Self-published author-survivor sells his tale one book at a time

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Why shouldn't Solly Border write about himself?

He read Lee Iacocca's autobiography, and realized his own life was easily more interesting than that. Had Iacocca grown up a Jew in Romania while the Nazis overran Eastern Europe? Had Iacocca lived under the oppressive communist regime? Had he become an accomplished soccer player, worked as a chemical engineer or immigrated to America at age 40?

So what if publishers weren't clamoring at Border's door. He wrote the book anyway.

Then, when all the publishers he contacted said the only autobiographies they would consider were of famous people, Border, 67, published the book himself.

Border promotes his book, "I Won 1,000 Battles, But Lost the War," the way a door-to-door salesman sells brushes: one customer at a time.

First he sent copies to 40 or 50 friends, telling them to send it back if they didn't want it, or send him $19.50 if they did. He sold 40 books as part of a fund-raising drive for a high school soccer team he coaches. He read a few chapters aloud at a political information session about the Holocaust, and sold a few more books.

So far, of the 200 books he has printed, he has sold about 150.

Perhaps the whole marketing strategy behind Border's book is best summed up in the promotional blurb on the back cover.

"If you laughed when you discovered the author's humor," Border writes on the book jacket, "or if you cried when confronted with a sad or painful story, please tell a friend about `I Won 1,000 Battles, But Lost the War!' Yet, if after you read the book you are unmoved or indifferent, please don't tell anyone about it!"

In person, his sales pitch is equally candid.

"Writing is an ego trip more than anything else," he said in a recent interview from his home in San Mateo. "Who would refuse the chance to be published or in the public eye?"

Border was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1931. He lived through bombings in World War II only to find himself under communist rule after the war. At 18, he applied for permission to emigrate.

But he did not get permission for another 22 years. In the meantime, he traveled the world as a soccer player on amateur and professional teams. He also earned a degree in chemical engineering, and began working as a tanner. By the time permission came for him to leave the country, he was married and had one son.

It is his son to whom the his book's title alludes, Border said. After all his battles — getting out of Romania, deciding whether to live in the United States or Israel, launching various businesses and careers in an effort to keep his family well fed — Border still lost the war: His only son died in a helicopter crash.

"I made a trip to Israel with only a few bucks," Border said, referring to the time when he had to decide whether to emigrate to Israel or the United States. "I flew there to make a decision. I spoke to a lot of people and asked if there would ever be peace in Israel. I was thinking about my son. The answer was that there would never be peace there. So 60 to 80 percent of my decision was based on this.

"We went to the United States, and my son went to West Point." From West Point, his son Liviu joined the U.S. Army. He died in a helicopter crash at training school in Alabama.

"The moral of story is that you can't run away from your destiny."

That tragedy was ultimately what set Solly Border writing — first in Romanian and then, as he learned more of his adopted language, in English. The final product is a collection of anecdotes grouped under various themes of his life: "War and Communism," "Beginnings in America," "Family," "Sport," "Traveling with Fun" and "Making a Living in America."

The final chapter, "Variety," is a catch-all for assorted commentaries and anecdotes, with such titles as "Speech at My Own Funeral" and "San Francisco, My Crazy Town."

Border says his next book will be a novel.

"I wrote a hundred pages already," he said. "I can now write 10 or 12 hours a day. My wife said I'm going a little bit crazy doing this. I'm retired now. I'm supposed to stay put. But I'm still trying to achieve things."