Saturday, October 21, 2017

Tess Gerritsen: 'I know a secret' has a secret

"I Know a Secret" may just be the last in the popular series of Rizzoli and Isles mysteries. That's a little secret revealed during an interview in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette Oct. 15 with author Tess Gerritsen. The author has been writing about the duo—a Boston detective and a medical examiner—across twelve novels. Their stories have been dramatized in a popular television series as well, starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander.
Released in August by Ballantine /Random House, "I Know a Secret" is another suspenseful, beautifully structured addition to the series, in which the pair confront a serial killer while Medical Examiner Maura Isles' very own family serial killer—her mother—is dying of cancer, still mean to her end. Then, there's Isles' long-term love relationship with a priest, the lingering blows of a long-ago childcare abuse scandal, and Boston Detective Jane Rizzoli's desperate attempt to save her feuding parents' marriage.
Nothing is as it seems, and Gerritsen skillfully keeps the reader guessing until the end, a prerequisite to a good suspense novel.
Yet, Gerritsen said in a recent interview, she sits down with pen and paper to write first drafts, and doesn't plan them out ahead of time. Gerritsen is 64, lives in Camden, Maine, but knows the Boston life well. She keeps it in the background as Isles and Rizzoli struggle to figure out all the puzzling aspects of their lives.
"I never plot things out ahead of time. This is my 27th book (12 in the R&I series). I start writing and see where the story goes. Sometimes it takes an abrupt left-hand turn, and that gets fixed in the third or fourth rewrite. I don't show it to anyone until it's ready. I write the first draft by hand, let the story find itself. By the end, I finally know what the book is really about. About two-thirds or three-quarters of the way, I find out who the bad guy is. I have a simple premise when it starts. As I write, new things start to pop up, just as happens with a normal (criminal) investigation. By the time I'm finished, it's there."
After working about a year on "I Have a Secret," Garritsen, a resident of Maine, has been touring with its release. She recently wrapped up a tour in the United Kingdom and is flying from city to city across the U.S. But this may be her last such tour for the series.
"I feel like I've tied up a lot of loose emotional threads that have been going on for several stories," she said. "Right now, I'm working on something completely different. After awhile, a series comes to an end. I wanted to find out whether they become happy, how Jane and Maura's lives go. The series has always been about these two women, and once they're both happy, the series will be over." She thinks that time may have come, and she anticipates returning to her new book.
She began writing mysteries because she loved them as a child (any other Nancy Drew fans out there?) and has based Rizzoli and Isles on her own experiences ("because I'm a doctor, that's fairly easy for me to research"). At the beginning, she interviewed people at Boston's homicide unit. "But not since then; I pretty much focus on the pathologist end, and my husband is a part-time medical examiner in our county in Maine."
She began writing while on maternity leave, and her first novel, "Call After Midnight," came out in 1987. Eight more followed as she dug full-time into writing. She also wrote the screenplay, "Adrift," which became a 1993 TV movie with Kate Jackson.  Her first medical thriller, "Harvest," came out in 1996.
In "I Know a Secret," the duo are again played against a conscienceless personality. "Sociopaths are out there," she said; "there's nothing you can do about that. Sociopaths have no empathy, do not care about human begins, and think of how they can use them as tools. Some people are born sociopaths; that's the way their brain works. They're just some kind of creature—like predators in the animal kingdom." She considers Warren Hoyt, whom readers and viewers will remember, one of the most evil characters she's created, because Warren is smart, and a psychopath—the extreme entity of sociopathy. "He thrives on the pain of other people; he's formidable because he's so incredibly intelligent. Evil, stupid people are not such an antagonist to worry about, but he looked at everybody else as prey."
