The Coldest Night


By Robert Olmstead

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Henry Childs is just seventeen when he falls into a love affair so intense it nearly destroys him. To escape the wrath of the young girl’s father, Henry joins the Marines, arriving in Korea on the eve of the brutal battle of the Chosin Reservoir—the defining moment of the Korean War. There he confronts an enemy force far beyond the scope of his imagining, but the challenges he meets upon his return home, scarred and haunted, are greater by far. 
From the steamy streets of New Orleans to the bone-chilling Korean landscape, award-winning author Robert Olmstead takes us into one of the most physically challenging battles in history and, with just as much intensity, into an electrifying, all-consuming love affair. 


Part I

From whose womb comes the ice?

And the frost of heaven, who gives it birth?

The waters harden like stone,

And the surface of the deep is frozen.

JOB 38:29–30

Chapter 1

BY 1941 THERE WAS little left to cut along the Elk and by then much of the land was sold to the government for National Forest. That February was a twenty-seven-inch snowfall on the mountain. The snow lay five to ten feet deep in the woods. The railroad was unable to operate and the twitch horses were starving in the logging camps, living off bark and harness leather, cribbing their stalls. The felled trees had disappeared under the snow and the Captain, who was on the Elk estimating the last timber on a twenty-thousand-acre tract, had to give up and return to the home place, breaking path all the way.

The Captain was ninety-one years old and his skin was the color of marble stone. What little was exposed to the wind and cold he'd covered with a layer of petroleum jelly. He traced his path back home, keeping on for a day and a night, his snowshoes silently lifting and falling, his cruising stick clasped in his mittened hand, because he knew to stop would be to stop forever.

When he returned, his daughter Clemmie was in the kitchen, in a rocking chair by the open fire. Her son, Henry, sat on the floor by her side, cross-legged on the wide stone hearth staring into the flames, his attention held by the sight of them and their oceanic noise.

She indicated that Henry should fetch more wood and so he stood, unfolding his body to its early awkward height. But he lingered in the doorway, half hidden by the jamb and listened.

"I must go," Clemmie said to her father, "and you cannot stop me."

"I know," he said.

The Captain made no argument but looked to the window and through to the darkness beyond. Of all his children, as many as three wives could give him, Clemmie was the youngest, the one who knew him best and she would be the first to ever leave him in this way. The rest had married away from him or fled the mountain without confrontation.

"Daddy," she said. "I cannot wait until you die. I can wait until spring," she said, relenting a bit, "but I must go."

Henry could read the Captain's face for his thinking: he had reconciled himself to the inevitability of Clemmie's leaving, but in waiting until spring, she would deny him the great impossible travel through the black and frozen land.

At melt time, the Captain escorted them down the miles of the Copperhead Road, some of the last land still treed, unmined, and inviolate.

They rode silently, on the backs of the offsprung generations of the coal black horses his grandfather loved so much. They rode down the rough track on the bloodlines of warriors, Clemmie riding behind her father and Henry following. They left behind the great looming house where she'd been born and he was born and the land where the Captain had been born. Henry looked back a last time and the house seemed to rise and climb the mountain. Still to see were the hanging terraces and curved steps, wet and gray and shining in the vitreous spring light.

In switchback turns they made their descent, in the cold perfume of the forest, the white pine, the laurel and dogwood understory, and he could feel in his chest an ache for the increasing density of the air as they descended.

Below them, a rising white torrent of runoff smashed through heads of stone. It suddenly disappeared inside the earth and then was with them again as they traveled its course. Clemmie and the Captain rode in silence, neither of them wanting to confront the confusion of their lives and the long histories that Henry did not understand. But he knew some of it, and it had to do with him and his mother's weariness and she not married and the father he did not know. There were whole days she'd be lost to him, turned inward and silent, and then other days she could not contain her restlessness.

If they could have, they would have ridden forever, as if riding were their calling, as if they were pilgrims with their holy land always a little farther along the path. They wanted and needed no accounting, as long as there was a length of trail ahead of them and no parting at the end.

The Captain asked Clemmie if she was ever in the city for he could not recall a time when she was.

"Yes," she said. "One time."

