A former Iowa chiropractor who worked in Oelwein in the mid-1990s before settling in Croatia more than 26 years ago to practice, Douglas Cavanaugh has published his second historical novel about growing up in Northeast Iowa.
Cavanaugh recently donated his second novel, published on March 3, 2020, to the Oelwein Public Library. Titled “A Long Way Around: A Journey of Inspiration Set in Rural Iowa,” it follows a young man who witnesses a horrific attack while hunting and embarks on a soulful journey that leads to his hometown in rural northeast Iowa.
A native of Davenport, Cavanaugh spent more than five years living and working in northeast Iowa, he told the Daily Register. He was in Dysersville when his Iowa chiropractic license became active in February 1991.
Between the position at Dysersville and the next at Oelwein, he traveled to London to attend the 1992 World Congress of Chiropractors, where he stayed with former college colleagues. “After the convention ended, I traveled to Ireland and learned that international travel alone is completely doable, especially for someone in their 20s,” Cavanaugh wrote.
Wanting to get back to Northeast Iowa — and pay some bills, he drove to Oelwein to meet with chiropractor Verlyn Heine about a vacancy. Shortly after the lunch and handshake, Cavanaugh was working at Heine’s chiropractic office on East Charles Street, where he resided from 1992 to 1996.
A colleague with a practice in Singapore contacted him in the spring of 1995, and he met him at a congress in London three years before. Needing to return to the US to settle her father’s estate, she offered Cavanaugh the use of her apartment if he would run her office while she was away.
“It was a great job for everyone,” he wrote. He visited Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia before returning to Iowa five weeks later.
“Now the possibility of living and working abroad came to my fore. I decided that I would use it, if I had the opportunity to live abroad. And I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t try. But opportunities like this don’t come along every day, and I knew I had to be ready if they did,” Cavanaugh said.
When the terms of his position at Oelwein ended, he returned to Davenport torn between staying in the area or moving. He was close to making a decision, he says, when the phone rang.
A former classmate who moved to Italy after graduation wanted to hire him in nearby Croatia, where a medical institution was looking for a chiropractor.
“I had some reservations about moving to Croatia because it was often in the news during the previous four years due to the war going on in some parts of the country. They assured me that the city where the job is located is safe, so I decided to roll the dice and make my dream of living abroad come true. Within a week, I packed my bags, bought a one-way plane ticket and moved to Europe,” Cavanaugh wrote.
“It was a move that I thought would last one or two years before returning home. Unbelievably, it was almost twenty-seven years ago,” he wrote.
He arrived in the port city of Rijeka, Republic of Croatia, where he still lives today, having married a Croatian woman with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter.
“Both of my girlfriends are rooted in the area, so it looks like we’ll be staying here. Accordingly, we try to return to Iowa regularly and my move has allowed my parents to take multiple trips to Europe over the years.”
Although he started actively writing in Croatia, “the genesis of writing a novel first stirred in my mind while I was living in Oelwein,” said Cavanaugh.
“Then I couldn’t think of a suitable plot to write about, so the idea was shelved indefinitely. During my first years in Europe, I had many opportunities to travel through war-torn Bosnia and Croatia, and this is what inspired my first novel, a spy thriller entitled ‘In Hellfire’.
“Based on the success of that book, my imagination returned to my homeland and the subject for a second novel set in Northeast Iowa (including Oelwein, Strawberry Point, Elgin) became a reality. I’m still baffled as to how I couldn’t discover the story while I was living there,” he said.
Cavanaugh alluded to the importance of research.
“There’s a saying in fiction writing: ‘You should write about what you know.’ But it’s impossible to know everything about topics in different plot directions,” he told the Daily Register.
“In order to convince the reader that the story is true, the author must spend a lot of time learning about techniques, equipment, history, jargon, and other subjects in which he or she may have no personal experience or expertise,” Cavanaugh wrote.
This research has shown itself in several themes of “The Long Way Around”. The main chapter of the novel is set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Cavanaugh sought to place himself there by delving into World War II-related websites and documentaries.
Other themes in the novel include high school wrestling in Iowa, deer hunting with a bow, and sailing in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I have no first-hand knowledge of any of these activities in my area. To gain expertise in these subjects, I contacted and interviewed high school classmates who wrestled, other friends who bow hunt annually, and even a yacht club based in Louisiana to discuss sailing and sailboats with the club president,” Cavanaugh wrote. “This is in addition to dozens of hours of internet research.”
He wrote, to some extent, what he remembered.
“I would say there’s a lot of similarity, based mostly on memories from when I lived in the area,” Cavanaugh said, disclaiming that “all names, characters and specific locations in the novel are purely fictional, so similarities to real people or places purely coincidental.”