Holly, the antagonist in Gerritsen's latest book, knows herself well. "For now, I must walk the straight and narrow," she tells readers at one point. "I must pretend to be the good girl who neither steals nor cheats … (but) I am what I am, and no one can watch me forever." Gerritsen calls Holly "a sociopath who gets by. She doesn't go out of her way to be evil, it's just that the things she does, she just goes about them without thinking."
Growing up in San Diego, the author finished undergraduate work in anthropology at Stanford before completing medical degrees at the University of California, San Francisco. "I practiced medicine for about 10 years, a lot of it part-time, because I became a mom pretty quickly. I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was seven years old, but my father encouraged me to go into medicine instead. He kept telling me there's no way to make a living as a writer, but when you're a writer you're going to keep at it." He did not live to see her success, a disappointment to Gerritsen, who said, "I wish he'd been alive long enough."
He would have seen that all the preparation formed steps to an end: pieces in a literary puzzle.
"You never know which experience is going to fit into your future," she said. "I didn't know my interest in anthropology would come up again and again in my books, or that medicine would add all the details that it has. Being a writer, you must be curious about many topics, and always be reading."
Gerritsen has always been interested in the collision of truth and nonsense. "That crazy satanic movement that went around the country … A lot of people ended up in jail based on children's strange memories of adults flying on brooms, riding tigers, etc. It spread to the U.S. and other places in the world. There was this strange idea that devil worshippers were everywhere." Elements of the scandal form a subplot in the book. "I'm fascinated by how people turn away from science and look at superstition—and all these things become the foundation of their lives," she said. "It's surprising how easy it is to let go of facts and accept fantasy."
As a writer, she gets more satisfaction out of less formulaic books.
"I had a novel, 'Gravity,' about the international space station." The novel was published in 1999, and the concept allegedly became the framework of a later movie by the same name—leading to a complicated breach of contract lawsuit, which she urges writers to check out on her web page, as a warning to all writers who sign rights away to a company.
 "I also really loved writing 'The Bone Garden.' The books I love the most, put my heart and soul into, are the ones that did not find an audience. Somehow the popular audience doesn’t seem to like them." Does this discourage her? "All the time," she said. "Every time you write a book you want it to be the very best it can be, and very often the acceptance isn't there. We just keep plugging away because we tell the stories we want to tell."
When her tour ends, Gerritsen will return to writing. She dubs her latest book a "sexy" thriller with a ghost. It's nearly done.
She is also working on a film with her son, 35, a documentary film maker. "We're making a feature documentary about the age-old relationship between humans and pigs," she said. "We're interested in why some people refuse to eat them, why some people have such negative feelings while others love their pigs. We're going to explore the strong emotions, track archeological reasons Jews don't eat pork, for instance." The reason may not be Biblical at all, she said. "There was climate change at the time. The Holy Land became a desert fairly quickly, and pigs need water."
Their first project together was a horror film, "Island Zero." She loved working with her son. "We had such a good time making a movie together, we thought we'd follow it up."
Today's creative climate lends itself to all kinds of project ideas. "It's a funny time because you don't need a publisher to be published anymore," she said; "in some ways it's harder to get attention, but in other ways it's easier. With (self-publishing) it's a lot harder to get people to pay attention to what you've just written."
Her favorite authors, by the way, share the same first name: "I'm going to plug the three Lisas," she said: "Lisa Unger, Lisa Scott and Lisa Gardner." She loves the suspense of a good mystery, rather than the heavy-action sequences of modern thrillers (She's a fan of classic horror films like "The Birds," "The Mummy" and "Them." In a good mystery, she said, "You're left worrying about what's going to happen."
Apparently, the world agrees. Her novels are award winners, published around the world and continually on the best-seller lists.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Authors, book talks dominate Fall '17

