A Self-Published Novel Set in the Himalayas Climbs to the Mainstream Mountaintop

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A three-year-old girl falls off a second-floor balcony, lands on her head and breaks her skull. Three days later, she's playing in the snow, fully recovered -- an astounding medical success. But what if this accident had occurred in a remote village in the Indian Himalayas with an American woman doctor performing the surgery for the first time while carefully consulting the medical textbook open in front of her? In this experience, you not only have a chapter from Craig Joseph Danner's self-published novel, Himalayan Dhaba, but also a page from his life.

"The operation took us all night, working with the surgery text open on the side table," said Danner, a physician's assistant, who worked with his physician wife, Beth Epstein, and a young Indian doctor. "It was dawn when we finished, and I remember holding the girl in my arms, her head a bundle of gauze, and then opening the doors to the courtyard to find that it had snowed for the first time that year. With two feet of perfect snow and a bright blue sky above -- it was absolutely glorious. The little girl recovered perfectly, and was playing in the snow three days later."

That was in 1991, two months after Danner and his wife had sold their house, medical practices, and possessions to travel to a remote village in the Indian Himalayas to help a gifted Indian surgeon -- in exchange for teaching them how to provide health care using basic tools and medicines.

"This man was doing amazing things with very little in the way of equipment and modern medicines, and we wanted to learn from him. Unfortunately, when we got there, he had left three days earlier, for a nine month training program in Uganda," explained Danner.

Language and cultural barriers didn't stop the adventurous duo from forging ahead, often by themselves. Not all their work was as successful as the all-night surgery. On one occasion, they helplessly watched a young woman die of an infection they could have treated back home, and, in another series of cases, they tried, in vain, to find a cure for a mysterious epidemic of kidney failure that killed three boys.

It was during the long Himalayan winter, when snow became so deep that patients couldn't reach the hospital, that Danner began writing Himalayan Dhaba. It began as a screenplay, until the characters took over the story, demanding to be part of a novel. The title came from the name of a cafe in town.

"I wrote in a little room above the surgery and lab…. I was looking out at snow-capped foothills and the beautiful deodar forests that surrounded the town. At the same time, smells of formaldehyde and ether wafted up from the rooms below… a vivid stimulus for the descriptions in the story," recalled Danner.

After finishing the manuscript, Danner acquired an agent, but an auction for publishing rights was unsuccessful. After nine years and 16 rejections from editors, Danner decided to publish the title himself. His wife became his publisher and publicist in her spare time, while continuing to work as a writer, doctor, and county health officer. Friend and fellow novelist Tim Sheehan was Danner’s editor.

Danner told BTW: "Our first break was a full-page color feature in our local newspaper, then a review in Booklist. My sister-in-law asked a friend of hers, Jan Waldman at Powell's on Hawthorne in Portland, to look at the book. She agreed, though she wasn't overly thrilled to look at yet another self-published novel. She read it and loved it, and recommended it to Thom Chambliss of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) for a possible award. Thom then invited me to speak at the upcoming PNBA show in Portland, and, from there, we made connections with a large number of booksellers throughout the Northwest."

A second big break came when Danner sent Himalayan Dhaba to wholesaler Partners/West on the recommendation of several booksellers who had considered the title after cold calls. "At first, Partners sent a letter saying they wouldn't carry it, but when the booksellers heard this, a couple actually got on the phone and told them they were making a mistake. We got a contract in the mail a few days later," said Danner. Following the phone calls, Partners/West Sales Manager Mark Wiggins decided to give the book a closer look. "He said he was only planning on reading a few pages, but the novel grabbed him, and he became a champion for the book. We owe him a lot for getting booksellers to take it seriously," said Danner.

Himalayan Dhaba was a January/February Book Sense 76 Pick, and it did indeed win a 2002 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. In nominating the title for the Book Sense 76, Scott Foley of Grass Roots Books & Music in Corvallis, Oregon, said it was "an uncommonly satisfying first novel sparkling with remarkably accurate descriptions of everything from sky and sounds to the innermost thoughts of a Himalayan villager."

Himalayan Dhaba recently prompted another auction. This time, however, it was the beneficiary of spirited bidding, with Dutton taking the prize. The house will release its hardcover edition in June. Current plans call for Plume to publish a paperback edition in 2003.

"The only reason Himalayan Dhaba got any attention at all was because booksellers in independent bookstores took the time to read and hand-sell a book the major publishing industry had ignored. Independent booksellers have a great deal of influence over what America reads. It's wonderful that we have this additional pathway for good books to reach a wider audience," Danner said. -- Gayle Herbert Robinson