Aspen author’s ‘The Little Tern’ is finding success

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A local author is finding international success with her latest title – a book that could find its way onto movie screens in the near future.

Aspen resident Brooke Newman – already widely recognized for her award-winning, one-act play, “My Mother’s Lovers,” as well as a number of popular novels – is promoting a new title these days. “The Little Tern: A Story of Insight” follows a lonely seabird that, having lost the ability to fly, must adjust to its new life.

“The Little Tern,” a story of transition for the title character, was written, in part, to help Newman deal with a tough transition of her own.

“This story actually came out after my mother died,” Newman said. “She had a house in Cape Cod, and I was there packing up books – she had an immense collection of rare books.”

Newman spent a few weeks on the Cape, picking through assorted books such as “The Collected Letters of Thomas Jefferson” that turned her thoughts toward subjects such as human rights. The author would take an occasional break from her studies to walk along the coastline with her dogs.

During one of these walks, Newman encountered a flock of little terns – a particular type of seabird marked by its black head, white body and, of course, small stature – gathered on the shore.

“All of these terns were gathered on the crest of the shoreline, and, as we approached, they all flew off, except one,” Newman said.

The author’s dogs, excited that they had something to chase, ran toward the lone bird, while Newman yelled for it to fly to safety. At the last minute, the bird finally spread its wings and glided out of harm’s way.

Newman thought about that last tern later that day. She said the thought of the small bird – which, for a moment, appeared to be unable to fly – seemed to fit with her own personal loss.

“Whenever you’re confronted with those major events, you’re awakened to consider the moment that’s always before you,” Newman said. “It’s like standing on the Roaring Fork on a beautiful day and saying, ‘How do I capture this moment?'”

As Newman fleshed out the little tern’s tale, she called on her friend (and former Aspen resident) Lisa Mann Dirkes to work on the art that would accompany it. The working moms – the pair have nine children between them – took frequent walks along the Cape Cod shore to study flocks of little terns.

When the duo would return to Newman’s mother’s home to work – Newman would write as Dirkes worked on the soft watercolors that would eventually appear in the book – they would often become emotional, Newman said. Dirkes was also working through a “rugged time in her life,” Newman said, and writing what would eventually become an introspective tale took its toll.

“I think this book shows that it came out of pure love and sincerity,” she said. “We would sit at the table, laughing, crying, complaining – it really came from the heart.”

It took the pair just over a year to complete the book. And while Newman reports that she has found an American fan base, “The Little Tern” created a fervor abroad.

The book was released in Japan last November and immediately found its way to the country’s best-seller list – at Newman’s last tally, the book had sold over 370,000 copies there.

“Generally, you’re lucky if they sell 40,000 copies in the U.S., but this book has just had such overwhelming success [abroad],” Newman said.

Equally optimistic sales in Germany, Korea, China and Taiwan have led to new and unique incarnations of “The Little Tern.” Television shows based on the book have been produced, and a CD featuring music by international artists, all inspired by the story, is on the way.

Hoping to inspire an even larger following in the United States, Newman recently sent copies of “The Little Tern” to those she felt could use their own “story of insight.” One of the first recipients was former President Bill Clinton.

“I think he’s a brilliant, flawed, very human, remarkable man,” Newman said. “I just wanted to send it as a gift. I wrote him a letter saying that, essentially, no strings attached, I thought he might be able to appreciate it, since it’s about going through tough times.”

Newman was thanked for her gesture – a few weeks after mailing the book, she received a note from Clinton, “just a few sentences long,” thanking her for her gift.

“Tern” also found its way to some of Newman’s favorite authors. Physician Alan Lightman received a copy and called Newman within two days to thank her personally. Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry, the author of “Terms of Endearment,” also dropped a note to Newman that has turned into a full-fledged correspondence.

Though Newman is currently working on another novel – a fictional tale set in the McCarthy era – her dealings with “Tern” are far from over. Newman’s tale is about to become an animated movie, once the author signs a deal to allow Japanese producers to begin work.

And knowing that the book has touched people overseas – though they might be fans Newman will never meet – has been the best part of the experience, she said.

“I have the gratification of knowing there are people who have taken kindly and enjoyed what it had to say,” she said.