Worcester's top annual literary event will be held Oct. 26, with five guest authors at a dinner benefiting the Worcester Public Library.
A Celebration of Authors 2017's moderator Joe Cox, president of the EcoTarium, will present speakers at the 5:30- 9 p.m. event in the White Room at Crompton Collective, 138 Green St.
Guests will be celebrated authors Andre Dubus III, John Dufresne, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth Searle and Annie Weatherwax.

Dubus, author of "House of Sand and Fog," "The Garden of Last Days," "Dirty Love" and the memoir, "Townie," teaches fiction at UMass Lowell. His New York Times best sellers have won numerous literary awards. "House of Sand and Fog" became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Ben Kingsley. Dubus grew up in mill towns along the Merrimack; his books are published in more than 25 languages.

Dufresne has written two short story collections, "The Way that Water Enters Stone" and "Johnny Too Bad," and the novels "Louisiana Power & Light" and "Love Warps the Mind a Little," both New York Times Notable Books, along with "Deep in the Shade of Paradise," "Requiem, Mass.," "No Regrets, Coyote" and "I Don't Like Where This is Going." He has written two books on writing fiction. His stories have twice been named Best American Mystery Stories.
Margot Livesey wrote a collection of stories and eight novels, including "Eva Moves the Furniture" and "The Flight of Gemma Hardy." A native of Scotland, she lives in Cambridge and is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. A novel, "Mercury," was published in September 2016. This past summer, Tin House published her "The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing."
Elizabeth Searle has written five novels, most recently, "We Got Him," involving the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. Previous books include "Girl Held in Home," "A Four-Sided Bed" (being developed as a feature film), "Celebrities in Disgrace," which became a short film, and "My Body to You." A stage work, "Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera," has been produced in Boston and other major cities. Her writing has been published in over a dozen anthologies.
Annie Weatherwax, winner of the Robert Olen Butler Prize for Fiction, has published stories in The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review and elsewhere. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, she previously sculpted superheroes and cartoon characters for Nickelodeon, DC Comics and Pixar. She has written about the link between visual art and language for publications such as Publishers Weekly, The New York Times and Ploughshares. Her debut novel, "All We Had" (later a motion picture), was published by Scribner and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award.

Cost of the benefit event is $100. Register on the library website,
Book festivals in Concord and Boston:

The Boston book Festival is Oct. 28 at sites surrounding Copley Square; most events are free. Dozens of authors and literary personalities appear in panels, talks and workshops (there's also a daylong event for teen readers featuring Lemony Snicket and Jennifer De Leon). Participants include Claire Messud, Celeste Ng, Ha Jin, Dennis Lehane, Brunonia Barry, Geraldine Brooks, Garnette Cadogan, Tom Ashbrook, Maureen Dowd, Chris Van Dusen, Regie Gibson, Daniel Jose Older and dozens more. Details are at
Concord's Festival of Authors takes place over 17 days, mid-October into November, with talks, readings and discussions featuring Ann Hood, Gish Jen and Margot Livesey, and topics including a "Lecture for Young Readers," "Master Class for Writers," "The Story of the NFL," Memoirists on Writing the Hard Stories," a Mystery Night, and "Breakfast with the Authors." For times and details, check online at

Area book groups:

Worcester Public Library has launched a new book club—the Popular Reads Café—for readers fond of popular books. Anyone is welcome to drop by at 3 p.m., Oct. 10 and Nov. 14, in the Banx Room, for discussion of popular nonfiction and fiction. Local authors are being invited in, and discussion includes news of the latest books from favorite authors. It's free, and Friends of the Library provides refreshments.

Merriam-Gilbert Public Library in W. Brookfield will hold a book group discussion of Michael Ondaatje's "The Cat's Tale," at 7 p.m., Oct. 10.

The Intrepid Readers Book Group at Douglas Library will discuss Michael Tougias’ "The Blizzard of ‘78" on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 6:30 p.m. New England was knocked to its knees by the February storm—often referred to regionally as the worst storm of the century. Tougias' history includes photographs and chronicles the storm's progression from Cape Cod to Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It explains how people survived the storm by spending more than 48 hours in their cars, and how coastal homes were torn from their foundations and smashed to smithereens by the vicious surf. Call the Library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome.
Contemporary book Club will meet at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Street, Worcester, at 6 p.m. Oct. 18, to discuss David McCullough's historical account of aviation pioneers, "The Wright Brothers."
O'Connor's Books, Brews & Banter will meet at 6:30 p.m., Oct 25, to discuss "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" by Atul Gawande. Meeting is at the restaurant, 1160 West Boylston St., Worcester.
Lancaster's Thayer Public Library Adult Book Group will meet at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 31, to discuss "His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the case of Roderick Macrae," a novel.
In Grafton, the Daytimers Book Club will meet at 1:30, Oct. 17, to discuss "The Seventh Plague" by James Rollins. The Mystery Book Club meets at 7:30, Oct. 17, to discuss "Ghost Times Two" by Carolyn Hart.
Correction: The Silent Book Club chapter in Portland, Maine, mentioned in March, is not affiliated with Longfellow Books.
Send club selections and other comments to

Book clubs choose Fall '17 recommendations

         The fall-to-summer book season has started (yes we know some of you go all year round!), and suggestions for clubs to read during the next year are coming in.

