A Motivated autHor of 12 Books
About Stefan Bechtel
A Short Biography
Stefan Bechtel is the author or co-author of 12 books, including Mr. Hornaday's War and Redemption Alley, which have sold more than 2 million copies and have been translated into 10 languages. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Washington Post, and other publications.
Stefan's Journey in His Own Words
Like all men of letters, I began writing in order to get girls. I wrote my first story in the second grade, and although “The Coxornie” was luminous with literary promise (it concerned a monster who emerged from the center of the earth), it failed in its secret purpose. Girls thought it was funny, but not in a good way.
College and Shortly After
My father was a distinguished English professor at Wheaton College (in suburban Chicago) and my mother was an academic librarian, but early in life I decided not to become an academic myself. Nevertheless, as the decades rolled by I never stopped writing, even when I wasn’t sure anyone was paying attention at all. I produced dozens of dog-eared notebooks crammed with brilliant but unpublishable fodder for future biographers, while rambling to the antipodes, from Alaska to Africa, Patagonia to Peoria, SoCal to Baja to Istanbul (where I graduated from high school when my father had a Fulbright there). I earned a living in all manner of ways, as a novice reporter, a house-painter, a gardener, a salt on a shrimp boat, a street vendor, a feisty but feckless entrepeneur. What I longed for more than anything — more than wealth, power, status, even women — was experience.
Life itself, it seemed to me, was the prize above all prizes.
By the time I finished college (at Wheaton and Miami) with a degree in journalism, my academic training was leavened with a far-ranging “natural education” which I have since learned is part of the scholastic pedigree of most of the writers I most admire. After a short stint as a freelancer I got hired as editor of a city magazine in Greensboro, North Carolina, then went on to work a couple of years as a reporter on a daily newspaper in nearby Burlington — the most valuable (and most poorly-paid) part of my post-graduate education. I won a couple of statewide press awards for coverage of a famous shoot-out between the Ku Klux Klan and a group of naÃ¯ve though well-intentioned union organizers called the Communist Workers Party. Though several of the communist demonstrators were killed in cold blood and on videotape, all the Klanners were ultimately found innocent, after a four-month trial fraught with high drama and a peculiarly Southern notion of “justice.”
The Birth of a Magazine
I moved on to a job as writer and editor at Rodale Press, in Pennsylvania, where I became involved in one of the most remarkable publishing stories of the 1990s. I’d been working as a senior editor at Prevention (at the time the world’s largest-circulation health magazine) when my boss Mark Bricklin and I created a monthly newsletter called Men’s Health, of which I was executive editor. The newsletter’s purpose was to serve what we felt were the underserved health needs of men, though at the time the “received wisdom” in the culture at large was that men have no particular interest in taking care of their own health, much less reading about it. But from the git-go, that little newsletter was such a booming success that after a couple of years of publication, we took some existing material from back issues, generated some new stories, repackaged the whole thing as a glossy magazine and put 200,000 copies out on newsstands around the country. The early returns were fabulous, so we just kept publishing the durn thing, and today Men’s Health is the largest men’s magazine in the world, outselling GQ and Esquire combined, with editions in 24 foreign countries.
So much for “received wisdom”!
I can’t take credit for the later success of the magazine (though I sure wish I could — or, better yet, that I owned it!) since a couple of years after the launch, I got my first book contract and took a leave of absence from Rodale. That first book, published by HarperCollins, was “Katherine, It’s Time,” a novelistic retelling of a multiple personality case that was extraordinary even among MPD cases. Writing that book was a remarkable and fulfilling experience — I felt that I had discovered what I was supposed to be doing on the planet.
A New Place to Find Inspiration
And the personal freedom and intellectual challenge of being an independent writer appealed to me so mightily that I took a big chance and moved my little family down to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I intended to try to “make it” as an independent author.
