Julie Morse has written a book about Bob Harris, a man who made a living as a box salesman but lived a life that seemed boundless.
But the book, titled “Out of the Box: The Mostly True Story of a Mysterious Man,” has also opened a new chapter for the Lake Bluff author. Morse expects to release a second book shortly, this one co-written with her son, Greg Mikrut, called “When Billy Went Bald”.
The children’s book is taken from Greg’s own experiences with Wilms tumor cancer, which afflicts the kidneys mostly in young children, when he was 5 years old.
“When I was raising my kids, I wrote about 4-5 books and never got a publisher, said Morse, whose writing experiences have been primarily based in newspapers, including 12 years as a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune. “I just put them in a drawer. So maybe we’ll take the other four books out of the drawer next year.”
The publication of her book on Harris has helped remove some of the obstacles that first-time authors can face.
“I think I will continue to write more books,” Morse said. “The daunting hurdle is removed to a degree, and I have other ideas for books.”
Staying True to Her Passion
Prior to taking a leap of faith to write the book on Harris, Morse was busy raising her family and fully vested in a real estate career that grew out of her work with the Tribune. But something kept nagging at her.
She remembered a quote from Marcel Proust that said, “We always end up doing the thing we are second best at.”
“That really resonated with me,” Morse said. “I always wanted to write a book, but I always focused on things that were more important. I made an intentional choice to give myself time to write.”
Morse was first introduced to Harris through her husband, who worked with him in the box business. He would recount Bob’s monthly travels to places like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and Mongolia, all on his own money, but at least once a month.
“ I would always say to my husband, ‘I think Bob is in intelligence,’ and he laughed,” Morse recalled. “He said it to a co-worker, who had known Bob for years, and he told him, Julie’s probably not that far off.”
Espionage and Intrigue
That got Morse on the phone to Harris, who agreed to let her write a book. Her reporter instincts told her fairly quickly after meeting him that she had a good story on her hands.
“He has some very intriguing elements to his life, he’s actually more interesting than if he were James Bond,” Morse said. “There’s a lot more to him than a great espionage character. My interviews were so rewarding. This man has been an incredible box salesman, but in addition a great entrepreneur, a world player, and founding investor of the Kimpton Hotels.”
Morse conducted a few interviews at her Lake Bluff home starting three years ago, but the more lengthy interviews were done at her family’s Wisconsin cabin where the focus could be on just the job at hand. She estimated that she logged close to 120 hours of interview time.
“I really started at the very beginning to understand who he was,” Morse said. “Knowing from my own life you really are where you came from. That made it more intimate to understand where he came from, what philosophies his parents had.”
Harris told Morse of his first adventure as a 17-year-old aboard a freighter to Sweden, which served as a catalyst for a life that took him to more than160 countries. Today at age 80, Harris remains a world traveler after just returning from Sri Lanka.
But his travels only scratched the surface. Harris often traveled alone and at the economy class level with the intent of meeting the locals. He was able to move in and out of each setting by relying on street smarts he picked up growing up in Chicago coupled with an insatiable knowledge of history that ranged from the American Indians to Genghis Khan to General George Patton.
“That’s how he has run his business and met all these amazing people,” Morse said.
Knowing When To Listen
Once she began the writing process, Morse had already decided to mix in a fictional character named Julianna, who would act as a narrator to Harris’ story. Morse shared the draft with some close friends, a suggestion she received from author Anne LeClaire, who conducted a retreat at Ragdale that Morse attended. They all came back with the same critique.
“I might have given up then if they had all come back with something different,” Morse said, laughing. “They all liked Julianna a lot, and they wanted to see her developed. I was holding back from doing that. I was encouraged by Anne to develop that relationship between the narrator and Bob.”
Morse plans to speak about her book as part of the Lake Forest Book Store’s Friday Night Summer Series at 7 p.m. Aug. 17.
In deciding to re-introduce her children’s book, “When Billy Went Bald”, Morse said her research showed there really hasn’t’ been a book published that gives an “honest , upbeat, factual approach to what a child goes through with chemotherapy,” she said.
“Whether it’s a child involved or adult, often times we don’t talk about it until much later. He does all of these things, like playing soccer, swimming and embraces his differences.”
Proceeds from that book will benefit Sunshine Kids, whose mission is to provide positive activities to young kids with cancer.
Morse has her eyes on another autobiographical subject, and working with Harris gave her some valuable insights on what criteria to use going forward.
“I got intrigued by the intrigue,” she said. “I was so rewarded every time we met. It doesn’t have just one storyline, but a multi-dimensional aspect to it. I think that will be a key to finding other subjects. That’s a real test of a book.”