"There was a very good book we read last year in the Leominster UU Church book group called "The Rent Collector," said one reader. "It's about a young couple struggling to survive, with a very sick child, in Cambodia, based on a true story by Camron Wright."

At Bannister Library in Brookfield, members suggest "The Invisible Thread" by Yoshika Uchida.  In Yoshiko Uchida biography, she describes growing up in Berkeley, Calif., as a Nisei, second-generation Japanese-American, and her family's internment in a Nevada concentration camp during World War II.

Ann Young, at Heywood Library in Gardner, recommends "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium" by Caitlin Doughty, and "A Hope More Powerful than the Sea" by Doaa Al Zamel, a nonfiction account of her escape from Syria. Club member Pat Darby recommends "Pay It Forward" by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Off-Track Bookies in Lancaster recommends Trevor Noah's "Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood."  Noah's book is by turns inspiring and amusing, told with the wit he employs as host of "The Daily News" show on Comedy Central. Born to white and African parentage, he was ostracized by people of both races at a time when apartheid still clung to the nation. He describes it this way: "You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."

Individual readers suggest several books: a World War II novel, "The Lilac Girls," "Waking Up White," a nonfictional exploration of racism by Debbie Irving, and Tess Garritsen's "The Bone Collector" among them. Also mentioned, Kate Moore's "The Radium Girls," about the women who were employed inside radium dial factories during the early stages of radium's introduction to the nation, and the dire impacts of radium on these "shining" women.

"The Underground Railroad," imagined as an actual railway used to transport slaves to freedom, is another novel making the rounds. Ann Young at Gardner's Heywood Library says they'll read it this year. Author Colson Whitehead (he also wrote "The Intuitionist") is now the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and several other prestigious awards for the book.

In 2017-18, Holden readers will meet frequently, says Betsy Johnson. This season, she said, "We'll tackle 'Daniel Deronda' (Eliot), 'Angle of Repose' (Stegner), 'Everybody's Fool' (Russo), and 'State of Wonder' (Patchett), as well as a few short Trollope stories.  We meet weekly, with a few breaks, so we digress, but always in pertinent ways."

FSU, Leominster visit 'Girls of Atomic City'

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, Leominster Public Library readers participated in the Fitchburg State University discussion of "The Girls of Atomic City," a selection that is popping up in book club suggestions and is sure to stimulate conversation.

This program will also be offered at Fitchburg Public Library on at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 17.
 Professor Rob Carr, of the FSU Department of Communications Media, will moderate a discussion as part of the university's 2017/18 community read. Deborah Kiernan wrote the book, a true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb. Registration is required. Free copies of the book are available to registrants and can be picked up at the Information Desk at Leominster Public Library. For more information call 978-534- 7522, ext. 3.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Self-published books a mixed bag, but don't count them out!