They were stopped to let the horses blow. All about was the sound of a hollow wind running the land, but it was not the wind. It was the sound of the thaw, as what grew on the earth and clutched to the rock gave up the cold in an aching perceptible gasp.

"No," Clemmie said, reconsidering. "I guess I never was. I guess I just took that I was."

Her horse scuffed at the cobbled trail. Though noon, it was now dark again as if early in the morning and would be light for all but another few hours of the day as the cut where they stood was so deep and precipitous.

"Wherever you are, you will always think of me," the Captain said to Henry, his voice seeming to break with regret.

The trail became a road rutted with threadlike rivulets and late that day they came to the swollen Twelve Mile. They would have to make a dangerous crossing on a rickety footbridge and the Captain seemed to hesitate, but then he did not. Fog enveloped their path and Clemmie commented on how strange it was, the cold and wet about her legs and ankles, while her upper body was warming to the light.

The Captain held the reins of the coal black horses as they unlashed their bundles and shouldered them. First Clemmie and then Henry embraced the old man and then they turned and made their crossing over the swaying bridge that would soon be washed away with the melt.

"Don't look down," she said, as if it were something she'd heard and now was telling him.

When they reached the other side, Henry looked back. The Captain was still there, astride a coal black horse, the other two in hand. He raised his other hand, stretching forward his arm. Henry made the slightest of gestures, a nod in the Captain's direction, and the Captain stood in his stirrups, his old body arched in fierce salute.

THEY WENT TO LIVE in the city and Clemmie took a job working at the veterans' hospital where they got their cast-off towels and bedding and soap. She also saved for Henry the newspapers and magazines and books that were left behind.

It was near impossible to imagine not being in the mountains, but in the city the earth became the land at Henry's feet. To the west he could see what lay between himself and the horizon and it was without hollow, valley, defile, ravine, or stony turret. The mountains were never far away, but the site of the city was like something made by an originator, the mountains seemingly split open and pushed back by hand and then coved and held in place. He'd never walked so far in a straight flat line and felt turned out and naked.

Clemmie fell from a station in life she'd not known she occupied. Never before did they have to pay for water, heat, and a roof. They had a small house with a sun-filled kitchen and the hospital had a cafeteria where they often took their meals. On Saturday mornings Henry would go to the library with his mother. They'd walk through the back streets where clothes were hung on the lines to dry. The clothes wore a yellow hue from the burning of coal and they'd go to the library so he might pore over maps, atlases, and books of natural history, as if assuaging the privations of childhood. Then in the afternoon they'd purchase Italian ice sodas, almond, orange, or banana with shaved ice in tall, cloudy glasses. In the evenings Clemmie went to school and in time she became a nurse.

Sometimes they had visitors, relatives he'd never met before who'd been shunned by the Captain for having given themselves over to the life of the wage earner in the coal mines.

These relatives now lived in the city, or passed through, returning whenever they could. Uncle Golden came through when he was flush with money, and Aunt Adelita stayed with them for a time after her husband and two sons died in the Bartley No. 1 shaft mine. Ninety-one men and boys died that day, killed by explosion and fire, and his mother told him Aunt Adelita had been one of God's wandering souls ever since.

Aunt Adelita had unruly black hair she wore tied off in a ponytail. She cooked pot roast and mashed potatoes with string bean salad and bowls of chopped-up lettuce, and for dessert there'd be strawberry rhubarb pies or pineapple pies with blue cheese. It was as if she could not cook enough food to satisfy herself.

There were so many women, aunts and great-aunts, who'd buried husbands, dead from the wars, dead from the trauma of accidents—the celerity of white pine turned and twisted, split and shattered and descending from the sky, or under the earth where the kettlebottoms, petrified tree stumps, dropped from the roofs of mines to break a shoulder or stave in a skull. The women watched their children be hobbled by rickets, go deaf from untreated ear infections. They knew what it was to live on corn bread, molasses, and scrap and see their children eating dirt for the mineral it contained, and after a time they turned a bend in life and their teeth went bad, their lovely strong backs and shoulders grew humped and stooped, their knuckles thickened from chores and cold, and their cheeks and necks grew hollow.

