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Defending the Great Lakes by day, writing about them by night

Author Sally Cole-Misch used her memories of summers spent in the region as a youth as the backdrop to her first fictional novel, The Best Part of Us

Sally Cole-Misch spent summers on an inland lake east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for the first half of her life.

It was a natural break from her then industrial-based hometown.

“I grew up living in Detroit most of the year and on a pristine inland lake east of the Sault during the summer.”

It was those summers where Cole-Misch first connected to nature and the outdoors.

“The differences were stark and I couldn’t wait to return north every year to enjoy the fresh air, clean water and sounds of nature,” she says.

“So my appreciation for the natural world started early, and has grown over the years through my profession, my vacations in Canadian and American national parks, and everything I’ve learned about nature’s magic, constancy and endurance in spite of all we throw at her.”

Cole-Misch currently splits her time between homes in southeast and northeast Michigan, but still regularly travels to the Sault and area. 

She began writing a draft of her first novel The Best Part of Us as part of Stanford University’s Master’s certificate program in fiction writing, which she began “on a whim” after her only child left for college.

“I honestly hadn’t written more than a few short stories before then, which points to the quality of Stanford’s program,” she says.  

“The idea for the plot started when I was writing an article about the many physical and psychological benefits of being in nature, and started to wonder if I could write a story where nature is as much of a character as the people in it, and where the main character has to decide just how important nature is to her.”

Although the book is considered fiction, there are elements of its author throughout the storyline.

“My Stanford professors encouraged us to pick one element of our stories that we know well, whether it’s a character, plot or setting,” she says.  

“Given my goal to write a story set in nature, I chose a setting I know better than any other to be able to immerse readers fully in that place. Given the wealth of pristine inland lakes and undeveloped land for hiking and exploring in the Sault region, the setting will likely feel familiar to most of your readers.”

Other than the setting itself, Cole-Misch says the characters and plot itself are “pure fiction.”

Despite this, there are elements of her professional life that creep into the broader themes.

Cole-Misch studied journalism in college and environmental education and policy in graduate school and has worked as a journalist and environmental writer throughout her [more than] 30-year career.

“My primary focus has been to communicate about Great Lakes water quality, the issues affecting them, and the sometimes simple but often complicated and expensive choices we must make to restore and protect the health of our water, land, air, animals, and ourselves.”

Until late May, Cole-Misch was the Public Affairs Officer at the International Joint Commission (IJC), a Canadian-US organization formed by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the two countries prevent and resolve issues concerning the waters flowing across their boundaries.

“When Canada and the US created the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, they gave the IJC responsibility to monitor their progress to restore and protect the lakes,” she says.

Her job focused on communicating the IJC’s findings on that progress, for issues such as toxic contamination, invasive species, wetlands restoration, and many others.

“I also ensured that the IJC heard citizens’ perspectives about the health of the lakes by organizing public meetings and other events.”

Cole-Misch reflects on a specific meeting that took place in Sault, Ontario in March 2017.

“We had a great turnout… [t]hose citizens’ insights about the impacts of climate change on your region were echoed strongly in the IJC’s 2017 progress report. Travelling around the basin and meeting with people who care deeply about the lakes has been one of the best parts of the job.”

Lessons learned in her professional career were subtly woven into the threads of the storyline.

“What I’ve learned in my career has driven the novel’s messaging,” says Cole-Misch.

The Best Part of Us tells the story of a woman who must decide whether to save her sense of herself and her connection with nature in order to explore the broader choice that humanity faces, for Earth will survive and heal over time, but our values and actions will determine if we and other species can as well,” she says.

“When we decide to understand and value our interconnectedness with everything else on the planet, we will act to prevent further devastating impacts of climate change or even the next pandemic.”

The author admits that balancing her time and focus between writing a novel and succeeding in her professional career has been a challenge.

“[E]specially when other parts of life are added in, as with most people’s lives today,” she says.

“Luckily, I’m at a point in my career where I’m satisfied with what I’ve contributed and can switch my focus to this novel and other writing instead.”

The Best Part of Us is being published by She Writes Press.

“I met She Writes Press publisher Brooke Warner at a writing conference I attended to see several alums from the Stanford program”’ she says.

“She expressed interest in the manuscript and accepted it within a month of receiving it.”

Cole-Misch describes She Writes Press as an independent press where authors have the opportunity to play a key role in their book’s design and production if they wish to do so.

“[It has] been an excellent learning experience into the publishing world, a very different process from environmental communications.”

Early reviews of The Best Part of Us have been exceptionally positive, which have been motivating for Cole-Misch as a first-time author.

“Several friends and fellow writers who read earlier drafts of the manuscript provided encouraging feedback, but it’s gratifying and promising to read positive reviews from people who don’t know me and are basing their comments on the story alone.”

Cole-Misch will be virtually promoting her new book at FLOW-For Love of Water, an environmental organization that works on Great Lakes issues, at 5 pm ET on Sunday, September 27 as part of its Art Meets Water series, entitled: Exploring The Best Part of Us through words and water.

“We hope folks will join us for a cocktail-hour virtual conversation about the novel, writing about our essential connections to nature, and celebrating the Great Lakes.”

The event is being hosted by FLOW’s Senior Policy Adviser and Great Lakes expert Dave Dempsey, also an author of books about the lakes. Proceeds from books sales related to the event through Cottage Book Shop will be donated to FLOW.

“I’m hoping we get a great turnout,” says Cole-Misch.

“Other virtual events are in the works, and I hope to do in-person events as soon as it’s safe to do so. It’s an interesting time to release a book.”

Register for the FLOW-For Love of Water event online here.

The Best Part of Us is available in paperback and e-book from all major booksellers, including Indigo, Bookshop, Amazon, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million. Libraries can stock the novel through Baker & Taylor.

Further information on Sally Cole-Misch and The Best Part of Us, can be found on her website.

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