“Given that the book is set in 1993, readers old enough to remember that era should be able to make some connections,” he said.
Characterization, Cavanaugh said, is “one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a story,” noting that it’s all up to the author’s imagination to choose each character’s appearance, speech and behavior.
He described his “mix and match technique”.
“I am blessed with an excellent long-term memory and can recall vivid details of the personal characteristics of people I have met throughout my life, even from early childhood. I can also recall conversations I had with others that left a lasting impression on my mind. Then I choose from those memorable details and combine them with improvised descriptions that develop in my head,” he said.
After a spy thriller set in Bosnia and Croatia with an all-male cast and political and military dialogues, composing “The Long Way Around” was his first foray into creating female characters.
“Writing believable dialogue and behavior for them was a challenge I had no previous experience with,” he wrote. Except for observations, as described. “There is also a minor love story involved in TLWA.”
“It takes a lot of patience and persistence to complete a novel,” Cavanaugh said of what he learned during his debut.
In his sophomore attempt, he noticed additional attributes that emerged.
“I have learned that I have a stronger sentimental and nostalgic side of my psyche than I previously thought. I think it shows in my writing. Also, I’ve learned that I have a stronger spiritual side to me that seems to grow as I get older,” Cavanaugh said.
The way Cavanaugh remembered Iowa in his younger years contrasts with what he rediscovered about her.
“I remember being pretty mediocre during my younger years living in Iowa. Boring at times, mostly uneventful at times. But that’s far from the truth,” Cavanaugh wrote.
“Ironically, it took me moving halfway around the world and a few years away to rediscover what I had left behind. Now I value my homeland highly.
“My Croatian family likes to visit every summer and in many ways the two places are similar. In fact, it’s amazing how similar parts of continental Croatia and the cliffs and rolling hills of northeastern Iowa look and feel. If I came back to live in the US, I doubt I would consider returning to any other place.
“With that in mind, Iowa readers who like the intimacy of the people and setting of the book they’re reading will be drawn to ‘TLWA.’ A bit of the state’s history was also touched upon.”
Despite requests from readers to write a sequel to “Into Hell’s Fire,” Cavanaugh said he was “exhausted” and “burned out” after the debut, and decided to focus on writing for his chiropractic practice and translating it into English for a local Croatian musician.
“After two years, an idea dawned on me that I thought I could turn into a novel. It was a vision I had of a bow hunter in Iowa witnessing something horrible and unexplainable in the woods. This vision haunted me for several more days, I could not stop thinking about the feeling that stirred in my brain.”
He played with the plot and made a rough outline of how the story could go.
“I thought for a long time about whether I had the determination to write another novel. In the end, I realized that this was destined to be the long-lost novel I imagined writing when I lived in Oelwein all those years ago,” he wrote. “So I decided to make it happen. Five years later, it’s ready for the world to read.”
The author turned some concepts about self-publishing upside down.
“Both of my novels are self-published, and each book is professionally edited,” Cavanaugh wrote.
Time and distance were key factors in determining the publishing fate of his novel. After serious, protracted attempts to get “Into Hell’s Fire” picked up by a traditional publisher in the United States, Cavanaugh abandoned the possibility, attributing it to “the result of many long-distance obstacles.”
“I consider it a bittersweet outcome because the success of the book was a pleasant surprise,” he wrote. “Because of this success, the Croatian publisher VF Libris chose the book for translation into Croatian. In the domestic market, it was renamed to ‘Through the Fires of Hell’ and was distributed throughout the country.”
From that attempt, he learned just to get it out.
“I didn’t even try to release TLWA traditionally. Many authors I am in contact with are now leaving the legacy publishing path all together. In the future, when I finally write the sequel to ‘Into Hell’s Fire,’ I will probably self-publish that book as well.”
There are two authors whose writing stood out as inspirational for Cavanaugh, one from the past and one who is still writing.
One was Walter Tevis, who wrote, among other books, “The Hustler” (1959) and “The Color of Money” (1984).
“To me, The Hustler seems so well written that readers from all walks of life and with no experience or knowledge of the game can enjoy the story without confusion or boredom,” Cavanaugh wrote.
Readers may also be familiar with Tevis’ “The Queen’s Gambit,” which was adapted into a miniseries in 2020, according to the website Goodreads.
Cavanaugh admires Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale for his breadth of scope, tone, prose, and meaningful brevity: “He can say a lot using minimal words.”
Regarding “The Long Way Around,” Cavanaugh concluded, “I was very proud to be able to donate a copy to Oelwein’s wonderful new library—a great improvement over the city library that existed when I was there. I would appreciate it if readers would rate and review ‘TLWA’ on the book’s Goodreads.com and Amazon.com pages.”
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