The men in Henry's family, they were big, sprawling, raw boned. They were angular, muscular, warlike and discontented. They farmed and mined and logged and framed out houses and worked the shipyards, and they quarreled beyond reconciliation and then it would be forgotten. From them Henry learned the stories of his grandfather and his old uncles. He learned that if any one of them was threatened they would descend with all stealth and fury, with gun or knife or torch or dynamite. They were a family relentless in their hatreds.

It was in one of those newspapers where they read that Uncle Golden died by his own hand after an eight-hour standoff along the highway. There'd been a high-speed chase, reaching ninety miles an hour, until finally he lost control and went off the road. He lay in the wreck the whole time threatening to shoot anyone who came near and finally put the gun to his own head. In the newspaper, it never said why.

But for the most, they were homesick castaway men who worked in the shipyards in Norfolk, men who built the Golden Gate Bridge, Boulder Dam, the Holland Tunnel. They smoked Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes and carried them rolled in the sleeves of their T-shirts. They drove old Pontiacs that chugged exhaust fumes and they moved as tender and wary animals. They were polite and solicitous of Clemmie. They'd ask her of the Captain as if they were supplicants and she the last of the blessed, and as the years passed and as Henry grew older, one by one, they disappeared.

Chapter 2

THE CINNAMON BAY NAMED Gaylen was the sweetest horse Henry ever knew. She was not standoffish but always interested in him and what he was about and would walk right up to him to see what he was doing. Walter said she was a peach and a natural beauty. He called her a poetic horse.

Walter was a horseman and veteran of the first war and owned the stables across the river. Walter knew Henry's mother from the veterans' hospital where they worked on his legs. One day he mentioned that he needed a hired hand and the next day Henry rode his bicycle across the river and up the mountain and asked him for the job. That was three years ago when the Gaylen horse first arrived.

The stables weren't much. They were rundown and ramshackle and by then there were few who paid to ride or take lessons or board their horses. The horses were grades of indeterminate parentage and small and heavily muscled cobs with strong bones and steady dispositions that the children liked to ride. They were all easy keepers and constituted with a steady temperament, strength, and stamina and no great turn of speed. They liked to be with each other and when they were in the barn they needed to see each other between the stalls. They tolerated well each other's personalities, faults, and vices.

But Gaylen was different. She came from up north. She stood fifteen hands and was light and muscular, well knit with flat-boned legs, laid-back shoulders, a deep and compact body that was smooth over the top line and into the croup. She had a nice length of neck and clean-cut throatlatch. Her eyes were large and revealing. The Gaylen horse was a free-going, graceful, enduring traveler and Walter claimed he'd been offered ten times over what he paid for her, but no matter what, he wouldn't sell her.

The Gaylen horse was favored by Mercy, a senior in high school. Henry was a junior that spring of 1950 and he did not know Mercy before she started riding at the stables because she went to a private academy for girls. Her father was a judge known for the empery of his opinions, his craggy face, his low bulging forehead, gold incisor, and wealth. Mercy seemed not to have a mother as she never made mention of her.

The stables were prettiest in the spring and summer when the flowers bloomed in long thin beds of loam and dried horse manure. There were tended ranks of tulips and daffodils and in the summer came huddles of stalky gladiolas. Snowball bushes with masses of blossoms in white, pink, and lavender and lilacs and dogwood and rose-bays fixed the corners. There were hives where Walter kept bees that made a floral honey he sold by the jar. There were times Walter reminded Henry of his grandfather and the stables the home place.

Henry had worked into the night and had school in the morning and was waiting for Walter to return from a mysterious appointment.

But he was not eager to get home. Three days ago word had come that his grandfather died and each night thereafter Clemmie had fallen into an uneasy sleep: waking, starting, sleeping again, her grief so consuming. She did not so much live within her being but occupied it the way one holds to a strange land with unpredictable weather.

He grieved for the old man too. The Captain was the only father he'd ever known, and though he sometimes wondered about his own father it was hard to miss something he'd never had.

Last night in his sleep he sensed she was awake and so he woke too. It was raining outside and on his ceiling was the watery play of the streetlights. She told him she was hot and asked for water. He poured a glass from the pitcher. He opened the window and fetched a damp cloth to cool her forehead.

"No rest for the wicked," she sighed, holding his hand.

"You are not wicked," he said.

