Longtime Aspenite and TV vet goes under the sea for debut novel-in-verse
Aspenite Greg Lewis pens a tome for the ages in “Chasing Wonder” ... and the ageless
Special to the Aspen Times
It’s a good time for a timeless book. Especially one that rhymes.
Longtime Aspenite and Emmy-winning broadcaster Greg Lewis had been working on a project for nearly seven years that fits that description. At the end of 2020, he self-published “Chasing Wonder,” an aquatic life lesson written in six-line rhyming stanzas that follows the journey of a lovable oyster named Wonder who has been thrown out of his bed (his oyster bed, that is).
“Chasing Wonder” defies categorization as it mixes elements of a children’s book with messages that resonate in an almost spiritual sense. Think Dr. Seuss meets the Dalai Lama. Taking place under the sea in a land called “Curiosity” (forgive me, for it is hard not to fall into the rhyming mode and mood of the tale) the book follows our little oyster friend as he meets and confronts the kinds of existential challenges that afflict us all.
Along the way, Wonder also learns the meaning of community and friendship as he engages with underwater characters of all sorts, most of which are patterned after the kinds of people we may know or recognize from our own land-based sphere.
“I often wondered what the values of my grandparents and parents were but, as they are gone, I had nothing left to evaluate,” said Lewis about the initial motivation to take a deep dive into Curiosity. “I thought I’d write a story for my grandchildren that would reflect my values as something to leave behind.”
Not that the 73-year-old (but ageless) former ski Aspen Mountain Ski Patroller has any plans to be going anywhere.
His 9-year-old granddaughter, Brooklyn Lewis, already an accomplished winger in the Aspen Leafs’ Junior Hockey program, is glad her granddad undertook his own journey. “It’s an amazing book that my grandfather wrote. He uses poetry and different characters and when you start you’ll have curiosity to finish,” she enthused recently in between puck drops. “He really pulls you in.”
By Greg Lewis
100 pages; $14.99 (ebook) $20 (paperback)
While “Chasing Wonder” takes place in the land of Neptune, much of Lewis’s inspiration has homegrown roots high in the Rockies.
“I had written four or five chapters,” he recalled, “and I went to a seminar at the Aspen Institute with Keith Berwick, a very learned and brilliant guy (Berwick is a lifetime fellow at the Institute) and I brought him what I wrote. He said, ‘It’s a nice children’s story but there is deeper meaning there. Do you want this to be a destination or a journey? Go back, polish it, expand it…make it everything it can be.’ It was both challenging and inspiring. This was a wise man who said it was a worthwhile endeavor.”
Lewis began to immerse himself in the writing process, creating characters and rhymes. “I would write on my computer from 3 a.m. to 8 or 9 in the morning. It really became an obsession.”
His cast is a rogue’s gallery of aquatic characters, each named with pun-like precision. Each of the 24 short chapters features illustrations as interpreted by Cape Cod artist and set designer Thea Goldman, a Cornell University sophomore. Goldman, who came to the process through a serendipitous introduction online, grew up near the shores of the Atlantic and clearly has a gift for gills as the images illustrate.
There is Crusher, a foul, moody Lobster who is as cranky as his claws. Marlin Brand-oh is, as you may have guessed, a celebrity type with sleek good looks. Sara and Dipidee are a pair of razor sharp and lightening quick Barracuda, and Coral Larry (“Corollary,” get it?) is a know-it-all with Einstein’s countenance who quotes Shakespeare and recommends Wonder read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in order to understand the price of free will. Twain the Turtle speaks only truths and NepTune raps rhymes in 4/4 time. And every tail (oops, there I go again) needs a villain, so Vidi the Sawfish fills the role before Big MawMaw, a basking shark, swoops in to save the day with her wisdom.
And the wisdom comes from a familiar place as well. “I’m not a religious person but I do believe that we have a soul where our values reside,” Lewis explained. “My values are truth, beauty, goodness, justice, equality and freedom. And they are not mine. Mortimer Adler wrote of them and I read them again and again and adopted them as my own.”
Adler, a member of the Aspen Hall of Fame, was also affiliated with the Aspen Institute and for over 30 summers he would speak on the “Six Great Ideas,” as he called the values that he saw as so critical to humanity.
