Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Club interview with Stephen Balsamo, author of Marathon Journey, An Achilles Story


I'm happy to share with you this wonderful interview from the author of this month's book club book! The author's answers provide some great insight and background for the story. 

TTLWH: Are you a runner? If so, what races have you run?

SB: Yes, I am a runner.  I have participated in races of varying distances primarily in New York City and New Jersey.  I ran five marathons (three New York City Marathons and two Philadelphia Marathons). 

One of my favorite races is the Long Beach Island 18 Mile Run which is held every October in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.  It is a great training run for people who are planning to run either the New York City or Philadelphia marathons which are both held in November.  The organizers, volunteers, and spectators of the Long Beach Island run (and the great pre and post race meals) are incredible.

TTLWH: I’m so curious how you used the story of a Sudanese refugee to write about Achilles International. What inspired you to write this book?   On whom, if anyone, did you base the character of Adamu? How did you first learn about Achilles International?

SB: My earliest thought, which led to my writing the story, was how I believed that it was entirely possible for a runner in a marathon to achieve the result that the Adamu character in the book achieved.  

During my long and lonely marathon training runs, I would often think about it and I started creating a story around that idea in my head.

I saw a great news piece by Bob Simon on 60 Minutes about some Sudanese refugees who were part of a larger group of refugees known as "The Lost Boys of Sudan."  The piece profiled a few young men who were placed in the United States.  I was struck and moved by their experiences and their genuine good nature.  They had been through so much, but they maintained such a positive outlook and were so appreciative of what opportunities they had despite the losses they suffered.  

Thereafter, I read many books about the Lost Boys of Sudan and saw a great documentary about them called "God Grew Tired Us" which reaffirmed my impressions from the 60 Minutes piece.

So, in an effort to keep myself more or less entertained during my training runs, I started to create a story around the Adamu character with the goal that the story would conclude with his achievement at the New York City Marathon.

My wife was the first person who told me about Achilles International and we would see, and be inspired by, many of the Achilles athletes participating in the races we did in Central Park. 

To those who may not know, Achilles is a running club that was founded by Dick Traum who is the first person to run a marathon with a prosthetic leg when he ran the New York City Marathon in 1976.  Mr. Traum inspired Canadian hero, Terry Fox to run his "Marathon of Hope" across Canada.  Terry Fox, in turn, inspired Mr. Traum to create Achilles where the mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in athletics in order to promote personal achievement and to enhance self-esteem. 

As I learned more about Achilles and Mr. Traum, another and vital storyline started to materialize. 

One of the things I learned was that Achilles had a worldwide reach.  Achilles has chapters in many different countries and Mr. Traum and Achilles have often helped people in need in those countries by, in part, providing prosthetics to them.

So, I created the character of Kirabo, a young amputee who Adamu meets in the refugee camp in Africa, with the idea that, even though Adamu left Africa for the United States, through Dick Traum and Achilles, Adamu would be able to find a way to help his sad friend who had little hope in his heart. 

Because of the fact that Achilles has actually helped people in need in other countries, utilizing Achilles as a real-life the solution of sorts in the story to the seemingly hopeless situation with Kirabo was more than plausible even though Adamu left Africa for the United States.

TTLWH: Did you travel to Sudan? Interview any of the Lost Boys about their experiences?

SB: Unfortunately, I have not travelled to Sudan and I did not get a chance to interview any of the Lost Boys.  I did reach out to one of the Lost Boys with the hope that I could learn more about his experience and with the hope that he would write the Foreword to the book, but we were unable to finalize anything.  I do regret that I was unable to get a Lost Boy to write the Foreword for the book as it would have been an ideal way to inform the reader about the experiences of the Lost Boys---and it would have served as a good bookend to the story along with the Afterword written by Dick Traum of Achilles.


Lafon Hill, Sudan.
source: sites.google.com
I feel compelled to add that, while I did not travel to Sudan, during the course of researching the book I saw an incredible aerial picture of Lafon Hill in Sudan in National Geographic magazine which was a great inspiration and made me feel like I was there.  The photograph was taken by a very talented and adventurous photographer named George Steinmetz, who takes pictures from a motorized paraglider.  After seeing the photograph, I worked Lafon Hill into the story.  I was fortunate enough to be able to give George a copy of the book and to tell him how much the photograph influenced me in writing the story.

TTLWH: Do you work with Achilles International and if so, what do you do?

SB: I do not work with Achilles, but my wife and I have supported the organization and we have participated in their annual "Hope and Possibility Run" in Central Park over the years.  One year, I ran the New York City Marathon as a charity entry in support of Achilles and it was truly an incredible experience to be able to wear the Achilles shirt during the marathon and to be part of the team. 


2014 Hope and Possibility Run
source: achillesinternational.org
The support for Achilles athletes along the course of the New York City Marathon is absolutely amazing.  In the story, I include a quote along the lines that "the Achilles athletes get big cheers along the course, sometimes even bigger than the winners" to acknowledge that fact.

I am so appreciative that Dick Traum, who I met and spoke with on numerous occasions while writing the book, liked the story and provided me with tremendous advice and encouragement along the way.