"I dreamt it was winter and snowing. Bitter cold."

"It will be soon enough again."

"I am so sad," she said.

He took her into his arms and held her against his chest.

"Is it horrible of me to be relieved?" she asked, and he assured her that it was not.

She stared at him and he didn't know what to do. He could not console her. She bit at the damp cloth and held it in her teeth. She turned her face and began to weep again.

"Something is going to happen," she said.


"I don't know," she said. "But whatever it is, it isn't going to be good."

He could not penetrate the strange wildness of her expression. Her world was too complex, bewildering: the attacks of loneliness, the black dogs of her twitching sleep, her sleepwalking. There were moments when she seemed to have lost all touch with the earth and she'd just sit, her dark-ringed eyes staring at nothing, not speaking.

He knew enough of the past to know how it could haunt a being, and as much as it was grief it seemed to be that kind of pain as well: dim, historical, and universal. His mother cared about sin. She cared about the long dead and prayed for their well-being though seldom inside the walls of a church. She cared about the poor and the hungry and was fond of giving away whatever she had to give. Of late, their little house in the city had taken on the austerity of a nunnery.

"Something bad?" he said, but she had no more to say, and however discontent her sleep might be, each morning she inhabited her kitchen with a strange radiance and the next morning was no different.

"You have always been such a good boy," she said, thanking him for his care and tenderness. She was cooking his breakfast and packing their lunches and told him how much she loved him and wanted to know about his life.

"There's nothing to tell," he said.

"You have a sweetheart yet?"

"No, nothing like that."

"You will," she said, and told him someday he would leave her for someone else and when that happened it would be okay.

"I worry about you," he said.

"It doesn't happen all at once," she said, and smiled. "You lose your mind in stages. I will be okay."

THE RAIN WAS letting up. He drew deeply on his cigarette. He tried to make sense of the indecipherable. He did not know if he understood love. He knew he loved his mother and she loved him, but he did not understand if he could love someone else or not.

Drops of water continued to fall from the eaves of the low-spreading roof. He fingered a frayed buttonhole as he stared off into the pines. He thought of his grandfather. Death was not difficult to understand. You were alive and then you were not.

He felt the eyes of the Gaylen horse on his back. He finished his smoke and pinched it off. When he turned to her she nickered and stretched toward him. In the damp lightless barn he let her nuzzle his open coat until she found the licorice he carried. He lifted the flap on his breast pocket to reveal the sticks and the horse ate them as if eating from his chest. She blew gently and nosed his chest and then she let her chin rest on his shoulder.

"Easy as pie," he said, his face to her cheek, and told her it was time for him to get going.

He pulled up his collar and stepped into the wet haze. He could see the lights in the city below and the lights on the river, sparkling like wire-strung jewels, the boats and barges and all the little boathouses. There was a flowery smell in the air, strange and sourceless, and from the stables the occasional tromp of slow bodies shifting hooves. He thought it would be a pretty night with the stars coming on.

Somebody was calling his name. Walter helloed again, slammed the door to his truck and leaned against it.

"What's the good news?" Henry called out.

"There's a devil on my shoulder whispering in my ear."

"What's he sayin'?"

"Life's a game and it's rigged. What's your story?"

"I ain't got one."

"Dirty weather," Walter said grimly when Henry came up. "Ain't good for bid'ness. Keeps the money away."

"That all he says?"

"That's enough."

Walter's face was pale white and his lips were shaded blue. He had the arthritis bad and a twitchy airway. His respiration was slow and irregular. He quietly gasped when he breathed and conversation was difficult for him. Always about him was the smell of mentholatum.

"Chores done?"

"Yessir," Henry said.

"Come in for coffee?" Walter said.

"No thanks."

"I was going to have some for myself and I am asking you if you'd like some."

Henry followed Walter inside to the tack room where he'd cut a door into the adjacent stall and fashioned a two-room apartment. He had a hot plate, kerosene heater, an icebox, and he'd installed a Murphy bed. He walked painfully, each step a decision. During the early days of the first war his unit was bombed and his knee shattered and he'd been shot in the eye. There were pink scars on his cheeks and he had medals he kept in a cigar box. The one eye was now glass and his good eye turned inward toward his nose.

