Many years ago, when I was in college, I met a young man who always wore large round glasses and white button-down shirts. He was studious and reserved, but always polished and cordial in his bearing. I liked him as soon as I saw him for the first time one September evening, while some of my friends serenaded his roommate. I remember him respectfully asking them (multiple times) to quiet down so he could study for a test.
As I got to know this man better, I learned that his name was Val Karren, that he was not only a meticulous student, but also a fellow lover of fine European art, British pop music, and all kinds of books. He was much more mature than the typical freshman–always with some interesting comment to make, or a witty joke up his sleeve. I was sad to learn that he’d be leaving the US for London soon, in order to participate in a semester study abroad there. Little did I know that I would be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
I spent my college years studying design and art history, and in the years that followed, I received hand-written letters from Val containing interesting stories of his experiences and internal thoughts. They always pulled me in. He spoke of dreams and plans, observations about the people he encountered, questions about life, and self-introspection. He had a gift with words, both written and spoken. I found a kindred spirit in Val, a fellow artist. I created visually, while his medium was words.
When Val returned from London, he had spent 6 months in Europe, touring the sights in England and the continent, learning their histories and cultures, and becoming somehow European himself. He had developed a true thirst for travel and returned thinking differently.
Soon thereafter he moved to Ukraine, which was–for all intents and purposes–a third world country at the time. Having just won its independence from the USSR, this naturally rich country was in economic free-fall and felt more like a barren wasteland in the early 1990s. There was little other than Snickers and Pepsi to be found in the stores in Kyiv at that time. People lined up on the roadside for simple provisions such as bread. And the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear plant were less than 100 miles away! Many of the people Val met in the Kyiv area had been adversely affected by its meltdown in 1986.
But Val did some amazing things there in Ukraine. He learned Russian (most commonly spoken there at the time), and made many friends as he worked as a volunteer. He braved it out for many months, in barely tolerable conditions, eventually returning to the US and college life.
When he returned we became a couple. He worked for a Russian tour company by day and attended college classes at night. I continued in my design program, with thoughts of volunteering abroad also swirling around in my head. I was inspired by Val’s stories of the places he had seen and experiences he’d had. They always captivated me.
In 1994 we each went our own direction–I left for Romania for an 18-month volunteer project, and Val went to study in Russia.
But we kept in touch.
Each of us was discovering ourselves, far from home in a totally new environment, but somehow we remained tethered to each other. I wrote to him of my experiences in the orphanages and Romanian / English lessons, and he told me of his time on the Volga boats and at Russian university. Our hand-written letters zig-zagged across the ocean, and then across the steppes of eastern Europe, allowing us to share with each other every new horizon reached, every new insight gained.
Val wrote everything down in letters and journals, and I was his grateful audience.
In 1996, after we had each gotten our wanderlust out of our system–at least for the time being–we were married in Los Angeles. Our friends joked that Val was just a ‘fly-by-night’ and that he had convinced me to go with him. That moniker stuck because it fit! We had an understanding between us that Europe would eventually become our permanent home, and we eagerly sought ways to make that possible. After the wedding we settled in Seattle where Val worked for a Russian tour group, and I worked for a large US telecom. Together we stashed away all the funds we could save for an eventual leap across the Atlantic.
We graduated from the University of Washington on the same day: I with a Bachelors in Art History, and he with two Bachelors: one in Politics, and the other in Slavic Languages & Literature. It wasn’t long before we DID make it back to Europe, getting Val set up as a master’s student at the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, while I chose to be a full-time caregiver to our 6-month-old son.
Then began our combined travel itineraries: London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, Luxembourg, the Mosel Valley, and many towns and villages in between. Every year Val collected more and more stories and recorded them in his heart.
We simultaneously fell in love with Maastricht, in the Netherlands, within 15 minutes of exiting Maastricht Central train station. We knew it would be our future home, at least during Val’s Master’s training. Aside from a few short stints in the US and Amsterdam, Maastricht has been our home for the past 23 years–nearly half our lifetime!
In Maastricht, Val began to write The Tales of a Fly-By-Night, which gave rise to an idea: we could publish his book with our own small publishing company which we’d call Fly-By-Night Press. It would be a few years before this would happen, but it would happen!
In 2017 Val began to write a story that had been forming in his head over 25 years. In The Deceit of Riches, he drew from his own experiences as an American university student studying in Russia. The cities, people, and situations he encountered there wove into a new story about a young man named Peter Turner, a student with the same zeal and idealism that Val had had when traveling to Russia for the first time. The book formed into a lengthy novel that spanned historical, literary, and thriller genre fiction.
At the completion of this book we jointly established Fly-By-Night Press, on 1 October 2017, to publish and promote it. With my graphic design skills, I stepped into action. I designed the book cover and interior. I studied book marketing online. We began making connections with newspapers, libraries, bookstores, award committees and bloggers. We launched The Deceit of Riches in October 2017, exactly 100 years after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government and executes the Czar. We were thrilled to learn that it won the National Indie Excellence Award, and placed in the prestigious Next Generation Indie Book Awards in 2019!
The Deceit of Riches was soon followed by The Tales of a Fly-By-Night, the book he had begun writing during our first year in Maastricht. It was a type of memoir, written in short story form, categorized by country, which drew from Val’s individual experiences and family adventures. He tells of his trouble ordering a sandwich in an Italian deli, for example; a chance meeting of Boris Yeltsin in London; and trying to catch the last bus to northern Sweden in the dead of winter. He captures the family dilemma we experienced when Disney Paris went on strike, like a photographer with words instead of light; as well as a miracle on the banks of a lake in Switzerland; and a baby crib he carried on his back across town in the Netherlands. This book is both humorous and moving, and is now available as a free download on our homepage.
After that, Val began producing new books every year. The Deceit of Riches was followed by book two: From the Rooftops, and book three: October Revelations, in The Deceit of Riches Series. Val simultaneously worked on short stories of cultural fiction, each filling 50 pages or so to take the reader to a different European land. During the COVID pandemic these novellas proved popular as ‘armchair travel’ for the quarantined reader, who could visit Portugal through Fate and Longing in Lisbon, the Netherlands through The Witch of Drontenburg, France through The Plucked Hen, or Finland through The Lucky Finn.
Now as we are rounding off our fifth year of writing and publishing together, we are asking ourselves, what’s next? Although we’ve accomplished a lot–10 books in 5 years, many book events, awards, and features by fellow writers and literary groups–we are in many respects just getting started. We have just established a local author group called the Maastricht Writers’ Workshop, have more books in the works, and are now collaborating with other authors and influencers. We love what we do and feel enormous gratitude for all our friends and family who have been so supportive and encouraging. It’s a labor of love that we gladly do together as husband and wife, and we are happy to say that Fly-By-Night Press is here to stay.
2 thoughts on “5 Years of Books, 30 Years of Stories”
What a delightful account of your life together! How wonderful that you each found the right person with whom to share it! Love the photos, too!
Glad you enjoyed it! We are having fun!