Books by self-published authors are a mixed bag, and members will have to sort out their thinking as to what kind of books they want to read, and how perfectly edited they are. You could find a diamond in the rough … or not. Writers at every level are self-producing books.
As e-publishing gains strength—and I think it has—editors and formatters are joining the mix, offering their services to individuals who really want what they write to be at its best. I welcome that from the bottom of my iddy biddy pinch-y editor's heart.
A caution: There's a big difference between an individual self-publishing, and books produced by small, independent publishers or groups that self-publish their members' work. "Indies" are usually professional, well executed and edited.
No, we're talking lone rangers here. And here's the rub: I generally find them under-edited and over-written. Too little fix-finding and too much detail, repetition, confusing points of view and wandering prose. Poorly laid out too, which gives off a stench of amateur publishing.
But if you find a book you believe your group might like, or even if you'd just love to have a local self-published author show up at your book club meeting and talk about what he or she is doing and how, consider these points:
* Is the story good? Does it keep your interest, feed you ideas, leave you feeling changed or enlightened? Is it unique, such as an account of something only that particular writer could tell? More importantly, is it something the group would enjoy discussing?
* Does the writer or the lead character have a strong, interesting voice?
* Is it a satisfying read? Can you get through it without distracting errors that make you wish for a red pencil? Does it flow? Does it stick to the main characters and not veer off in different directions?
* Is it supported by any organization or institution that adds legitimacy to the author's effort? Read the copyright page carefully. Is there an editor on board? Check the author's website, if there is one, to see what else the author has written.
* Google the book title to see if you can find reviews. There are customer reviews for many books at and It's a good idea to read these.
* Typos—a moniker for print errors—are annoying. Outright errors of fact or knowledge make me doubt an author. Regardless, I look for a quality story peeking from beneath the clouds of confusion. If it's there, I might finish the book.
There's a world of possibilities. After all, Mark Twain did it on his own, though he was an accomplished newspaper columnist. Consider—not everyone gets the editing treatment a star writer might receive. I've read quite a few independent authors, and some are pretty good. Moreover, most of them—after paying an editor and finding a publisher—struggle to get their book out there, so your club's interest would be a boost to them.
Dave Eggers, whose McSweeney's magazine/publishing house has created beautiful new ways to publish, chose self-publishing recently. After his awarded traditionally published books, "Zeitoun" and "A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius," he chose to self-publish "A Hologram for the King." Others are realizing there's more money to be made if they can get the public to buy their book without having to go through the traditional agent-editor-publisher grind. But Eggers is in a class of his own: award-winning, himself an editor/writer, he already has a readership audience.
It's a busy world, and few have the desire to read a book that's not ready for prime time and never will be. So do your homework, and hope to find a winning book.
Oprah's newest book choice:
Oprah Winfrey, maven of perhaps the nation's most famous book club, has picked a new one for summer: "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue.
Oprah's description: "It's got everything that's grabbing the headlines in America right now. It's about race and class, the economy, culture, immigration and the danger of the us-versus-them mentality." All of that wraps around a story of family love and the pursuit of happiness.
I like Oprah's instincts. She seeks out quality writing and themes, plus a good story. Even better, "Behold the Dreamers" is available in paperback and as an e-book.

Read in the Sun, in the Shade, in the library

Traveling about New England during the vacation season ...
While visiting friends, I wandered into Provincetown’s public library, seeking both a reprieve from the heat and an exploration. There is some wonderful artwork at the entrance and around the interior; overall, the library is bright and open. Having found a book I wanted to read, I went to the circulation desk, where I learned that I had to have a CLAMS card to take out books. Drat, I thought. What’s that? I thought C/W MARS was everywhere!
Not so. There are several systems.
A CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing) card is good anywhere on the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The Massachusetts Library System supports it, but the system does not interact with automated systems used throughout the rest of the state. This area’s C/W MARS (Central/Western Massachusetts Automated Resource Sharing) system is the largest, with 152 member libraries, but there are eight more collectives, connecting 417 public and academic libraries, ranging from Greater Boston, Merrimack and the South Shore to more. Belonging to C/W MARS does not provide access to other regions. That’s really only a problem outside your usual environs, as borrowing becomes a problem. Fortunately, libraries often have sale books you can buy.
Closer to home, however, I borrowed two Louise Penny mysteries at Harvard’s beautiful new library, enjoying the look-around as much as the book selection. Library users will find several study areas, quiet and dedicated to their needs, along with a good book selection and spots to sit and read. Better yet, since it’s in the C/W MARS network, I can return the books to my home library in Lancaster, and they’ll be routed back to Harvard. Under this regional system, a member can access 2.5 million books, along with millions of other items, including CDs and DVDs. Book club members are apt to know the system, as they obtain multiple copies of a book for meetings.
Nerd alert here: I love visiting libraries, whether or not I can take out books. One can always sit down to relax and read magazines, do computer research or, in a precious few (West Boylston’s Beaman Library just joined in), find a spot to enjoy coffee or a snack. If in Boston, don’t miss the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street (not a C/W MARS member, but you can get a library card there). Check its website for events and workshops.
I’ve passed several Read It & Reap contributor libraries, not always at the right time to stop in, but I enjoy several: Worcester’s large library offers a café, book sales room, meeting spaces and loads of books. Gardner’s Heywood Memorial Library is modern and spacious, with a divided (and supervised) children’s library upstairs. Shirley’s small library offers a peaceful reading area and study tables. Leominster has a gorgeous older library, expanded in 2005-07; it’s full of reading areas, a dozen computer stations and, for teens, a room dedicated in memory of novelist Robert Cormier of Leominster. Lancaster’s Thayer Memorial Library, on the town’s green, offers comfortable leather chairs for kids to curl up in while reading, or for adults in the magazine area. During a recent book sale, kids were able to play mini-golf throughout the building.
Truly, libraries offer a serene spot — albeit sometimes very active in these days of progressive libraries — to get away from it all. They share that with many bookstores.
By the way, stop in to any library for the latest monthly copy of Book Page, a great roundup of what’s new on the book scene.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Investing in the world's future