On a fairly regular basis, I am fortunate to see or read incredibly moving profiles of athletes with different types of disabilities accomplishing great things in a running event, in a pool, on a basketball court, on a ball field, or on a bike.  I believe that if you trace back the origins of the development of people with disabilities in athletics, Dick Traum would surely be one of the most influential pioneers.

So, while I don't work for Achilles I hope that I could be considered to be at least a small part of the team.

TTLWH: What are some of the messages of the book that you are trying to convey?

SB: Beyond hoping to pay homage to the plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan in a respectful way and trying to spread the message of Achilles, I hope to convey the value of perseverance in tough times or when trying to achieve a goal.  Along with that, I hope the story conveys the message that taking some type of constructive action towards reaching that goal or resolving a tough situation (and associating with good people) can lead to positive developments.  

The main characters in the book all faced obstacles along the way, but they continued their journey despite their losses, pain, or lack of motivation and came together as a team.  Their perseverance and collaborative efforts allowed them to accomplish something together---but even more importantly allowed them to improve and enrich their respective lives. 

Coming together with good like-minded individuals---whether it be on a running club, a team, or congregating on something like your blog can help to increase the chances of achievement and enjoyment of life. 

In the story, I have the character who coaches Adamu tell him that “perseverance in times of weakness can lead to strength.” I think it is a true statement and one of the main messages of the story.  Invariably, we will all face obstacles in running and in life, but if we persevere, and if we are fortunate to be surrounded by good people, it will lead to strength and good things.

I also hope that I was able to convey that running is a positive, constructive, and healthy activity that can serve to enrich a person's life in a very unique way---well beyond the pride of earning a medal in a race.

I view the highest point of the story not to be Adamu’s New York City Marathon achievement, but instead to be how Adamu found a way to help his friend Kirabo.  To Adamu, his marathon finish was a distant second place to the love, support, and loyalty of true friends and family.

Thanks to Stephen Balsamo for taking the time to answer my questions!

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Have you read the book? Do you have any questions you would have wanted him to answer?

Stay tuned for my review and the link up tomorrow! Thanks again for playing along. Here's the link up logo for your post!

38 comments :

  1. I had not heard of Achilles International before. Thanks for sharing this and raising awareness - what an interesting story.

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    1. I hadn't heard of Achilles International either, and this book really made think about all those disabled runners we see at races.

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  2. It always amazes me how focused and determined disabled runners are. Kudos to them for not letting their disabilities get in the way of them conquering their goals and dreams.

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    1. I wonder if the disability makes them even more determined? Sure makes me feel bad for whining about plantar fasciitis!

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  3. What a great story. I had never heard of this before! Very inspiring!

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  4. Such a wonderful organization! Thanks for sharing this, Wendy!

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    1. I had no idea Achilles International existed before I read this book!

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  5. I haven't read the book but it definitely seems inspirational.

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  6. I wish I had time to read all these books you recommend.

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  7. What a great way to raise awareness of Achilles International and also tell the story of the Lost Boys.

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    1. Before I read the book, I had never heard of the organization!

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  8. I've not heard of this organization before but it sounds very inspiring and worthwhile. One of these months I will join this linkup....

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    1. Next up is Daughters of Distance. You would like it!

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  9. You read so many interesting books! I have so many on my list and need to start making a dent.

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    1. I learn a lot about different things from the books I read!

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  10. Never heard of this before sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing about it.

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  11. I've never heard of Achilles International before but what a wonderful cause!!! After learning more about para-athletes earlier this week, I have such an increased appreciation for those that battle through their challenges without stopping to feel sorry for themselves!

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    1. Learning about these athletes makes my aches and pains seem so trivial.

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  12. Wow, very cool. I've never heard of this before. I'll have to check out the book!

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    1. That makes a few of us! Now when you see disabled runners, you'll know how they got there! Pretty awesome.

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  13. Great interview~ I have never heard of the Achilles International before- looks like you picked an interesting story. I hope to get in on the next one!

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  14. Great interview! I haven't read this book, but I want to now. I have run in a few 5k races that raises money for the local Achilles Track club near me - they put on a great race (Shamrock Shuffle for St. Patrick's Day in Toronto)!

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    1. That's great! I had never heard of Achilles until I read this book. Now I want to learn more!

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  15. Wonderful interview! It is a great way to bring attention to a cause.
    I may need to try the next read...I have not read anything all summer. How do you find time?!

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    1. I love to read, so I make it a priority. I don't watch much TV, instead I go up to bed early and tuck in with a book!

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  16. I have not read this but what a great review! Thank you for sharing. I need to read more. I always say that but have yet to actually do it :)

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  17. I have never read this book... but it looks great. I'll have to check it out.

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  18. Great interview! Now I have another book to add to my "to read" list. I had not heard of this organization before...

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  19. I have heard of Achilles through my races with new york road runners. It is always amazing to see them out there, same with the NYC Marathon. Truly an inspiration. I'll have to check out this book!

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    1. I'm in awe of the disabled runners and the guides that lead them! I don't know that I could run a marathon and lead someone.

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