Today, Ten Years Ago
Today, having just finished my seventh book, I suppose I’ve achieved a measure of success. I’ve also come to realize how much my life resembles my dad’s tweedy career in academe — in other words, the life I said I did not want. Now I live in a leafy college town — I occasionally even wear tweed — writing books and articles and indulging a lifelong habit of staring vaguely into the middle distance with a kind of dreamy cheerfulness, wondering what’s going to happen next. In addition to “Katherine” and my new book, “Roar of The Heavens,” I’ve also written three best-selling books about sex and relationships; a book about luck; and a book about how to learn investing secrets in your garden.
My work has also appeared in newspapers and magazines including Esquire, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Prevention, American Way, Adventure Journal and others.
I’m proud to be a long-standing member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a national organization composed of the people who write the books and magazine articles you read. I’m a three-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a dating service for writers, painters and musicians who wish to meet The Muse. I’m also honored to serve on the board of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, a fierce and effective nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of independent voices in film, television and printed media. It’s a fight worth fighting!
Read More About Stefan Bechtel
From His Memoir, Shopping For Eden
I’ve been working on this memoir, off and on, for almost ten years — it’s taken so long because I’ve been living the book while writing it. It is the most deeply personal, funniest, most painful and ecstatic book I have written.
The book tells the story of a man (me) who — as usual — finds himself favored by the Seven Gods of Luck and makes a small fortune in the stock market in the late 1990s, then sets out to fulfill a lifelong dream: To buy and preserve a fantastically beautiful wild place, a geographical Eden. My budget: $5 million dollars. I tramp some of North America’s most rapturous real estate, from Montana to Alaska, Belize to rural Virginia to the seacoast of Maine. But in the course of my search — at first completely unbenownst to me — my marriage begins coming unravelled and my wayward son goes down in flames. Ultimately, after divorce, financial setbacks, coming to terms with alcoholism and my failures as a parent, I discover what Dorothy found out: That Eden is not a place on the map, but a country of the heart.
This passage describes a scene in which my brother Larry and I have been dropped off by a float plane on a remote 4,200-acre tract of land on the Kenai penninsula, in Alaska, where we intend to camp for the night while investigating the property, which is for sale for $3.8 million dollars.
“Lar and I take a compass bearing on a pair of dead spruce trees on top of a knoll near the bluffs: 70 degrees NEE. We mark our current position on the lakeshore with a pair of crossed sticks. Then we set off down an imaginary line strung between the two points, heading directly for the spruces, north-east-east. Almost immediately, the pleasant, marshy lakeshore gives way to a dense alder thicket full of whipping branches and a thick understory of ferns, elderberries, wild rose, cow parsnip and something that looks like a wild relative of larkspur.
“This stuff is like the briarpatch that protects the maiden princess,” Lar mutters irritably.
But the plant that quickly makes our lives even more miserable than they already are is a towering bush six to eight feet high with huge palmated leaves, hollow stems that go “pop” when you step on them, and wicked, serrated thorns. It’s called “devil’s club,” because it bears a club- or grape-like cluster of reddish fruits, rather like sumac. As it happens, it is only later that we learn that devil’s club is basically lollipops for bears — that we are walking directly into a snackbar for 900-pound carnivores. That this very sort of thicket is laughingly known by old Alaska hands as “puckerbush,” because of what the presence of raw fear does to a certain sphincter muscle, owing to the fact that bears can charge through this stuff at thirty-five miles an hour while humans merely flounder in it helplessly, awaiting the arrival of their fate.
Actually, though, no old Alaska hand really needs to tell us this. Everywhere we turn, there are places where enormous bodies have knocked down the thicket into shady daybeds — very recently. And everywhere we look, there are heaps of bear scat big as hubcaps, some of it so fresh it almost seems to be steaming. It’s now transparently obvious that we are thrashing our way, unarmed, through Bear Heaven.
Suddenly we both stop and look at each other.
“Actually — this is really spooky, man,” I say to Lar. “I mean, you think it’s a good idea to be doing this?”
“Well, what else are we supposed to do?” he says. “We’ve got no way out until the plane comes back tomorrow. It’s too wet to camp by the lake, and there are probably just as many bears down there, too. Might as well just keep going.”
“Great idea, coming up here,” he adds, helpfully.
We’re tenderfeet in Alaska bear country, and there’s nothing to do but belittle one another…”