw loosely from both sides of her family’s history, and will delve into how the financial crashes of the early 20th century changed their lives.
Levitin’s next book will spotlight the Occupy Wall Street movement.
There’s no telling when these next books will be out. And it’s likely none of the books will be ready around the same time again. Heck, there’s a good chance at least one of the projects never actually sees the light of day. Whatever happens, whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: Everyone in the Baer/Morey/Levitin family will keep writing.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Healdsburg. To learn more about him, visit whalehead.com.