In December 2015, Long Beach author and retired teacher Jan Bono received some very frightening news from her cardiologist: There was a tumor in her heart. To make matters worse, the growth showed up the year Bono’s fiance passed away.
But Bono didn’t wallow in her grief. She instead put the tumor in the crosshairs of her sense of humor.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to call this a tumor. We’re going to call it ‘Walter,’ “ Bono told her cardiologist. “The doctor laughed, and I said, ‘He’s just a grumpy old man, and it’s time we kicked him out.’ That’s the only way I could take the power out of it, because the word ‘tumor’ scared the heck out of me.”
Two months later, doctors removed the tumor safely through open-heart surgery. By 2017, she was already working on her next novel.
This optimistic outlook is characteristic of Bono’s personality and the comic element in her writing. Both were evident Friday, when she gave a speech at the Delaware Plaza retirement home in Longview, touching upon her battle with Walter and her career as a prolific contributor to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.
Long Beach wit
Bono, now 63, has used her conversational, witty sense of humor most of her life. As a writer, it slips into her writing naturally, and she can’t dodge it even if she tries, she says.
“I’ve always had humor in my writing; I can’t write without it. I really wanted to be cutting-edge and write suspense and thriller, but it’s not going to happen. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was ‘Don’t fight what you write.’ “
Although her primary career was working as a teacher on the Long Beach Peninsula for 29 years, Bono also has 10 books in print and spent 10 years writing comical, observational columns for the Chinook Observer, a weekly newspaper based in Long Beach.
Bono (pronounced Boh-no, not like U2’s lead singer, as she repeatedly emphasized) said she began writing op-eds for the Observer in 1992 after being stranded at home with a torn Achilles tendon. She wound up penning 272 columns in that decade and won 11 Washington Newspaper Publisher Awards.
One of Bono’s more memorable columns was about putting tinsel on her Christmas tree while naked to keep the foil from clinging to her bathrobe.
“When my minister announced that week that we were going to decorate the fellowship hall, he said, ‘But Jan will not be in charge of tinseling the tree,’ “ she said. “You could immediately tell everybody in there ... had read the paper that week.”
Bono lost her job in March 2003, when she was 48, after the Observer’s editor said the paper didn’t need any more “fluff” in the editorial page (a statement he apologized for a couple years later, according to Bono). Naturally, she spinned that rejection into something to be proud of.
“I just want to get a badge that says, ‘I write fluff,’ ” she joked.
Since her newspaper career ended, Bono has written at a fast clip, most notably for the “Chicken Soup For the Soul” series. Starting in 2009, Bono’s essays have been featured in 34 “Chicken Soup” books, and she says she’s one of the series’ top five contributing authors worldwide. Her first story, for the teachers’ edition, focused on one of her elementary-age students.
“It paid $200, I got 10 copies, I got to be a ‘Chicken Soup’ author and it was exciting,” she said of her first time being published in the best-selling series. “ ‘Chicken Soup’ is a brand. A brand is a big deal.”
Fighting obesity and cancer
Beyond “Chicken Soup,” Bono has written plenty of books on her own. One of them, “Back From Obesity,” details her 252-pound weight-loss journey from 1998 to 2002.
“I did it without pills, exercising until you drop, no surgeries, nothing, because all I did was feed the person I wanted to be,” she said.
However, after her fiance died in April 2015 and her tumor diagnosis arrived eight months later, she said stress-eating became a problem and she gained back 50 pounds.
“I thought, ‘Maybe if I eat enough ice cream, it’ll bring him back,’ “ she said. “Ten months after he died, I had open-heart surgery. I thought, ‘If I’m going to die anyways, there’s ice cream I want to eat first.’ You see the pattern here?”
Once doctors found her tumor, Bono said she posted an eviction notice for ‘Walter’ on Facebook. She later shared photos of both her tumor and her post-surgery chest scar (which she calls her “zipper”) down her chest on the social media site.
Bono said she named the tumor ‘Walter’ after one of comedian Jeff Dunham’s puppets. In Dunham’s show, Walter is a cranky, frowning old man.
Two years later, Bono said she’s perfectly fine physically, except for her continued blood thinner prescription, which causes bruises.
“I breathe on (my arms) and I’ll bruise,” she joked.
Bono’s most recent project has been the third installment of her Sylvia Avery mystery series of novels, entitled “Crab Bait.” All of the books are set on the Long Beach Peninsula, and she categorizes them as “cozy” mysteries. That means no graphic violence, no obscene language, and no sex scenes.
“It’s basically ‘Murder, She Wrote’ on paper,” Bono said. “But I have more humor.”
She is working nearly non-stop on her next novel, with an expectation that the finished product will be available by the fall.
“Eight to 12, every single morning that I am home, I am writing on ‘Crab Bait,’ “ she said. “If I write 1,000 words per day, it’ll take me 72 writing days to get the first draft.”
Bono will be reading a portion of “Crab Bait” during WordFest March 13 at Cassava, 1333 Broadway in Longview.
Although the self-imposed hours are grueling, Bono said she wouldn’t give up writing for anything.
“Writing is the best job in the world,” she said. “It’s not like a real job. I get to spend quality time at the computer playing with my imaginary friends, and I get paid for it.”