A group of Abaarso's female students, who follow a conservative Muslim dress code

Mubarik Mohammed, graduating MIT.

Nimo Ahmed Ismail, with Jonathan Starr at Oberlin College in Ohio.


  Dream building for students in Somaliland

 By Ann Connery Frantz
Telegram & Gazertte, Worcester MA

There are life goals some may label impossible and others, unrealistic. But Worcester native Jonathan Starr, ready to leave the financial world for something different—and a way to "make a difference"—chose to use a half-million dollars and his backbone on a project far from home. He invested in children, targeting the future.

Then 32, Starr created a boarding school within the tiny African country of Somaliland, an autonomous state officially considered part of Somalia. Launched in 2009, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology is home to over 200 students. Its seventh to 12th graders—boys and girls—board there, studying science, literature, mathematics and other college-preparatory subjects. They seek better futures than might have been, and eventual leadership roles in their homeland.
Now 40, Starr has just watched the first group of Abaarso students graduate from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. About 100 Abaarso graduates are currently continuing their education around the world, most in the U.S. Most would not have made it without the school.
Call it, if you will, a miracle; at the least, it's amazing.

Now, Starr has written "It Takes a School," published in February by Macmillan Henry Holt, hoping to inspire others who might teach or found other schools, and to build on Abaarso's future. Vignettes in the book describe children who came to Abaarso to prepare for college while developing personal strength and character. Tenacity, Starr calls it. For some, this is the only chance; little awaits them outside of the school. Admission is hotly competitive; Abaarso accepts students who show promise, regardless of a lack of earlier opportunities.
 "This year, there were 1,500 applicants for 50 spots in seventh grade," Starr said. Eventually, he may add more schools. More immediately, he will launch a women's university at a different site.
The school started with teachers from the U.S. and abroad—the kind of people dedicated to educating those who would otherwise go ignored, regardless of low pay. "That first year, I have no idea how we convinced people to come," he said. "We didn't get many, but it was great to have them. They are the trailblazers."

In the early years, community resistance proved dangerous and made it difficult to achieve acceptance—"It got ugly," he says. Other entrepreneurs might have walked out long before, but he refused to quit the students he'd grown to love and the dreams he had created with them. With the first college acceptance, to Nimo Ismail from Oberlin College, came widespread approval: Starr was getting the job done, not offering empty promises. 

A Worcester Academy graduate and summa cum laude economics graduate from Emory University, Starr knew what a difference quality education makes in young lives. His initial career in hedge fund investment provided savings, the means to go ahead. He provided hands-on direction. It's been eight years, and now the school sends graduates to colleges and universities far from home, such as Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, MIT, Brandeis and Holy Cross in this country—40 this year. Sixty more attend foreign schools. The kids are doing the work, proving their ability to succeed. And word has spread. Anderson Cooper has profiled Abaarso for “60 Minutes,” as have other news outlets.
Starr, living in Westborough with his young family (near parents in Worcester), remains fully committed to the school. He is raising funds for the school's growth as well.
"I could have been in finance my whole life, but I wanted to see something different, to be in a different environment and culture. And I thought it would be 'fun' to work with kids. In the investment world, you're choosing where you're going to invest but this is different; I chose to be on the operation side, where every single day you're involved in the investment. "This was the single best opportunity I was probably going to have to do something special. I had life flexibility, without a family depending on me. I was still relatively young. It was special—a chance to make a difference."