But the most unique element of “Chasing Wonder” is the way the story is told and the messages are disseminated using the six stanza-rhyming format. It may take a reader a while to get into the rhythm of the style (it took me two readings to stop moving my lips and re-reading the stanzas to make sure I understood what I read). But once in the groove it was smooth sailing and I began to even think in rhyme in my mind.
“I have always loved puns and rhyming comes easy to me,” Lewis stated about the stanzas. “There is a staccato urgency to the short sentences. They pop in a particular way when you read them aloud.” But he noted that it can be a difficult way to write as well. “It can be tedious. Some of these stanzas have four or five hours in them. You come up with an idea to change one word and then you have to go back and change the entire passage,” Lewis laughed. “An editor for the Los Angeles Times once told me, ‘Good writing isn’t written … it’s re-written.'”
What: ‘Chasing Wonder’ reading and book-signing
Who: Greg Lewis
Where: Gorsuch Ski Café
When: Thursday, March 25, 4:30 p.m.
More info: All proceeds from the event will go to the Aspen Education Foundation.
While this is his first foray into a book, Lewis has been writing for most of his life. “Mr. Slevin changed my life,” he said about his high school English teacher who, 50 years later, he still refers to as “Mister.” “He awakened in me a love of words and writing and steered me towards Middlebury College, where I really learned how to write.”
Lewis had the good fortune to attend the 1977 Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury, the nation’s oldest conference for writers. “For twelve days we lived, ate and slept writing,” he recalls. “That year, John Irving was finishing ‘The World According to Garp’ and Toni Morrison was working on ‘Song of Solomon.’ They would read from these works-in-progress over breakfast.”
Lewis’ path took him into a career as an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, traveling the globe to cover both the biggest and the most obscure events in the world of sport as an on-air journalist for NBC, CBS, ESPN, HBO, Turner, and “an alphabet soup of others.” Lewis was on the air for the production of seven Olympic Games, myriad World Cup ski races, and hundreds of other events under the NBC Sports World banner. In 2016 he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Skiing History Association for his work in the industry.
If there is a connection to his previous life in front of the camera and that of his current role as a writer, it may best be found in a piece he wrote in rhyme and narrated during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, that he titled “Legs, Legs, Legs.” NBC Host Bryant Gumble introduced the piece by remarking that, “No one knew Lewis was a poet.” The piece aired three times during the Games and lives on through YouTube. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQmfjvzs4Ao)
Largely because of the messaging in “Chasing Wonder,” the book is creating a buzz with adults as well as the more youthful audience that it was originally intended for. A teacher in Blairstown, New Jersey, Lianne Markus, is creating a comprehensive teacher’s guide and hopes to evangelize “Chasing Wonder” throughout the state as an ideal teaching tool.
Here in Aspen, Kathleen Callahan—a long-time clinical social worker and therapist—uses the book with her clients. “On first read, “Chasing Wonder” is a delightful romp through the fantastical life of an oyster named Wonder,” she wrote. “Upon closer inspection this book of life-enhancing metaphors demands a closer examination. Its metaphors capture many of life’s trials and tribulations and provide answers about how to triumph and gain success and confidence.”
And Kathy Klug, who has mentored a generation of local students, has recommended “Chasing Wonder” as a “perfect gift for graduates from elementary to college level.”
Aspen composer David Melton was taken with the story to such an extent that he sat and recorded musical pieces for each of the 24 chapters, combined with a narration track read by Lewis. He will be posting the final copy to cdbaby.com, a digital marketplace for audio works, which allows people to purchase and download the product. The gesture moved Lewis. “It was incredibly gratifying that it made such an impression that he was moved to write a score for the characters. When I first heard the piece for the opening chapter I felt like I was listening to a Broadway show.”
Can Pixar be far behind?
As Brooklyn says, “I love my grandpa and I am so happy he wrote a book for me. I hope he writes another one. About anything he wants.”
The Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up Aspen are teaming up to present two shows in December: Big Head Todd and The Monsters on Wednesday, December 27, and Ozomatli on Saturday, December 30.