"What's for dinner?" Henry said.

"Oh, I'll stodge up something," Walter said.

The windows were open, but the damp shut out the air and the room smelled of the barn: hay, manure, sweat, leather, and oats.

"How's your mother?" Walter said.

"She's good."

Most days Walter wore overalls and a blue and gold Legion cap, but today he was hatless, his skull bald and gaunt, and he wore creased khakis, a pressed blue chambray shirt, and tennis shoes.

"She is good," Walter declared. "She is an angel walking the ground. I gave up women years ago, but she's a good one."

"How do you know she's good?"

"I seen her today."

"Where'd you see her?"

"Down at the VA. She looked good."

Walter set out two mugs. He splashed rye whisky into his and held up the bottle. His good eye wet and glittering. Henry shrugged and Walter splashed some in his mug too and then he filled both mugs with coffee from a vacuum bottle.

"The main thing is to keep a woman busy," Walter said.

Walter carried his mug to a splintered sideboard where he fixed a plate of ham, boiled eggs, bread, and butter.

"Baseball starts soon," Walter said.

Henry held up his hands, his fingers spread.

"Ten day," Walter said, tossing him an egg.

"Ten," Henry said, catching the egg.

They drank quietly, Henry waiting patiently for what Walter had to say. He knew there was no point in hurrying him. He worked his thumb inside the eggshell and peeled it away.

At last Walter said, "I have to go into hospital. They are going to take care of this leg and tuther one."

Henry's first thought was the horses, their feed, water, and care, and whatever small business there was, who would conduct it.

"I have been praying for a long time it wouldn't come to this."

"What about the bid'ness?" Henry said.

"The bid'ness is not lost on me."

"I can stay here."

"That's what I'm wantin' to ask you," Walter said.

"I can do that."

"What about school and baseball and your good mother?"

"I will explain it to them."

"That would be a great service to me."

"When do you go?"

"Now," Walter said.

"You going to make it?"

"I am not about to lay down and die, if that's what you're asking."

Walter's powers of endurance seemed extraordinary. There were days he could not mount a horse because of the pain and once on he rarely dismounted for fear of not being able to step back into the stirrup.

"It was first the one," Walter said, "and now both knees burn like hell."

He never complained, but there were whole days his face was the tight mask of pain and the cast of his spirit one of torment and suffering.

"They say you use more butter when it's soft than when it's hard. How can that be?"

"I never thought about it," Henry said.

"What's yor' blood type?"

Henry shrugged.

"That's something you ought to know."

"What's yours?"

"I don't 'member," Walter said. He finished buttering a slice of bread and folded it in half. He worked up his quid of tobacco, spit it into his hand, and tossed it aside.

"Someday," Walter said, waving his fold of bread in the air, "there will be giant mechanical brains to cook and take dictation." With a flourish, he stuffed half the folded slice into his mouth, closed his eyes, and chewed.

"That will be something to see," Henry said.

"All my troubles," Walter said, "come from the fact that my 'magination is a little more active than those of others."

Walter pulled himself erect, and then hobbled over to a cupboard, its door hung with a cracked mirror. He paused and looked into the mirror.

"You look like shit," he said.

From the cupboard he removed a white glass jar and a pair of tweezers and returned to the table.


  • Editors’ Pick for Amazon’s Best of 2012 list

    Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

    Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Fiction Books of 2012


    “The no-rush gait, the unadorned yet unambiguous description, the resonant alliteration . . . This is the kind of sentence that warms The Coldest Night and makes you wonder if Olmstead was meant to be a poet. But Olmstead is a novelist, and a very good one . . . It’s his depiction of war’s less monstrous aspects—the continuous repositioning of troops and reshuffling of strongholds, the ceaseless anticipation of surprise attacks, the unmitigated exhaustion—that steadily unsettles . . . These lines lend a humanity to war that descriptions of guts and gore alone cannot.”—The New York Times Book Review

    “There are very few living American writers it would be fair to pair up with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison in a review. Robert Olmstead, however, brings enough poetic oomph to his battlefield renderings to manage just fine . . . Put Olmstead on a battlefield and stand back. The writing is powerful and the imagery stark. Readers will find that the forgotten war roars back to life again in the pages of Olmstead’s excellent novel.”—The Christian Science Monitor