"Altogether, the school has taken in $3 million in donations for everything, including a campus," he said. An uncle from Somaliland, who lives in Brooklyn, went there with him first, to view the country and talk with people. "I had heard much about Somaliland; I knew through him I would have some contacts." The small country—autonomously controlled, northwest of Somalia—is 53,000 square miles but sparsely populated, with many there living nomadic lifestyles.
"There had been many a foreigner  who turned around and left," he said. "I wanted to like it; I hoped I would see something positive. Some would objectively say 'Oh my God that's terrible,' and I would say 'That's something I want to do.' It was an emotional decision."

It was not a cinch. He shares his mistakes in the book—such as picking the wrong location for the school, a decision he had to live with. He also has a frightening memory of the day a government soldier with an AK47 came to deport him. Someone led a newspaper and web campaign against the school, creating suspicion. "My intentions were good and it had never occurred to me people wouldn't welcome me with open arms," Starr said. "In hindsight, it's completely ridiculous that that wouldn't occur. This country has been isolated for decades; a lot of people have never seen a non-Somalian. So there was not trust in newness. Some said we'd 'missionize' the children; do bad things to them. At one point,  somebody wrote 'Let's kill four of them, and the rest will go home' on a website."
"Had I known the challenges going in, I don't know if I would have done it. But by the time it happened, I loved these kids. I was in. I couldn’t consider abandoning my children. I would have died. It would have been death to me anyway. That's truly how I felt."
They waited it out. "The main way we got through it was just by succeeding. When word came that a student (Nimo Ismail) was going to Oberlin on a full scholarship, it made the school's image stronger and stronger. There was some criticism, but over time, it declined."

The first students were college-bound, with full scholarships, around 2013. "We sent a student to Harvard two years later—even the nomads knew what Harvard meant. The president of the country gave him an award. A year later, a girl was accepted to both Yale and Dartmouth. She's now at Yale. People began saying 'this is incredible;' they no longer wanted to hear bad things about the school. It went from being cool to attack us, to very uncool to not like us. Our kids won."

Teachers at Abaarso make sure the students speak English before they leave, in a rigorous learning environment. They focus on tenacity, which they'll need when they go to another country. "They know they overcame that, and know we care about them a lot. It helps."
He laughs at the suggestion that he could be the male Oprah (Winfrey, who also founded a school in South Africa). "One of my students could be," he said. "She is well on her way to being the Somali Oprah."

Starr and his team plan a women's university next, with a slow start in the fall. Eventually, more schools are planned. "I want to build slowly and carefully. We only take the amount of kids we can reasonably teach. We don't need more schools just to have schools."
His book's aim is to tell others what they are doing at Abaarso, and why. "If they read the book, they'll feel close to it. I felt it was a very good way to document the story of Abaarso; I want to engage people to support what we're doing, or inspire people to do their own school somewhere else. People ask us to put a school in another country … we can't, but maybe they can do it."

Jobs in Somaliland require more education and training than typical for residents, so the returning Abaarso students, with degrees, will be able to train others for those jobs.
"They have to bring in Chinese, Pakistanis, Kenyans. All the key skills positions are run by international people and that's a huge holdup to their economic development. If you get these kids back in the country, they can do something; Somalis would prefer to hire their own, they just don't have that option yet. They will, with our students."


From Somaliland to the world

Mubarik Mohamoud, the MIT graduate, spent a junior year at Worcester Academy. A former nomadic goat herder in a country that has many nomadic families, he saw his first vehicle at the age of six, and thought it was an animal, since he had nothing else to compare it with.
"It's incredible," said Starr. "He grew up a nomad; he'd never met anyone outside his existence, had never seen technology." Mubarik's story is complex. He ran away—"a trip that should have killed him," says Starr—and lived homeless for a few years. He fought to get an education.
"He doesn't feel bad for himself In any way; that's one of his many wonderful qualities. Eventually, he rushed through school and found his way to our entrance exam. He ended up coming into our ninth grade." After that came Worcester Academy, then robotics studies at MIT.
He plans to work toward a master's and already has three job offers in the artificial intelligence industry. After a year or so of work, he'll return to Somaliland to train other engineers.
And that's the idea.
"He came from so little, and just needed a chance."