Friday, February 2, 2024

Audie Awards Finalist

Leth Oun, Tim Lounibos (the narrator of Leth's audiobook), and I are thrilled to be finalists for the Audie Awards, the equivalent of the Oscars for audiobooks. We are in remarkable company. Winners to be announced March 4. For more, visit and follow our Facebook feed for regular updates.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Philadelphia Inquirer: 'A Remarkable Life'

I was excited to hear today's Philadelphia Inquirer landing on my lawn this morning as it featured a full page story about Leth Oun's "remarkable life," as writer Rita Giordano describes it.

She writes about A Refugee's American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, "That one person could go from a little boy too afraid to show fear to a man who protects presidents is an incredible journey by anyone’s standards.” 

Here is the link to the online version, which features additional photographs.

For more updates on Leth's book, visit or follow him on Facebook or Twitter @LethOunBook

Friday, February 10, 2023

Publication Day for A Refugee's American Dream


From early in my career as a newspaper reporter to freelancing to the last 14 years writing for universities, I’ve been fortunate to write hundreds of profiles of fascinating people from all walks of life. I am particularly blessed that I met Leth Oun at Widener University in 2011 when I wrote a magazine article about him. We stayed in touch and, in 2017, I began working with him to turn his rough draft of his amazing life story into A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service. Today is its official publication day. I want to thank Temple University Press for publishing it, those of you who have bought it, and most importantly, Leth for allowing me to work with him on his important story. It’s an honor to be his coauthor. Please check out for more information and follow us online for news about the book and announcements about forthcoming events.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Kirkus: 'A truly heartening story'

An advance Kirkus review posted online today praises Leth Oun’s forthcoming book, A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, as “A truly heartening story of sheer determination and the will to survive and thrive.” Read the full review. 

It will be released by Temple University Press on February 10. Stay tuned for the announcement of launch events.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service

It has been an honor and a privilege to be the coauthor of Leth Oun's life story. A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service will be published by Temple University Press in February 2023.

Monday, November 22, 2021

New Book Forthcoming in 2023

On a tour of the White House with Leth Oun in 2019

I’m happy to announce that A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service, which is by Leth Oun with me as coauthor, is under contract to be published by Temple University Press in 2023. Born in Cambodia in 1966, Leth was nine when his father, an officer in the Cambodian army, was executed by the invading Khmer Rouge. Leth was enslaved for almost four years in the Killing Fields, where he almost starved to death, lost many loved ones to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, and at one point was tortured. After the Killing Fields, he spent one year homeless and then three years in refugee camps before he immigrated to America at the age of seventeen, penniless and speaking very little English. He worked numerous minimum wage jobs and persevered to earn a college degree and ultimately become an officer in the Secret Service, where he has served since 2002 and has fulfilled countless assignments under four presidential administrations, including handling a dog trained to detect explosives. His life story is one of being a witness to one of the worst genocides in history, of tragedy, survival, and recovery, and of finding success in America. It also is a story of his love for two countries, for his family, for his dogs, and for his life as a U.S. Secret Service officer.

I met Leth when he stepped into my office on a sleepy summer afternoon in 2011 when I was the editor of Widener University’s alumni magazine. That meeting eventually led to our close friendship and this book, which has proved to be the hardest yet most fulfilling writing project I’ve taken on, an experience that has changed me for the better. Leth wrote a short first draft and through several years of numerous interviews, additional writing, and revisions, which were assisted by Dr. Barbara Ryan, professor emerita of sociology who taught Leth at Widener, we expanded and completed the book. His story for me is not just his American dream, but a dream of America as a place that embraces immigrants of all races and religions and welcomes them into our family, a story that fulfils what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes. Serving as coauthor for Leth—who introduced me to his fellow Secret Service officers as “my brother” when he took my family on a tour of the White House—is an honor that has been more rewarding than I could have ever have imagined when I answered his knock on my office door.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Southern Writers Anthology Selection

Even though I’ve been “gone off up north” for twenty years, I lived my first thirty-three years in the Deep South and all of my fiction has focused on southern characters. I’m honored that southern fiction scholar Jean W. Cash, author of biographies of Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown, selected me as one of nineteen authors to be featured in Twenty-First-Century Southern Writers: New Voices, New Perspectives published by the University Press of Mississippi. Kevin Catalano, whose excellent fiction deserves a wide audience and will earn him many accolades in the future, did a fine job with his essay “Joe Samuel Starnes: A Devoted Disciple of the Rough South Gospel” that explores my novels Calling, Fall Line, and Red Dirt.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Just What Leaks: My Film Work Debut