    The Coldest Night is riveting, thoughtful and—in the large section set in Korea—harrowing . . . Olmstead is an immensely gifted stylist, his prose capable of conveying the magic and passion of first love as well as the ferocity of battle. He also has a knack for imagery as memorable as it is unexpected . . . Few write as powerfully or as realistically as Olmstead about the way war makes a boy grow up far too fast.”—The Washington Post

    “Working-class boy meets rich girl, and forbidden passion flares, in this thought-provoking, unabashedly romantic novel set in the 1950s.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

    “Robert Olmstead's The Coldest Night is an unusual treat in this era of formulaic airport paperbacks, lightly edited Internet releases and over-hyped pop fiction. It's not just a standout in terms of plot, character development and effective use of language; the reader immediately marvels that this is literature, in addition to being a great book.”—The Virginian-Pilot

    “Robert Olmstead writes shellshocked prose with cadences that sound like early Hemingway . . . [The Coldest Night] has the courage of its convictions, and its descriptions of war and its aftermath are frighteningly credible.”—The Columbus Dispatch

    “Crafted to captivate . . . Robert Olmstead’s eighth novel, The Coldest Night, mesmerizes . . . Its diction thrills with the splendor of a clear refrain sung by a chorale of swaying seraphim.”—The Courier-Journal  

    “Breathtaking . . . Henry Childs' unforgettable first love and trial-by-combat in one of the Korean War's most harrowing battles are captured in revelatory language—and implanted in a tale of riveting suspense.”—Barnes Noble Review

    “Robert Olmstead, author of the national bestseller Coal Black Horse, delivers another work of prose with language so painstaking and exact it reads more like poetry. The Coldest Night is a treasure . . . His descriptions of nature are lush and bountiful, lending a measure of beauty to even the most forbidding of landscapes . . . Olmstead weds the nature of armed aggression to the nature of man without apology, even with compassion, seeking only understanding, which, during our second decade of continuous war, is no insignificant goal.”—BookPage

    “A war story, a love story, a coming-of-age story—it’s a simple theme spun into a novel heartbreaking in its stark and stunning prose . . . This is the kind of war novel I love . . . Novels about the Korean War are few and far between, and this is a strong offering in that category. Recommended.”—Historical Novels Review


    “Olmstead writes with ferocious economy . . . The book’s continuities are a deep pleasure: a near-mystical regard for horses, for mothers, for weapons—all wrapped in a kind of elegiac masculinity. Olmstead has some of the Cormac McCarthy penchant for mixing tenderness into his terror.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

    “An unflinchingly realistic, yet artistic, condemnation of war. Disparate backgrounds and desperate times are a seductive combination. Olmstead makes good use of them, and what ultimately distinguishes his exceptional work from more pedestrian literature is his elegant prose. ‘Prosody’—the study of the art of versification—is a word that Henry may not have recognized, but readers of The Coldest Night will not have to consult a dictionary for its definition; Olmstead's writing demonstrates its meaning perfectly.”—BookBrowse

    “[An] elegiac, gritty coming-of-age novel . . . Despite the narrative’s darkening vision (“The Lord is a man of war,” says Henry), enough redemption rescues Olmstead’s powerful, desolate, and well-crafted novel from becoming oppressively bleak.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

    “Olmstead (Coal Black Horse) has a spare, direct style that is most effective in the brilliant, engrossing combat descriptions and ironic marine banter.”—Library Journal

    “It's extremes that rivet us in Olmstead's searing seventh novel: the heaven of first love; the hell of the battlefield . . . Olmstead’s extraordinary language gives us new eyes. An exceptionally fine study of love, war and the double-edged role of memory, which can both sustain and destroy. Prize-winning material.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

    “Olmstead employs different authorial voices to shape the story. At times the tone is mythic, at times surreal . . . The Coldest Night is powerful, and often beautiful, storytelling.”—Booklist

On Sale
Apr 16, 2013
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Robert Olmstead

Robert Olmstead

About the Author

Robert Olmstead is the author of eight previous books. Coal Black Horse was the winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction. The Coldest Night was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Far Bright Star was the winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. Olmstead is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and is a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Learn more about this author