One of my favorite writers I've discovered in Philadelphia — the city where I've lived in or near going on fifteen years — is a man who knows its streets and structures well. Tony Knighton, a Philadelphia firefighter of more than thirty years, has published two excellent books, Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties, a novella and short stories from 2015, and Three Hours Past Midnight, a novel from 2017. I count myself fortunate to have befriended Tony, and I enjoyed working on Just What Leaks, a short documentary about him that his brother Ted directed that was selected by the Media, Pennsylvania Film Festival. I served as the off-camera interviewer and helped shaped the narrative for my associate producer credit. It debuts virtually on April 9, and will be available to view through May 9. Check out the trailer, watch our short greeting, and buy yourself a ticket.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Poem to Read While Waiting in Line for the Jukebox

Putting cash into a jukebox is not the wisest expenditure, but I've long had one go-to song that gives you the most value for your money. I worked it into my poem "Harmonica Rescue," which I'm happy to say is published on page 24 of the new Philadelphia Stories magazine.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Writing about the South with "Admirable Authority and Poetic Understanding"

In the book Rough South, Rural South: Region and Class in Recent Southern Literature, now out in paperback from the University Press of Mississippi, Jean W. Cash writes about my work in her essay "Twenty-first Century Writers: The Rural Southern Tradition Continues."

Cash, who edited the book, is the author of the first biography of Flannery O'Connor and Larry Brown's biography. She writes of my novels Calling and Fall Line:

In both novels, Starnes has produced work worthy of attention, providing real insight into how misguided ambition and the power of money and government contribute to the loss  of the agrarian South both physically and spiritually. Both works transcend their immediate setting through Starnes's characterization of men incapable of adapting to daily life. Starnes knows his home region and its people and how to write about them with admirable authority and poetic understanding.

Friday, August 5, 2016

5 Questions with

I enjoyed talking fine whiskey, Babe Ruth's favorite steakhouse, and the advice Larry Brown got from Harry Crews in this interview with, the folks kind enough to republish my first novel Calling in an e-book format.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Returning 140-plus: My Sports Illustrated Web Debut

Photo by F. Carter Smith

I lived my George Plimpton moment at the ATP 250 U.S.Clay Court Championships in Houston last weekend. A great time interviewing John Isner (at left), Sam Querrey, and trying to return a ball from Reilly Opelka, who we will definitely be hearing more about. Read all about it on the Sports Illustrated web site.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Taking Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel to the U.S. Red Dirt Championship

I'll be signing copies of Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas, from noon-2 p.m. Friday, April 8, in the USTA tent.  This is an appropriate setting being that the tournament is the only ATP event in the U.S. played on red dirt, preceding the European clay court season that leads up to the French Open. I'm looking forward to returning to Houston, where I lived and played a lot of tennis from 1997 to 1999.

Recent support of the book has come from two big names at Sports Illustrated who know a thing or two about tennis. Frank Deford said, "I enjoyed it immensely...a marvelous job of pivoting the plot and making it such a good story."  Jon L. Wertheim, executive editor for SI and a regular fixture on Tennis Channel, said in his pre-U.S. Open blog post last August that it "comes with highest recommendation."

For more on the novel, visit the About Red Dirt page.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Essay on Larry Brown in Rough South, Rural South

Fifteen years ago, after I had begun to get serious about writing fiction, Larry Brown's stories, novels, and especially his essays that shared his own experience inspired me to keep working -- even when my own writing was not going very well. When my first novel Calling came out in 2005, the year after he died at the young age of 53, I dedicated it in his memory. Now, my essay "Larry Brown: A Firefighter Finds His Voice" is part of the new collection Rough South, Rural South: Region and Class in Recent Southern Literature. I hope that it helps more readers and writers to discover him. The collection was published this month by the University Press of Mississippi and edited by Jean W. Cash and Keith Perry. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Jaxie Skinner at the U.S. Open

Signing books at the U.S. Open was almost as good as playing in the tournament. Books will be available in the store through the finals. Check out my slideshow of photos from Wednesday, September 2